News: CJ Exclusives

Study: Charters Give Pupils, State More Bang for Buck

University of Arkansas researchers also refute claim of cherry-picking students

RALEIGH — A new national study concludes that charter schools in North Carolina and other states uniformly outperform traditional public schools, and have a significantly better return on investment for taxpayers.

One finding of the report refutes critics who have claimed North Carolina charters cherry-pick the best students from district schools. To the contrary, the report concludes that charter schools serve higher levels of minority, low-income, and special-needs students than their traditional public school counterparts.

“Our main intention was to simply provide a sort of descriptive look at what charter school productivity was like just because no one has ever done this at a national scale,” said Albert Cheng, one of the authors of “The Productivity of Charter Schools,” who researched the report for the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas.

“Our report isn’t really a study of absolute achievement levels, but how much bang do you get for your buck,” Cheng said. “Charter schools are operating more effectively and getting a greater return on investment” for taxpayers despite funding inequities that favor traditional public schools.

The study includes 21 states and the District of Columbia. It is based on numbers from the 2010-11 school year. There are two measures of productivity in the report showing charter schools generated better results than traditional public schools for the amount of money spent.

One is a cost-effectiveness study based on student scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The researchers devised a value measurement showing how many NAEP points were earned for every $1,000 invested in per-pupil spending.

The other is a return-on-investment component, which arrives at an estimate of students’ lifetime earnings potential based on gains in student achievement.

“We find that while charter schools in some states have uneven performance, the average charter in this study outperforms [traditional public schools] on both the cost effectiveness and the ROI measures, overall and for each of the states and the District of Columbia,” the report said.

National cost-effectiveness numbers show that charter school students scored 17 points higher on average in math on the weighted NAEP assessment results than traditional public school students, or 40 percent better in productivity. Charter school students scored 16 points higher in weighted reading assessments, or 41 percent better.

In North Carolina, NAEP-weighted results for cost-effectiveness showed that charter schools outscored traditional public schools by 14 points per every $1,000 invested in both math and reading. That means charters outperformed traditional public schools by 26.38 percent in math, and 27.25 percent in reading.

Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, characterized that as “a pretty significant spread.”

Charter schools in all states delivered a greater aggregate return on investment than traditional public schools by a weighted average of 3 percent for a student with one year of charter school education, and 19 percent if half of the K-12 years were spent in a charter school. In North Carolina, the return on investment was 1.31 percent higher for one year, and 9.2 percent higher for 6.5 years.

“This is a significant study mainly because there’s a lot of criticisms, especially during the time the data were taken from, that North Carolina’s charter schools were underperforming, that they weren’t performing as well as traditional public schools” when direct student-to-student performance measurements were used, Stoops said.

“This asks a different question. It’s not just how the kids are performing, it’s how much money are we putting in and what are we getting out, and that’s a very different question than just comparing student performance,” he said.

Complementary reports

The University of Arkansas study complements another recent research report from the liberal Center for American Progress ranking individual school districts’ return on investment, Stoops said.

At the time the University of Arkansas study was done, North Carolina spent $9,999 per-pupil at traditional public schools and $8,277 for charter school students. A separate University of Arkansas study released in April, “Charter School Funding: Inequity Expands,” awarded North Carolina a D for that funding disparity.

“Our research can’t prove that charter schools, if they were to get more money, would maintain their level of productivity. It’s not a slam-dunk case where the implication of this report is to fund charters at a greater level,” Cheng said.

“But definitely there’s considerations of equity and efficiency in terms of how we manage and steward public dollars,” Cheng said. “These are salient issues, and we hope to bring both sets of values into discussions of public funding and public policy.”

Richard Vinroot, a lawyer, former Charlotte mayor, and one of the founders of the Sugar Creek Charter School, said there is “a dramatic, growing gap” between the two education sectors in North Carolina.

Vinroot has been lobbying lawmakers for several years for more charter school funding and believes this latest report bolsters the case. In 2003 the funding differential between charters and traditional schools was just 8 percent. It widened to 17 percent by the time of the study.

“This report’s analysis shows not only that charter schools are outperforming school systems, but in fact charter schools have more free and reduced [price] lunch students — that means poor people, probably — and more special-education children, and more minorities than they do in the [traditional] school system,” Vinroot said.

‘Better job for less money’

“So we’re doing a better job for less money with a more difficult population, bottom line,” Vinroot said. “I hope it means that finally this legislature will begin to understand they need to be fairer to charter schools.”

According to the study, 48.9 percent of North Carolina charter school students were from low-income families eligible for free lunch programs compared to 47.2 percent of traditional public school students. There were 56.8 percent of charter school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs compared to 53.9 percent of traditional school students.

North Carolina charter school student demographics include 8.5 percent in special-education programs compared to 7.5 percent in traditional public schools.

Sugar Creek Charter School’s student population comprises more than 90 percent poor, black children, Vinroot said.

“Almost 90 percent are at grade level compared to maybe 30 or 40 percent of their peers in the [Charlotte-Mecklenburg] school system here, and across the state, and we’re doing it with 70 percent per dollar. And we’re doing it in an old, worn-out Kmart building, so I know it can be done,” Vinroot said.

He said he is “very, very disgusted” with accusations that charter schools filter for only the top-performing students.

“We’ve got 500 kids waiting on the doorstep trying to get into our school that has about 1,000 students in it now, because the parents understand we’ve done a better job,” Vinroot said.

Senate Education Committee members Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, Angela Bryant, D-Nash, and Don Davis, D-Greene, and House Education Committee vice chairwoman Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, who are frequent critics of charter schools, did not respond to requests for comment.

Dan Way is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.