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The true cost of charter schools | Editorial

This is the first time fiscal impact has been measured so rigorously, though the news that charter schools have been costly is not altogether surprising.

Charter schools are having a costly effect on Pennsylvania school districts.
Charter schools are having a costly effect on Pennsylvania school districts.Read moreMichael Bryant

Two studies were released last week that at first glance have nothing to do with each other.   The first was a report by Research for Action, a Philadelphia educational research firm, that measured the fiscal impact of charter schools on six school districts around the state, including Philadelphia's.

RFA's model accounts for variables like rates of charter growth, size of districts,  and short- and long-term impact.  The bottom line:  the burgeoning charter system, which now numbers more than 130,000 students (70,000 in Philadelphia) has hit districts around the state hard.   In Philadelphia, the report found, charters cost the district $8,000 per student initially and  $4,000 each subsequent year, even after five years.

This is the first time fiscal impact has been measured so rigorously, though the news that charters have been costly is not altogether surprising.

Districts pay tuition for every student enrolling in a charter school — about equal to the per-pupil allotment the state issues for education. The more students who go to charters, the more money flows from district schools.

State legislators have insisted on funding charter education expansion without acknowledging the impact on the system as a whole, expecting that school districts will eventually right-size to accommodate the smaller number of students.  But that hardly happens overnight, and cost-cutting measures like increasing class size harm the students left behind in traditional schools.   Besides, as the RFA report makes clear, the economic impact is long-term:  districts can never recoup the money they lose each year, especially as charters continue to expand. This especially harms smaller districts, which don't have the same flexibility to close schools as larger districts.

For a while, the state reimbursed a percentage of that money to districts but no longer.

Though charters are popular with parents, overall charter achievement is a black box. Some schools perform well. Many don't.   But there is no definitive study or agreement on how charters hold up against traditional public schools.  It's as though the state has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars with its eyes closed,  saying: "Don't tell us how our investment is doing."

For 20 years.

That's why the second study bears mentioning.  Last week, a U.S. Census report found that Philadelphia retains its ranking as the poorest city among the country's 10 biggest cities.

More people live below the poverty line than did 20 years ago, when charters were authorized.

If charters were an effective alternative to public schools — the belief that led to their authorization and continued expansion  — wouldn't we have seen a change in the poverty number?

Obviously, many factors impact the poverty rate, and education is only one of them.  But it's one we have some control over, if we fund it smartly.

The state's funding priorities — or lack of them — have served as a poison pill for public education;  lacking more scrutiny and accountability, charter school spending ensures it's a very slow-acting one.