Friday, December 11, 2009

Are Charters More Economical? Not in This Case

There's a common misunderstanding that charter schools - public school academies primarily run by for-profit companies such as National Heritage Academies - are cheaper and more economical to run. They were supposedly the answer to the alleged rising costs of public school education and would be lean, mean, education machines. But is that true? While a large-scale comparison of traditional public vs. charter school costs is beyond the capabilities of this author, I have compared the 2007-08 revenues and expenditures between Godfrey-Lee Public Schools and the sixteen charter schools in Kent County. This particular school year was used because it is the most recent data available on the Michigan Department of Education website. It is published in the Department's Bulletin 1014, a document that comes out in the spring of each year for the preceding school year. The data is both public and verifiable thus it provides an indisputable method for comparison.

Total general fund revenues per pupil for the Kent County charter schools ranged from a low of $7,889 to a high of $9,475. The average for the sixteen schools was $8,594 while Godfrey-Lee received $9,210 per pupil, primarily due to more revenue from local sources.

Total general fund instructional program expenditures per pupil for the charters ranged from a low $3,286 to $5,945, for an average of $3,984. Godfrey-Lee spent $5,897 per pupil on instruction. When you match the rate of expenditures against revenues, the charter schools spent only 46% of their total revenue on instructional programs, while Godfrey-Lee spent 64%.

If the charters spent a lower proportion of their funds on instructional programs, where did the rest of the money go? According to the Bulletin 1014, it went towards support services, including business, administration, operations, and maintenance - all non-instructional areas. Compared to Godfrey-Lee, the charters spent $1,016 more per student on support representing 45% of their total revenue, while Godfrey-Lee's support costs represented only 31% of the funds received. These numbers are even more interesting in light of the fact that charter school districts consist of a single school building and most, if not all, do not provide transportation support.

The political pundits and public education naysayers can spin it anyway they want, but the numbers tell the story: the Godfrey-Lee district dedicates a greater proportion of our total revenues directly to instruction and operates our non-instructional support services on a much more economical basis.