By Brian Washington
A new study suggests how local school districts can keep the unchecked growth of charter schools from draining money away from traditional public schools and the students who attend them.
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In the Public Interest, a research nonprofit dedicated to promoting the common good and democratic control of public goods and services, released the study and calls the analysis a “first of its kind.”
The report, entitled Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, focuses on three California school districts: the Oakland Unified School District, the San Diego Unified School District, and the Santa Clara County East Side Union High School District.
All three faced huge multi-million dollar budget shortfalls attributed to charter school growth and had to implement budget cuts that resulted in increased class sizes and significant losses in core services like counseling, libraries, and special education.
In Oakland and San Diego, the budget deficits totaled $57 million and $66 million respectively.
The California Charter School Act currently doesn’t allow school boards to consider how a proposed charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications,” reads the report. “However, when a student leaves a neighborhood school for a charter school, their pro-rated share of funding leaves with them, while the district remains responsible for many costs that those funds had supported.
In California, nearly 1,300 schools identify as charter schools, the largest charter school sector in the nation. These schools serve more than 620,000 students, which is about 10 percent of the state’s total student body.
“It has been long recognized that the growth of charter schools creates costs for local school districts, but there is no established mechanism for measuring these costs, or accounting for them in policy decisions,” read the report.
School officials within the state say these conditions have caused dire fiscal problems within the state—resulting in massive shortfalls and drastic public education cuts. However, researchers believe their study points to solutions to prevent this situation from extending into the future.
The report makes the following recommendations to allow public officials to plan for community education needs in a rational manner:
“First each school school district should produce an annual Economic Impact report assessing the cost of charter expansion in its community and more targeted analyses should be a required component in the evaluation of new charter applications,” reads the report.
“Secondly, public officials at both local and state levels must be able to take these findings into account when deciding whether to authorize additional charter schools. Thus the state’s charter authorization law must be amended to empower elected officials to act as effective stewards of the community’s education budget in balancing the potential value of charter schools against the need of traditional public school students.”
Researchers say they hope their analysis provides a model to allow districts across the nation to put a real and true cost in relation to charter schools in their communities.