$142.6 million net loss in three Calif. districts, while student needs go unmet
East County News Service
May 9, 2018 (San Diego) -- In a first-of-its-kind analysis, researchers found that public school students are bearing the cost of charter schools’ rapid expansion in San Diego and other school districts throughout the state.
The analysis, Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, conducted by think tank In the Public Interest with Dr. Gordon Lafer, examines the cumulative effect of charter schools on California school districts, which rank 42nd nationwide in per pupil spending.
Over the last two decades, the number of California charter schools increased by more than 900 percent to more than 1,200 schools.
“Our analysis found that, like many school districts across the state, the continued expansion of charter schools has taken a toll on the budget of San Diego Unified,” said Dr. Gordon Lafer, a political scientist and professor at the University of Oregon. “The high cost of supporting a separate charter school system makes it more difficult for the district to fund key goals like smaller class sizes and support services for low-income students.”
While some charter schools offer unique opportunities such as specializing in the arts or innovative academic approaches, there is no requirement for them to do so – and all charter schools draw money away from public schools in the same districts.
The California Charter Schools Act does not allow school boards to consider how a charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications. However, when a student leaves a neighborhood public school for a charter school, all the funding for that student leaves with them, while all the costs do not. This leads to cuts in core services like counseling, libraries, and special education and increases class sizes at neighborhood public schools.
“Our elected school board should have the right to determine the future for our community,” said Cindy Marten, Superintendent of San Diego Unified School District. “We want local control and the ability to choose a better future for our city and the students we serve. Only with robust local control and true accountability will our children continue to thrive in San Diego.”
According to In the Public Interest’s analysis, San Diego Unified School District loses nearly $4,913 a year per charter school student, largely due to fixed costs that cannot be reduced when a student leaves a neighborhood school. San Diego Unified is the second-largest district in the state, with a combined enrollment of more than 128,000 students, and a total of 51 charter schools.
The report calculates the net fiscal impact of charter schools on three representative California school districts: San Diego, Oakland, and Santa Clara County’s East Side Union High School District. Charter schools cost Oakland Unified School District $57.3 million in 2016-17. The net fiscal impact calculated by In the Public Interest is $5,643 per student in Oakland. The report estimates that charter schools cost East Side Union $6,000 per charter school student.
“Unlimited charter school expansion is pushing some of California’s school districts towards a financial tipping point, from which they will be unable to return,” Dr. Lafer said.
The report recommends that each school district create an annual economic impact report to assess the cost of charter school expansion in its community. With consideration of economic impact, school districts could more effectively balance the value of a new charter school with the needs of neighborhood public school students.
Key findings from the report include:
In the Public Interest is a nonprofit resource center that studies public goods and services.