Report: Charters spend less in classrooms

Michigan charter schools spend $1,141 less per student on instruction than traditional public schools, and $774 more per pupil on administration, according to a newly released study by professors at Michigan State Universityand the University of Utah.

The study examines spending data for all charter schools and public school districts in the state, and attempts to compare charters to similar public schools.

Two of many possible reasons for the discrepancy: Charter schools have far fewer special needs students, who incur higher per-pupil instructional cost; and Michigan has a much higher rate of for-profit charters than other states -- 80 percent are run by for-profit companies, compared to about one-third nationally.

The study found that Michigan charters run by for-profit companies spend $312 more per pupil than non-profit charters.

Michigan has more than 265 charter schools, one of the highest numbers in the nation.

“Despite the fact that advocates of charter schools and privatization have long criticized public school bureaucracies as bloated and wasteful, it turns out that charter schools spend considerably more on administration,” concludes the report, authored by MSU Professor of Education David Arsen and University of Utah Assistant Professor Yongmei Ni.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school advocacy group, says numerical comparisons between public and charter schools are “highly suspect -- people have tried to do this over 17 years and it just doesn’t work very well.”

Most charter schools lease their buildings, and thus have a built-in cost that doesn’t show up on public-school ledgers.

Even if the numbers do accurately reflect differences in spending patterns, Quisenberry said, the study doesn’t indicate whether those spending patterns have an impact on student learning.

In March, a Bridge analysis of academic testing figures found that charters and traditional K-12 schools had roughly similar results with similar student populations, be they advantaged or disadvantaged.

Additional coverage

Do charters skim profit or spend smarter?

For parents, charters are about choice

Arizona offers balmy climes to charter schools

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.


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Chuck Fellows
Tue, 04/17/2012 - 1:38pm
Another interpretation of this analysis is that Charters use their funding more effectively than traditional public schools. But the fact is that this analysis, along with all the others, are seriously flawed since, to quote Dr. Walter Shewhart "No data have meaning apart from their context." In the instant case the context is two significantly different systems or processes being compared using accounting rules established to chart the accounts of a process design dictated in 1892 by the Committee of Ten. Education is not about conforming to accounting rules, it is about learning. which is far more important than how you allocate the costs (i.e. is "pass time" really an instructional expense? What if you don't use textbooks relying instead on more up to date, less expensive and accurate virtual resources or printing on demand? see Sadly those whose vision is absent a future, since theirs is stuck in the long enduring comfort zone of "academia rules", find that any attempt to upset the one size fits all universe that is traditional public education is bad and evil, just because it is different than their particular prescription. Remember, there are lies, damn lies and - Ohmygosh - statistics!
Tue, 04/17/2012 - 5:13pm
"Most charter schools lease their buildings, and thus have a built-in cost that doesn’t show up on public-school ledgers." That insinuates that public schools don't need to build or maintain their buildings, and no cost is involved there. Dead wrong.