As July turns into August, smart shoppers are comparing prices on school supplies. At the University of Arkansas, a team of researchers has applied this idea to schools themselves, comparing traditional public schools with public charter schools to discover which provides the most cost-effective education. A study entitled “The Productivity of Public Charter Schools,” released last week by the university’s department of education reform, reports that public charter schools produce more learning using less money than traditional public schools. But the study’s methods and results are controversial and raise questions about the purpose of schools in the first place.
Public charter schools operate on public funds. A study released in April, also by the University of Arkansas, found public charter schools in 30 states and the District of Columbia received an average of $3,814 less per student than traditional public schools during the 2010-2011 fiscal year. The July study addressed how productively schools operate with the money they have.
The study controlled for differences in student poverty and special education status between the two kinds of schools and measured students’ learning by their National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading scores. In math, public charter school students achieved an average of 17 additional NAEP points per $1,000 invested in them. In reading, they scored 16 more points per $1,000 invested. According to those numbers, public charter schools are 40 percent more productive in math and 41 percent more productive in reading than traditional public schools.
Jim Hull, senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Education (CPE), is skeptical of the study’s findings. “The problem is this study doesn’t even attempt to determine if charter schools can provide the same services with fewer funds than traditional public schools,” Hull wrote on a CPE blog.
Hull noted traditional public schools provide more costly services such as transportation, athletics, band, theater, and civic clubs.
Patrick J. Wolf, one of the study’s authors, agreed traditional public schools have more bells and whistles, but said, “The problem, from a productivity standpoint, is that those extra bells and whistles don’t provide TPS [traditional public schools] with much of an advantage regarding their core mission of student learning.”
Critiques of the study have also said some public charter schools meet in buildings that traditional public schools own and are thus subsidized by the traditional public schools. Wolf told me that practice was uncommon, and “there is no way that charter co-locations explain even a fraction of the productivity advantage of charter schools.”
Wolf looked to public charter schools’ ability to deviate from how traditional public schools operate as a possible explanation for differences in learning productivity. In exchange for agreeing to achieve the objectives outlined in its charter, a charter school may operate free from some of the regulations that traditional public schools face. “When schools, such as public charter schools, are liberated from the need to spend money unproductively, then they spend their revenues more productively,” said Wolf. “Perhaps we should grant more public schools that freedom.”