SACRAMENTO – With the economy worsening, public schools are bracing for possible budget cuts estimated to exceed $2 billion, and which will force educators to make do with less. Fortunately, educators and policy makers can learn from California’s charter schools, which have been doing more with less for 15 years.
Charters have been increasing in popularity since 1993, and currently serve more than 240,000 students. Research confirms their effectiveness in student achievement, in spite of less state funding. Consider the case of St. Hope Public School in Oak Park.
St. Hope offers kindergarten through fifth grade and receives $6,466 in per-pupil funding. Meanwhile, Del Paso Heights Elementary gets close to twice as much, $11,565 per-pupil. Regardless of the $5,000-plus funding difference, 100 percent of St. Hope fourth-graders test proficient in mathematics on the California Standards Test, compared to 91 percent of their Del Paso peers.
The difference in per-student funding between public charter schools and district schools is larger at the high school level. Roseville Joint Union High gets more than $14,000 per pupil, for example. Contrast that with the $7,860 Sacramento Charter High receives for each student. A stellar 88 percent of Sacramento Charter students scored proficient in Algebra I, while only 52 percent of Roseville High students managed to hit that mark. Such superior performance is common among charter schools nationwide.
According to a recent Harvard University study, students in charter schools are five percent more likely to be proficient in reading and three percent more likely to be proficient in math than students at the closest district public schools with similar racial composition. The study attributed these results to the fact that charter schools must compete for students because unlike their district-school counterparts, children are not assigned to public charter schools. Parents know they can stay or leave based on their child’s success.
Such competition gives charter school administrators and teachers a clear focus on their purpose. They can only stay open based on parents’ satisfaction. Another critical difference is that charter schools exercise more control over their budgets and enjoy the freedom to adopt innovative curricula that works for students. Given these incentives, charters operate with the basic necessities and specific priorities that will enable children to learn.
Today, education funding approaches $70 billion, approximately 40 percent of California’s state general fund budget—more than health care, social services and the criminal justice system. Even though overall student enrollment is declining, over the last two years supervision and administrative spending has increased $200 million. A variety of new programs are largely to blame.
At last count, there are roughly 100 earmark categorical education programs California public schools must use – whether they need them or not – to get a significant portion of their total funding. Giving local district schools more control over their budgets, and increasing public transparency over education funding is a much-needed reform whether economic times are good or bad.
Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is an education studies senior policy fellow and Evelyn B. Stacey is an education studies research associate at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento.