One of the most frequent criticisms put to traditional public schools is that they waste money on administrative bloat, instead of channeling more funding where it belongs—the classroom. A much leaner and classroom-centered model, some say, can be found in charter schools, because of their relative freedom from stifling bureaucracy.
A new study, however, concludes that this hypothesis has it exactly wrong.
The study, released by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, at Teachers College, Columbia University, examines school spending in Michigan and concludes that charter schools spend more per-pupil on administration and less on instruction than traditional public schools, even when controlling for enrollment, student populations served, and other factors.
Researchers David Arsen, of Michigan State University, and Yongmei Ni, of the University of Utah, found that charters spend $774 more per pupil on administration, and $1,140 less on instruction, than do traditional publics. To come up with their estimates, the authors analyze the level and source of funding for charters and traditional publics, and how they spend money, breaking it out by function. They then use a statistical method known as regression analysis to control for factors that could skew their comparisons of spending on administration and instruction in various schools.
Of the extra $774 that charters devote to administration, $506 went to general administrative services, such as the costs of charter school boards, or the fees of the organizations managing the school.
While Arsen and Ni don't examine in depth the causes of charters' relatively low instructional spending, they speculate that a couple factors could be at work. An obvious one is that more than 80 percent of traditional public schools' spending goes to personnel costs, mostly salaries and benefits—which would presumably drive instructional costs up. Charters, on average, pay lower salaries for teachers with similiar credentials to those hired by traditional publics, and also employ a less experienced and less costly teaching force, the authors say, which would keep instructional costs down.
In addition, some charters rely on highly scripted teaching practices, in an effort to help a "low-cost, high-turnover teaching force," Arsen and Ni say—which could drive up charters' administrative costs.
"Charters' outsized administrative spending ... is simultaneously matched by exceptionally low instructional spending," the study says. "If one were searching for a contemporary reform to shift resources from classroom instruction to adminsitration, it is hard to imagine one that could accomplish this as decisively as charter schools have done in Michigan."
And while there's no guarantee that higher spending on instruction will benefit students, "the normative standard—that instructional spending is good and administrative spending is wasteful—cannot be ignored," they say, "simply because it has been advanced so relentlessly by critics of traditional public schools."
[UPDATE (April 13): Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan think tank, disagrees with the study's analysis.
Van Beek, in a blog post, looks at state data and notes that Michigan charters have smaller class sizes, and fewer administrators per student, than traditional publics—suggesting that charters devote substantial resources to instruction. He also thinks comparisons of charters' and regular public schools' spending get skewed by a number of factors. Many charters, for instance, lease their buildings, and contract out for services, and those practices and others often get counted as "administrative" expenses, when some traditional public school costs, like debt service on bonds, do not, Van Beek says. The Mackinac Center supports charters and school choice.]