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Is the Administrative Blob Bigger in Charters?

Charter schools spend more on administrative costs than traditional public schools, a new study says.

Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel of Western Michigan University combed through national school-finance data from the 2006-07 school year for independent charter schools, charters managed by educational management organizations, and regular public schools. Like other researchers before them, they found that charter schools got less in per-pupil public funding that year than traditional public schools. The charter schools received an average of $9,883 from all public sources, compared to $12,863 for public schools, the report says. And public revenues for charters vary across the states from a low of $8,003 per pupil in Utah to $20,535 in the District of Columbia. (A really big difference, I'd say.)

On the other hand, the public schools spent more than the charters. On average, the study found, traditional public schools spent $2,014 per pupil more than charters. (The spending gap is smaller, by the way, than the gap in public revenues.)

In the public schools, much of that money went to teacher salaries, especially for special education teachers, and student support services.

But administrative cost was one area in which the charters outspent their more traditional counterparts. The researchers calculate that the charters on average spent $372 more per pupil on administration than did traditional public schools. For-profit schools in educational-management networks spent $457 per pupil more than the regular public schools did.

According to the authors, some of that was due to the lower student-to-administrator ratios in the charters. Most don't benefit from the economies of scale available to regular public schools in a district. The study also found, though, that administrators (but not teachers) were paid more on average in the charter schools.

There's more interesting reading in the full report. But don't look for any good data here on how much charter schools receive in private contributions. According to Miron, charters in several states do not publicly report all the private donations they receive.

For what it's worth, I would be remiss here if I didn't note that the report was supported by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, a teachers' union-supported think tank.

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