Study: 5% Increase in Spending Could End Urban Charter School Waitlists in Failing Districts

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Study: Urban Charter School Waitlists Could Be Nearly Eliminated Through 5 Percent Increase in Spending in Low-Performing Districts

State reimbursements would cover 28 percent of the spending increase over a decade; change would allow over 10,000 students to leave low-performing schools for high-performing charters

BOSTON – The long-term financial investment needed to raise the charter school cap and allow over 10,000 waitlisted students to attend charter schools in the 17 lowest-performing urban school districts is equal to only about an additional 5 percent of spending in those districts, and the new spending would be phased-in gradually, according to a new report published by Pioneer Institute.

Meeting the Commonwealth’s Demand: Lifting the Cap on Charter Public Schools in Massachusetts

When a student leaves a district school to attend a charter school, funding follows the student.  Affected school districts are reimbursed for six years for “phantom” students, 100 percent in the first year and 25 percent for the subsequent five years.

In “Meeting the Commonwealth’s Demand: Lifting the Cap on Charter Public Schools in Massachusetts,” authors Katherine Apfelbaum and Ken Ardon find that increasing charter enrollment to accommodate those currently on waitlists up to the 18 percent spending cap in those districts would increase “tuition” – the money that would flow to charters instead of districts – by $141 million. That is 5 percent of the $2.5 billion net school spending in these districts.  Moreover, state reimbursements would make up for about 28 percent of that over a decade.

“The net cost would be a small price to pay for allowing over 10,000 students to leave low-performing district schools and attend some of the best public schools in the country,” said Apfelbaum.

According to a 2013 Stanford University study, Massachusetts charter public school students gain an additional 1.5 months of learning each year in English and an additional 2.5 months in math compared to their traditional public school counterparts.  Low-income students in the commonwealth’s charter schools fell less than two points shy of closing the entire 20-point wealth-based achievement gap on 2013 MCAS tests.

The difference in performance is even greater in Boston, where the Stanford study found that charter students are learning twice as fast as those attending the Boston Public Schools and that Boston charter schools are closing the achievement gap faster than any other public schools in the country.

Students enrolled in a charter school for at least two years see significant improvements in learning and the rate of improvement increases in each subsequent year they remain enrolled.

State legislation to lift the cap on charter schools in districts that perform in the bottom 10 percent languished in the Legislature’s education committee for over a year.  New legislation that would increase the percentage of district spending that can flow to charters from 18 to 23 percent in the lowest-performing school districts recently passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives.  The bill is currently in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The 2010 “Act Relative to the Achievement Gap” doubled the percentage of school spending that could flow to charter schools in the lowest-performing 10 percent of districts from 9 to 18 percent.  Five districts have already hit the cap, 10 have room for just one more charter school and five more have room for two more.

The data suggest that raising the charter cap increases the number and quality of charter school applications.  Both the number of applications and the percentage that are approved spike in the years immediately following an increase and they fall in the years just before an increase.

Experience in Massachusetts and other states strongly suggests that an increase in the number of charter schools will stimulate more parental demand.  In 2002 there were 46 charter schools in Massachusetts that educated 16,000 students and another 13,000 were on waitlists.  By 2012, 81 charters were educating 35,000 students but another 40,000 were on waitlists.

The study was conducted before the recent vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to change the way school district performance is calculated.  The change impacts which districts are considered to be in the bottom 10 percent.

Pioneer Institute’s recent research on charter public schools includes Matching Students to Excellent Teachers: How a Massachusetts Charter School Innovates with Teacher Preparation, and Matching Students to Excellent Tutors: How a Massachusetts Charter School Bridges Achievement Gaps, recommending Match-style tutoring as a less expensive and more effective approach to education reform than widely accepted strategies such as reduced class size and extended school days. In 2014, Pioneer launched a campaign,, to publicize the many benefits of the charter public school model and the growing demand for more schools. Other related Pioneer publications include Charter Schools in New Orleans: Lessons for MassachusettsLooking Back to Move Forward: Charter School Authorizing in Massachusetts, and Preserving Charter School Autonomy.

About the Authors

Katherine Apfelbaum is Pioneer’s Peters Fellow in Education, and she is conducting the Institute’s research initiatives on the financial impact of charter schools and school choice programs in Massachusetts. She earned a master’s degree in comparative social policy at the University of Oxford in 2013, writing a thesis on the unintended segregation effects of priority education in Paris and New York City. Prior to that, she worked with the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability in Albany, New York, on charter school and parent trigger research. She is a graduate of Trinity College, where she majored in education studies and minored in philosophy. In her free time, Kate coaches for the Boston University rowing team.

Ken Ardon received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1999, where he co-authored a book on school spending and student achievement. He taught economics at Pomona College before moving to Massachusetts, and from 2000 to 2004, Dr. Ardon worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the Executive Office of Administration and Finance. Since 2004, he has been an assistant professor of economics at Salem State University. Dr. Ardon is a member of Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform Advisory Board.

About Pioneer

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.