I. The Morality of Productivity
What if we knew a way to increase educational opportunity at no additional cost?
The benefits would be enormous. We could give more children the education they deserve.
And, by not having to increase educational spending, we could spend these saved tax dollars on families in need, or paying off government debt, or keeping money in the hands of working families.
Increasing educational productivity is one of the great moral issues of our time.
Unfortunately, increasing educational productivity in our country has been enormously difficult to accomplish.
II. Inequity in the City
Researchers at the University of Arkansas just published Charter School Funding: Inequity in the City.
The report finds that across 14 cities, public charter schools receive an average of $5,721 less per-pupil than traditional public schools, which equates to a 29% funding gap.
The data table below provides more detail.
The authors do note that charters serve less special education students than traditional schools.
When controlled for special education, the results change a bit. Calculating the true costs of special education is notoriously difficult to estimate, so I view these figures as likely directionally correct but not 100% precise.
Once special education is accounted for, two regions, Shelby Country and Houston spend more on charters than traditional schools (this is in part because philanthropy picks up some of the charter school tab).
But 10 other cities still have a +$500 or greater funding gap per student.
Glancing at these cities, it looks like the special education differential accounts for about 20-25% of the spending discrepancy.
So that original 29% funding gap is a bit high.
Let’s be generous to the traditional system and say the the true gap is closer to 20%.
III. Charter School Performance in the City
To gauge charter school performance in these cities, I looked at CREDO’s urban charter school study.
See below for a table that I crated that adds in the CREDO math and ELA effects in the last two columns.
What do you notice?
In every city except for San Antonio, charters outperform the traditional system.
Sometimes it’s by small amounts (Atlanta), and sometimes it’s by large amounts (Boston), but in nearly every case charters outperform their traditional peers.
And while the above analysis only looks at ten or so cities, the results mirror other national studies that consistently find urban charter schools outperform traditional public schools while spending around 20% less per-pupil.
IV. What Could You do With a the Gains from Productivity?
Research indicates that charter schools can probably get better, or at least equal, results in low-income areas for 20% less cost. In New Orleans, these achievement gains held steady even when the charter sector grew to serve 95% of the students in the city, which provides some hope that these findings will stick at scale.
In a field where productivity gains are hard to come by, urban charter schools are a source of very significant productivity gains.
What, as a society, could we do with this 20% extra funding that urban charter schools could save us?
Well, we spend about $10,000 per student on public education in this country.
With a 20% savings, we could turn around and give a basic income grant of $4,000 to every family with two children.
Alternatively, we could spend money on additional social services.
Or we could put more money in the hands of taxpayers, which could help grow the economy and provide more jobs.
Any of these options, especially cash grants back to poor families, could do a lot for those in need.
This is why ignoring educational productivity is immoral.
It may not feel good to consider the educational system through a productivity lens, but to fail to do so is to hurt those who are most in need of our support.