Charter Trade-offs … Is Public Choice Killing Private Schools?

Typically, charter schools are lumped together with the movement for private school choice, but there is increasing evidence that charter schools hurt private schools and may close off the path to educational freedom.

The Washington Post reported this weekend that Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl is proposing to convert 8 of the 12 inner-city Catholic schools known as the Center City Consortium into secular charter schools:

Soon after he arrived in the District in June 2006, Wuerl said he heard from Catholic education officials that the inner-city schools were no longer financially viable. Part of the reason was that many poor families were choosing charter schools, which are free.

“One by one, families left to go to charters … and it was a kind of steady drifting away,” said Monsignor Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Roman Catholic Church in Southeast Washington, whose parish school, which dates to the 1920s, would be converted to a charter.

The charter school drain on private school enrollment is not limited to DC. A 2006 report from the National Charter School Research Project, for instance, finds that 20 percent of Michigan charter school students came from private schools.

These results should come as no surprise. Private schools struggle under a massive disadvantage compared with government schools; they have about half the public sector’s per pupil revenue and parents have to pay tuition on top of taxes for the government system. That’s a high hurdle to clear to attract customers.

The big advantages they have are diversity in curriculum and mission and freedom from the counter-productive regulations that often bog down government schools. And because they operate at such a financial disadvantage to government schools, private schools need to make sure they offer something parents can’t get from their state-run counterparts.

Charter schools add significantly to the disadvantages of private schools; charters get most of the higher funding that regular government schools do, but for now, at least, more autonomy and freedom to diversify. In the long term, there is no reason to believe that charter schools will not succumb to the same regulatory ratchet effect that has hamstrung the public schools. The local public schools of the late 1800s had more autonomy than charter schools do today – and look what happened to them….

Supporters of educational freedom – the freedom to choose the best option, whether public, independent, or religious – need to carefully consider the serious trade-offs involved when supporting charter school policies. If they don’t, they may be looking at a 99% government school monopoly in 20 years time, instead of the 90% monopoly that exists today.