Is It Good to Have More Kids in the Inefficient and Less-Effective Government School System?

The Los Angeles Times editorializes today on our new research demonstrating the high cost of charter schools in terms of tax dollars and an impoverished private sector in education.

The editors still “see a lot to celebrate” in charter schools and I would heartily agree. Charter schools often provide a safe, better alternative to the existing public schools for many kids who desperately need one.

Oddly, the editors at the LAT seem most celebratory not about choice, empowerment, and competition-driven improvements in education, but about the prospect of “more enrollment and resources,” “more money,” and “more funding” that the formerly private school students will likely bring to the government school system.

But money isn’t the problem with government schools, otherwise the LA school district would be tops. LAUSD spent nearly $30,000 per student in 2008, over $20,000 excluding local bond revenue (they claimed just $10,000 that year).

Government schools, even government charter schools, are inefficient and a poor reflection of the educational diversity possible in the private sector. A Ball State University study estimated that charters received over $9,000 per student in 2007. The average tuition in Catholic schools, where most of the private charter students come from, was just $6,000 in 2008 according to the government’s NCES.

In other words, charter schools cost over 50 percent more than the average tuition at a Catholic school. And the charter school might well be worse for the kid who switches on average. After all, the private school would be that family’s first choice if money weren’t an issue. And because private schools have to charge tuition, they need to provide enough value to compete with taxpayer-funded schools. That means a private school needs to provide a value worth more than $15,000 while charging just $6,000 (the $9,000 parents could get in the charter school plus the $6,000 they have to pay out of pocket for tuition).

Because of financial hardships and a high tax burden to support government schools, many families are choosing to move their child out of the private school that’s best for their child to a newly acceptable, “free” charter school.

If we want the best education for the largest number of kids while lowering the tax burden at the same time, expanding government charter schools isn’t the way to do it. Private school choice through education tax credits is the route to sustainable, continuous improvements in educational achievement and efficiency.