LA Times Hastens Toward the Light

With print media players disappearing faster than mosasaurs in the late Cretaceous, one would expect the last papers standing to be extra careful with their fact checking for fear of being blogged into extinction. One’s expectations would be mistaken.

Yesterday’s LA Times editorial on charter schools combined errors of fact and omission with a misrepresentation of the economic research on public school spending. First, the Times claims that KIPP charter public schools spend “significantly more per student than the public school system.” Not so, says the KIPP website. But why rely on KIPP’s testimony, when we can look at the raw data? LA’s KIPP Academy of Opportunity, for instance, spent just over $3 million in 2007-08, for 345 students, for a total per pupil expenditure of $8,917. The most recent Dept. of Ed. data for LAUSD(2006-07) put that district’s comparable figure at $13,481 (which, as Cato’s Adam Schaeffer will show in a forthcoming paper, is far below what it currently spends). Nationwide, the median school district spends 24 percent more than the median charter school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Next, in summarizing the charter research, the Times’ editors omitted the most recent and sophisticated study, by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby. It finds a significant academic advantage to charters using a randomized assignment experimental model that blows the methodological doors off most of the earlier charter research. The Times also neglects to mention Hoxby’s damning critique of the CREDO study it does cite.

Finally, the Times’ editors are mistaken in claiming that district operating costs “do not necessarily go down” as large numbers of students migrate to charters. Economists find that districts reap significant cost savings as students leave – e.g., by cutting staff and consolidating buildings. The Times is claiming that the marginal cost of public schooling is essentially zero – that it neither costs more to educate one additional student nor less to educate one fewer student. In reality, the marginal cost of public schooling is generally found in the empirical literature to be near or above 80 percent of the total cost.

There are certainly reasons to lament the performance of the charter sector, and the Times’ editors even came close to citing one of them: its inability to scale up excellence as rapidly and routinely as is the case in virtually every field outside of education. Before getting into such policy issues, however, the Times should make a greater effort to marshal the basic facts.