Charter schools are on the rise in Washington, D.C. Enrollment data show that nearly half of the children attending D.C. public schools are enrolled in public charter schools. Meanwhile, figures released earlier this month show that D.C. traditional public school enrollment decreased this school year, while charter school enrollment increased by 4.5 percent.
This trend looks like it’s going to continue. In fact, more than 10,000 students are currently on a waitlist to get into a charter school in D.C. This shift towards public charter schools is a smart move for D.C. parents, children, and even taxpayers. Here’s why.
It turns out that D.C. charter schools are knocking it out of the park. Research shows that D.C. charter schools often achieve better outcomes than traditional public schools, and for less money, too. It’s exciting to think about how successful these schools would be if they received just as much funding as their district counterparts.
As shown in a just‐released study by my colleagues at the University of Arkansas and me, D.C. public charter schools receive around $14,000 less funding allocated on a per‐child basis than their district school counterparts each year, or more than $180,000 less throughout a full K‑12 education. And we find that despite the large funding disadvantage, D.C. public charter schools are 67 percent more cost‐effective and produce an 85 percent higher return‐on‐investment than their neighboring district schools.
Let’s make this a bit more concrete. The data shows that every thousand dollars spent on education in D.C. district schools translates to around a $4,510 increase in students’ lifetime earnings. That is commendable. But that same thousand dollar expenditure produces an estimated $8,340 in students’ lifetime earnings if allocated to a public charter school in the city. And that 85 percent advantage is huge considering that taxpayers spend more than $458,000 for each child’s K‑12 education in D.C. district schools.
In other words, 13 years of equal funding in charter schools could produce around an additional $1.7 million in lifetime earnings for each charter school student in the nation’s capital.
Of course, this isn’t the only study finding that charter schools do more with less. In 2014, researchers at the University of Arkansas also found that charter schools across the country were 40 percent more productive, as measured by gains in student achievement, than neighboring district schools. In addition, experimental studies by researchers at Harvard University and Princeton University found that male students who won a public charter school lottery were less than half as likely to commit crimes later on in life, and female students were 59 percent less likely to become pregnant as teenagers.
Positive effects like these pay off. When charter schools reduce the likelihood that students commit crimes as adults, society spends less resources on policing, court cases, corrections programs, and prisons.
Overall, the scientific evidence suggests that charter schools improve academic outcomes for students. Researchers from the University of California, San Diego recently completed the most comprehensive review of the evidence on charter schools to date. The review concluded that, on average, charter schools helped students achieve the equivalent of more than a month of additional learning in math, relative to their peers in district schools.
The long student waitlists in D.C. are evidence that families desperately want charter schools. Schools in high demand, like Elsie Whitlow Stokes, currently have more than 1,500 students waiting in line for the opportunity to thrive. Funding parity would allow great charter schools like this one to expand to offer their services to more children in need.
Families are really trying to make the right decisions. Policymakers should let them, and the first step to that is investing taxpayer money wisely.