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Critique of OAPCS Charter School Reports - February 2008
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Critique of OAPCS Charter School Reports - February 2008

The Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) has recently released two reports offering their assessment of Ohio’s charter school program.  This bulletin critiques those studies.

In Ohio Community Charter Schools Add Value (January 14, 2008), OAPCS used Ohio’s new value-added data to compare the academic performance of traditional public schools in the Big 8 urban districts to that of charter schools operating within those districts.  The report found that, in the majority of instances, charter schools were outperforming the traditional school districts.

In the press release for the report, OAPCS chief, Bill Sims, declared, “The news here is that community charter schools in Ohio’s Big 8 Districts – home to 66 percent of all Ohio charter schools - are performing well and, in most cases, exceeding the performance of the traditional schools.”  Not surprisingly, charter school supporters are trumpeting the report as proof of the program’s success.

However, OAPCS’s analysis is methodologically flawed rendering its findings invalid and its conclusions unfounded.  The problem with this study is that it measures value-added scores without taking into consideration factors that influence academic gains.

Most notably absent from the analysis are baseline data.  If the report authors had included prior-year test scores as a control variable, they would have likely found a significant and inverse relationship between absolute performance levels and value-added gains.  In its analyses of Ohio Achievement Test results, OEA has consistently found that baseline scores are the strongest indicators of change in academic performance.  Simply put, all things being equal, low performers tend to enjoy larger gains than do high performers.

Additionally, student demographics (race, economic status and disabilities), school and class size, and teacher training and experience also influence test outcomes.  None of these factors were considered by OAPCS in its analysis.  The inclusion of baseline and other influencing variables in statistical analysis models often show a negative charter school effect with respect to academic gains.

In Shattering the Myth:  An Analysis of the Impact of Charter and Voucher Students on School Finances in Ohio’s Big Eight Urban School Districts (February 13, 2008), the report’s author, Bill Keip, determined that choice programs, charter schools and vouchers, “place more resources for each child, rather than fewer resources, at the disposal” of traditional school districts.  In the OAPCS press release for Shattering the Myth, Mr. Sims observed that “school districts have fatter budgets today than ever before.”

This analysis, which merely looks at changes in overall and per-pupil expenditures, over-simplifies the impact that charter schools and vouchers have had on traditional school districts.  The proliferation of charter schools and, to a lesser extent, vouchers has exacerbated the fiscal problems that plague Ohio’s public school districts.

It is intuitively obvious that fewer students, whether due to school choice options or general population shifts, leads to fewer staff and buildings, therefore lower costs.  However, while experiencing overall enrollment declines, the large urban districts have also absorbed an influx of foreign-born students, have seen the number of students identified as having disabilities swell, and have experienced significant increases in economically disadvantaged students.  Schools require greater levels of resources to meet the unique needs of diverse and challenging student groups.

Moreover, the cost of complying with NCLB, and other unfunded mandates, is enormous.  Additional cost pressures stem from other factors such as soaring fuel prices, escalating costs to heat and cool school buildings, skyrocketing health care costs, and expenses related to constantly evolving technology.

Even with these external cost pressures, the large urban districts have managed their budgets reasonably well.  Excluding the accounting expenses associated with students transferring to charter and voucher schools, the Big 8 districts reported total operating expenditures for fiscal year 2007 that were 0.6 percent below fiscal year 2002 levels.

However, given the external cost pressures noted above and since about 20 percent of school district expenses are fixed, disproportionate levels of cost cutting measures have occurred in the classroom.  Between the 2002-2003 and 2006-2007 school years, the Big 8 districts saw student enrollment decrease by 16 percent – much of this decline can be attributed to charter schools and vouchers.  Over this same period, the number of classroom teachers in these districts fell 32 percent.  For every one-percent decrease in students there has been a two-percent decrease in classroom teachers.

A reduction in teachers that has doubled the loss of students is no myth.  Increasing class sizes are real.  While the OAPCS argues to the contrary, the reality in the classroom is that the resources necessary to operate a large urban school district are becoming increasingly scarce and school choice programs have had a negative financial impact on these districts.

Moreover, each of Ohio’s 300-plus charter schools has its own administrative structure that is not accountable to an elected board of education.  As such, the money that charter schools spend on administrative costs amounts to 27 percent of their total budgets.  At $2,354, charter schools spend twice as much per student on administrative costs than do traditional school districts.

The OAPCS analysis fails to consider the bloated administrative costs of charter schools, ignores the hefty profit margins reaped by for-profit charter school operators, and offers no cost-benefit analysis of charter schools and vouchers.  To merely report changes in expenses for urban school districts, results in an incomplete and misleading representation of the financial impact of Ohio’s school choice programs.

Charter schools and voucher-accepting private schools will rake in $600 million in taxpayer dollars this year alone.  The time for a comprehensive and unbiased assessment of Ohio’s school choice programs is long overdue.  State policy makers should direct and the general public is entitled to an intellectually honest review of charter schools and vouchers.

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