Separating Fiscal Fact from Fiction: Journalists Needed

What is the fiscal impact of charter schools on California’s school districts? This is a simple question with no simple answer. Yet policymakers are ready to act. 

Many school districts in California are having trouble balancing their budgets and are making cuts. Public charter schools have attracted a large number of students. Teachers unions successfully linked the two dynamics into a compelling narrative, and made charter schools a convenient target during recent protests. 

Proposals in the state Legislature would allow school districts to restrict charter school growth based on their fiscal impact. And a task force convened by Gov. Gavin Newsome had three months to study and make recommendations on the issue. 

Informing much of this action was a report from In the Public Interest, a group that opposes charter schools and has urged support for a moratorium on new charter schools. 

I critiqued the ITPI report and pointed out multiple analytic flaws. The report used a convoluted new methodology that gave an inflated estimate of the financial cost that enrollment losses to charter schools impose on districts. Among many other problems, it failed to account for the public benefits California charter schools bring, and it failed to address enrollment losses or gains due to demographic changes and other reasons. 

Despite these issues, the report was widely reported on across California because of a compelling finding that charter schools cost the Oakland Unified School District $54 million. Journalists didn’t square that finding with the fact that OUSD’s enrollment has not actually declined meaningfully in the past 10 years. The district’s average daily attendance during the 2009–2010 school year was 35,826 students. This past school year, it was 34,821.

Nor did journalists square ITPI’s finding with the fact that Oakland’s per-pupil spending increased during that period, or the independent audit reports pointing to district mismanagement and rising pension, health care, and special education costs as the primary culprits for OUSD’s financial troubles. 

To bring facts to the debate when the Governor’s Task Force convened, CRPE released our own series of briefs that shed new light on the subject. We were very clear that our briefs were based on the best available data at the time. These briefs cover three basic conclusions: 

  • Charter schools were briefly a major factor in district enrollment loss, but are not now and are unlikely to be in the future. Enrollment loss will continue to be a challenge due to economic and population changes. 
  • Charter school growth is not correlated with school district fiscal distress statewide. This does not imply charter schools have no impact on school districts. 
  • Policymakers must weigh the significant potential benefits of charter schools against any costs they may impose on districts or the state.

Immediately, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) published a critique of our briefs that substantially misrepresented these three reports. For example, it asserted our briefs dismissed a recent credible analysis published in the Journal of Education Finance by Paul Bruno of the University of Southern California. On the contrary, we cited and used the results of that paper, which found charter schools lead to lower fund balances and slightly lower per-pupil spending in school districts, but district-level funding challenges had little if any effect on spending and staffing at the school level. The very paper that NEPC wrongly claimed we overlooked actually reinforces our findings. It shows that districts experiencing charter school growth are no more likely to experience fiscal distress than districts where charters are not growing, or do not exist.

The NEPC also dismissed—without refuting—two of our most important findings: that charter school growth was a major contributor to enrollment loss in California districts for a few years from about 2008 to 2014 but is no longer, and that total K–12 enrollment in large coastal cities will continue to decline for the next decade, driven by economic change, housing costs, and out-migration, even if charter schools do not grow.

We welcome academic debate, but the NEPC response to our briefs indulges in distraction and “what aboutism,” techniques that belong, if anywhere, on cable TV. Meanwhile, ITPI has published yet another report asserting big costs imposed by charter schools. That report drew media coverage that noted the analysis was done at the behest of a school board after it voted to back a charter school moratorium, and quoted charter school advocates for balance, but sidestepped serious concerns about the report’s methodology. 

I understand it’s hard for journalists to know what to do when academics take on other academics. But the stakes are too high to let misleading data get traction in the public eye. This is an important topic and deserves a skeptical and informed treatment in the media. For this reason, we published this reporter’s guide on the fiscal impact of charter schools. It outlines the advantages and limitations of various methods of measuring fiscal impact. It discusses the public policy context. It provides references to reports and experts on the topic. 

It’s clear this topic (and more misleading studies) will come up in more states soon. Journalists, editors, and editorial boards should take time to educate themselves on it so the public can separate fact from hyperbole and scare tactics. 

Districts do have a hard time adjusting when enrollment declines because of charter schools or other reasons. Charter schools, as we have argued, did not cause the problem, but they can be part of the solution. Misleading studies only deepen the divisions. Journalists can help bridge these divides by providing skeptical coverage and digging into the details.

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