A study of eight city school districts including Atlanta finds public charter schools are between 32 and 33 percent more productive than traditional public schools. 
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Opinion: Atlanta charter schools deliver more learning for less money

A guest columnist contends Atlanta charter schools deliver more learning for less money than the city’s traditional public schools.

Patrick J. Wolf is a distinguished professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas and co-author of “Bigger Bang, Fewer Bucks? The Productivity of Public Charter Schools in Eight U.S. Cities.”

One of those eight cities is Atlanta. I wanted to clarify which charter schools in Atlanta were examined and sent the researchers a current list of APS charters. Their response: “The charters examined in the report are almost identical to the list you provided. The report is based on 2014 so there are a few small differences. The report did not have Centennial Academy and Junior/Senior Academy Campus. The report does include three charters that are not on your list: Intown Academy, Atlanta Heights and Heritage Prep.”

By Patrick J. Wolf

Productivity matters. The bigger bang we get for our bucks, the better for consumers and citizens. In public education, productivity can be measured based on the amount of student achievement produced on the NAEP, also called “the nation’s report card,” per $1,000 of per-pupil funding. Based on this measure, public charter schools in eight cities across the U.S. are between 32 and 33 percent more productive than traditional public schools. 

Atlanta is one of those eight cities, along with Boston, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, New York, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C. In Atlanta, students in public charter schools scored over a point higher on the NAEP reading test and half-a-point higher on the math test than students in traditional public schools, even though charters received an average of almost $2,000 less in funding per pupil. That made Atlanta public charter schools 14 percent more productive than traditional public schools in Atlanta during the 2013-14 school year. 

School funding is complex in Atlanta, as it is across the country. Both charters and traditional schools receive funding from various public and nonpublic sources, such as philanthropies. In 2013-14, public charter schools in Atlanta received over $8,000 less per pupil than traditional public schools from local government sources. Atlanta charters received over $1000 less per student in federal funding.  

The charter schools partially closed this large funding discrepancy by receiving $1,650 more per pupil than traditional schools in state government funding, $4,395 more per student in funding from nonpublic sources, and $1,363 more per pupil in funding from other sources.  

The bottom line is that Atlanta students received an average of nearly $2,000 less in funding in 2013-14 if they chose to learn in a public charter school instead of a traditional public school. Furthermore, that funding gap would have been a lot greater if not for large charitable gifts to a modest number of public charter schools. From a public policy standpoint, neither of those conditions are desirable, especially since philanthropic dollars tend to be temporary and targeted to a few privileged schools. Georgia needs to do better in terms of equitably funding public school students. 

Policymakers can achieve public school funding equity between charter and traditional schools in one of two ways. One is to continue to fund the two types of public schools differently but to add more state funding of charters, especially regarding school facilities. That is the general approach taken by House Bill 787, sponsored by state Rep. Scott Hilton, R-Peachtree Corners.

A second way to achieve funding equity would be to more directly tie all government funding – federal, state, and local – to the individual students for whom it is intended. Under such a “weighted student funding” arrangement, disadvantaged students would carry relatively more funding than advantaged students with them to whatever public school they chose to attend. In other words, student funding differences would be driven by need and not by the arbitrary factor of whether or not a public school has the word “charter” in front of it. 

For decades, and across the country, public charter schools have been funded at lower levels than traditional public schools largely because education funding from local governments has gone disproportionately or even exclusively to traditional public schools and not to public charter schools. Charter schools are as local as traditional schools. They serve their communities. Based on our evidence, charters serve communities especially well, as they obtain better academic results for children at a lower cost than traditional schools.  

It is time that highly productive public charter schools receive public funds on par with traditional public schools. The Peach State can and should make that happen for its children.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.