Last year, In the Public Interest, a nonpartisan advocacy group in California published Professor Gordon Lafer’s seminal study of the fiscal impact of charters on three school districts in California. Oakland alone lost $67 million in “stranded costs” because of the flooding of the district with charter schools. Stranded costs are the costs beyond the per-pupil tuition that leaves the district, like heating, cooling, transportation, and other fixed costs.

ITPI has released a new report that demonstrates the fiscal impact of charters in one other district. The report is timely, since the Legislature is currently considering four bills to regulate charters so that they stop damaging the public schools that enroll the most students.

Jeremy Mohler of In the Public Interest writes:


Been wondering what’s causing all the hoopla about charter schools? You’re not alone — it’s a complicated issue.

I’m going to explain one aspect of the issue, in as simple terms as possible, to try to convince you that charter schools are worth paying attention to.

This morning, we released a new report on the cost that charter schools create for just one school district, West Contra Costa Unified (WCCUSD) in California’s Bay Area.

What do I mean by “cost?” I mean that, because some students that would’ve otherwise attended WCCUSD’s traditional public schools instead attend charter schools in the area, the district has $27.9 million less in funding to work with each year. That comes out to $978 less for each traditional public school student the district serves.

Here’s why. When a student transfers to a charter school, public funding for their education follows — but costs remain. Because charter schools pull students from multiple schools and grade levels, it’s rare that individual traditional public schools can reduce expenses enough to make up for the lost revenue.

Say a district loses 14 percent of its students to charter schools in the area. Its schools can‘t adjust expenses by, for example, cutting 14 percent of their principal, heating bill, parking lot paving, internet service, or building maintenance. The district also can’t proportionately cut administrative tasks such as bus route planning, teacher training, grant writing, and budget development.

This forces districts to cut services provided to traditional public school students.

WCCUSD recently did just that. Faced with a budget deficit, its board approved $12.5 million in budget cuts in December 2018 eliminating 82 positions, closing an academic tutoring program, and cutting services for English learners.

We found the same dynamic last year when we studied districts in Oakland, San Diego, and San Jose.

Keep in mind, we’re making conservative estimates here. Our totals don’t even include the often inequitable proportion of state funding districts receive for educating high-needs students.

Long story short: California’s traditional public school students are bearing the cost of the state allowing charter schools to grow in number at a rapid clip.

Of course, charter schools aren’t the only financial pressure that districts are facing. Regressive taxation, declining birth rates, and other forces are impacting districts from Los Angeles to Sacramento.

But, so far, the cost of charter schools has gone unmeasured and ignored in California educational planning. That can’t go on — students are paying the price.
Can anyone explain the rationale of public funding of two different school systems? Seventy years ago, we had public funding of two different systems in 17 states. That was called a dual school system, one for whites, one for blacks. What’s the rationale now for a dual system?