According to a study by the watchdog group In the Public Interest, The public schools of the small West Contra School School District in California lose $27.9 million each year due to charter schools, a loss of nearly $1,000 for each student in the public schools. The majority of students suffer budget cuts so a small proportion can attend charter schools that may be no better and may close mid-year.

As of 2016-17, the school year for which the costs in this report were calculated, 28,518 students attended WCCUSD’s traditional public schools, while 4,606 students—14 percent of the total student population—were enrolled in 12 charter schools within the district’s physical boundaries. More recent data indicate an explosion in charter school enrollment. The proportion of WCCUSD students attending charter schools has more than doubled in four years, from 8 percent of the district total in the 2014 -15 school year to 17 percent this year.

The costs of charter schools

When students transfer to charter schools, 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. While WCCUSD schools have 14 percent fewer students to serve, a school cannot adjust expenses by, for example, cutting 14 percent of its principal, heating bill, parking lot paving, internet service, or building maintenance. The district also cannot proportionately cut administrative tasks such as bus route planning, teacher training, grant writing, and budget development. Because these central costs cannot be cut, districts are forced to cut services provided to traditional public school students.

Even if such cuts were possible, districts are legally responsible for serving all students in the community and must maintain adequate facilities to reabsorb students when inherently risky charter schools fail. During the 2016 -17 school year alone, 51 California charter schools either closed or were converted into traditional public schools.3