Can't Get Enough Productivity: Charter Schools Doing More with Less

If “productivity” is really a dirty word for education, as some critics would like us to believe, maybe that explains why I feel the overwhelming urge to write about it for the second time in less than a week. A kind of “forbidden fruit” thing, you know. Or maybe the connection just was too easy to make during these hot and lazy, hazy days of summer.

Last Friday I took a look at the productivity of Colorado school districts, as measured in a new report by the Center for American Progress (CAP). A couple of this blog’s favorite topics — Douglas County and Falcon 49 — emerged with flying colors.

So right on cue, here comes a first-of-its-kind analysis, comparing the productivity of public charter schools to other public schools in 22 states and the District of Columbia. The University of Arkansas’s “The Productivity of Public Charter Schools” made an across-the-board finding that shouldn’t exactly startle anyone who pays attention. Not only is charter productivity higher in every state:

The average cost effectiveness advantage of charters relative to traditional public schools is 17 NAEP points in math and 16 NAEP points in reading, per $1000 of revenue. The average cost ROI advantage for charters is an almost 3 percent higher return per dollar invested if a student spends one year in a public charter school and a 19 percent higher return per dollar invested if a student spends half of their K-12 education (6.5 years) in a charter school.

The results for Colorado are roughly consistent with the overall findings (a little better in cost effectiveness, a little worse in ROI). It all goes to demonstrate with the best methods possible that charters tend to do as much or more with less. Still, the small but growing charter sector is having no more than pockets of influence building positive systemic change.

But one finding in the report shines through clearly: For every public dollar invested, students are reaping more future career financial benefits for spending time in a charter school as opposed to a traditional public school. At least to the extent we can measure those results that matter. Math and reading achievement are key measures, but not by any means the only ones.

This report by Patrick Wolf & company follows three months after the same crew thoroughly documented the overall funding disparity that faces charter schools in nearly every state (including Colorado). It ended up being the front edge of a powerful 1-2 combination in highlighting a key dimension of charter challenge and success that deeper analysis needed to bear out.

(That and Dr. Wolf, writing on Jay Greene’s blog, made a great baseball analogy comparing public charter schools to the Oakland Athletics. Moneyball!)

Even so, I’m left with one nagging question: Did I miss National Productivity Week or something?