Charter schools need to tell taxpayers what they’re getting for their money!

What is the Tax Payer Getting? Much more.

“Charter schools need to tell taxpayers what they are getting for their money.” The headline is from the March 24 StarNews editorial. As a founder of local charter schools, I agree 100 percent; surely everyone agrees that taxpayers should know what they are getting for their money.  And they are getting much more for their money.

Measuring the Cost of Inputs

Some have called for charter schools to tell taxpayers the individual salaries of school employees as the editorial states. But what purpose does knowing individuals’ personal salaries serve? Should this information satisfy taxpayers?

“For my $35,129 I get Ms. Johnson; I feel much better about charter schools now! But Mr. Harvey is ineffective and I am not getting my $87,765 worth.” Is this what the taxpayer wants to know?

A companion piece, “Salaries, Salaries, Who’s got the Salaries,” describes the accounting system that ALL schools are required to use and that tracks salaries by purpose and function: regular teacher pay, substitute teacher pay, landscapers pay, special education salaries, maintenance technicians pay, etc. This system allows management to control schools by the total expenses for each function and purpose.  Management can budget the costs of activities regardless of what Ms. Johnson or Mr. Harvey make; most importantly, management can compare themselves to other schools’ expenditures in the same categories.

Such functions are the internal issues that confront management from a financial perspective, and the current system provides all the data one can possibly digest.  In fact there are 273 different categories into which salaries may be classified for management purposes.

But does knowing either that Ms. Johnson’s salary was $35,129 or that School X spent $71,289 in interventionist overtime pay really “tell taxpayers what they’re getting for their money?”

What about, “How many dollars, total, are being spent per standardized test passed?”

Measuring the Cost of Outputs

Along with the public accounting system which measures tax dollar inputs, we have a student testing system which measures student achievement outputs.  These outputs are presented, in detail, by the End-Of-Grade (EOG) tests that all of our schools must administer.

Therefore, we have the dollars spent by a school or school district, and we have the tests passed by the students of that school or district – information that has been publicly available for decades.

Measuring the True Cost

We frequently measure costs in terms such as dollars per gallon of milk, or dollars per foot of fence.” We don’t need to how much the farmer pays his helpers or how much the fence contractor pays his carpenters – we want to know the final cost of the product.

Similarly, we should ask, “How much are we paying for each test passed by the students of a school or district?” What is the taxpayer’s cost per successful test? Individual salaries give no information whatsoever about how well students are being taught.

In its most basic form, taxpayers are funding learning by the state’s children. Therefore, the taxpayer should be told how much learning they are getting for their dollars. If we measure funding input by the dollars spent on the pupils and we measure learning output by the number of state tests they pass, we have an excellent means for calculating the cost of each test passed by the students of a school or district.

The lower the cost of each passed test, the more efficient the school or school district is. Because tests and testing rules, as well as accounting rules and auditing, are the same for district schools and charter schools, we can truly compare apples to apples.

Cost per Test Passed – Local Examples

So what does learning cost the taxpayer in Brunswick County Schools? In 2013, as reported by the Department of Public Instruction, Brunswick County elementary schools had 5,583 students in third through eighth grades who collectively passed 4,563 reading and math tests. From Brunswick’s audited financial report, the district spent an average of $10,156 per pupil (page 65) for a total of $56,700,948 on these students. Dividing this expenditure on the tested pupils by the number of tests passed, the taxpayers’ cost for each test passed is $12,426.

And what does learning cost the taxpayer at Charter Day School, a charter school in Brunswick County? In 2013, as reported by DPI, Charter Day School had 570 students in third through eighth grades, who collectively passed 646 reading and math tests, despite being a Title I school. From the audited financial report, the school spent an average of $7,399 per pupil for a total of $4,217,430 on these students. Dividing this expenditure on the tested pupils by the number of tests passed, the taxpayers’ cost for each test passed is $6,528.

So, to grant the StarNews editors’ wishes, we can tell the taxpayers that the charter school’s total expense per pupil is only 72.8 percent of the district’s expenditure.

We can also tell taxpayers that they are getting 190 percent more, nearly double, for their money in successful test results from this Title I school as from the district.

What about disadvantaged students?

The above two examples are calculated for all students.  But what about low-income students or minority students. Perhaps the costs are different depending upon the type of student that is being instructed.

These data are disaggregated by the DPI reports of the test results on-line, and can easily be calculated using the same basis as detailed above.

The table below summarizes the per pupil costs for Charter Day School, Brunswick County, and New Hanover County in the first row.  Then the next three rows display the Cost Per Test_Passed for three student categories: All Students; Economically Disadvantaged Students; and Non-White Students.

Student Category  Charter Day  Brunswick Co. New Han.
Funds per Student Average of All Students  $7,399  $ 10,156  $ 9,265
Cost per test_passed All Students  $6,529  $ 12,426  $ 9,049
Cost per test_passed Economically Disadvantaged  $6,758  $ 15,981  $13,994
Cost per test_passed Non-white  $7,560  $ 17,589  $15,219

The following is from NC General Statute 115C that governs K-12 schools.

§ 115C-408. Funds under control of the State Board of Education.
(a) It is the policy of the State of North Carolina to create a public school system that graduates good citizens with the skills demanded in the marketplace, and the skills necessary to cope with contemporary society, using State, local and other funds in the most cost-effective manner.

As seen above, the charter school conclusively demonstrates that it is conducting education in the most cost-effective manner.  

Note: A condensed version of this blog was carried as an op-ed in the StarNews on April 4, 2014.
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