Susan Pendergrass

Without a doubt, the question that I get most often about charter schools is, “But don’t they hurt the public schools?” Setting aside the fact that charter schools are public schools, the short answer is charter public schools don’t hurt traditional public schools any more than other factors that can affect enrollment. But they may challenge them.

The assertion seems to be that all children who live within the borders of a public school district are the property of that school district, unless their parents can pay to opt them out. If free public charter schools become available and parents choose them, then they’re rejecting, and thereby hurting, their local school district.

When a parent chooses to send a child to a charter school, the state funding that would have been sent to the public school district where that student lives is sent, instead, to the charter school the parent has chosen. Federal funding, such as that for low-income students or students with disabilities, also, theoretically, follows the student. Some, but not all, of the local funding may go with the student. The same is true whether the student chooses a charter school, moves to another school district, or moves to another state. The local public school district is no longer tasked with educating the student, so they no longer get the money to do so.

It’s true that districts with declining enrollment may struggle to downsize, at least quickly. The same is true whether parents are choosing to move out of the district or whether they turn to charter schools. But the solution isn’t to prevent kids from choosing charter schools because the district can’t afford it, any more than it would be reasonable to prevent parents from moving out of the district.

Public school districts have some options when faced with the loss of students to charter schools. They can consider it a challenge and do what’s needed to bring parents back. They can collaborate with the charter school to better serve the needs of all students. They can move away from long-term fixed expenses to a nimbler way of doing business, similar to how many charter schools finance their buildings. Or they can complain that the world’s not fair.

All students are guaranteed a free public education by the state, and the power over that funding should be in the hands of parents, rather than locked into a public school district. And defenders of the status quo should stop calling for protected status for schools that parents don’t choose.

About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.