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Education in Two Worlds: Why Are Charter Schools Spending So Much on Administration?

The state of Arizona has long been a leader in charter schools. Of a million students enrolled in K-12 public education in the state, approximately 141,000 are enrolled in the nearly 550 charter schools. At roughly 15% of the school population in charter schools, Arizona leads the nation in its commitment to non-traditional schooling. Taxpayers in the state of Arizona spend more than $1 Billion annually to operate these charter schools.

Among the promised benefits of charter schools were that decentralised and less regulated entities forced to compete for students would necessarily spend less money on administration and more on instruction. No less eminent advocates of charter schools than Paul Hill and Checker Finn have made such arguments. The reality of the charter school movement has not kept up with such promises.

When expenditures to operate public schools in Arizona are broken down by categories like Instruction and Administration, interesting trends become apparent. For the 900,000 pupils in traditional public schools, approximately $4,000 per pupil is expended for Instruction. For the 141,000 charter school pupils, the average expenditure for Instruction is $3,200.

But the surprising differences in the costs of operating traditional and charter schools appear in the category of Administration.

•   Administration in the 1,500 traditional public schools of Arizona costs $760 per pupil.

•   Administration in the 550 charter schools of Arizona costs $1,344 per pupil.

So charter schools in Arizona are spending almost twice as much per pupil on administration as the traditional public schools. Denis Smith, writing in the Columbus (OH) Dispatch observed that in the state of Ohio “Many charter schools employ highly paid administrators but compensate their teachers well below those in other public schools, leading to constant staff turnover.” The Arizona situation seems to indicate that “overpaid administrators” is not just a Mid-western phenomenon. Exactly how much charter school administrators are paying themselves is difficult — or impossible — to determine nearly everywhere. They are public when requesting tax money; they act suspiciously private when asked about salaries.

Afterword: Interestingly, the figures for Arizona match almost exactly data reported by Arsen & Ni in a 2012 article entitled Is Administration Leaner in Charter Schools? Resource Allocation in Charter and Traditional Public Schools, which was published by Education Policy Analysis Archives.

Data source: http://www.azed.gov/superintendent/files/2014/03/safr-2013-volume-i.pdf

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Gene V Glass

Gene V Glass is a lecturer in the Connie L. Lurie College of Education of San José State University. He is also currently a Senior Researcher at the National Educ...