UW News

October 15, 2004

Charter schools would add little to state education costs, study predicts

Addressing opponents’ claims that charter schools would drain more than $100 million from Washington’s public schools, a new UW working paper predicts that the financial impact of allowing charter schools would be modest.

The study estimates that allowing a limited number of charter schools — as proposed on Washington’s Nov. 2 ballot — would increase annual state education spending by .03 percent, or about $1 per student. Based on the state’s own estimates, total new public spending would equal approximately $14 million over five years.

“We looked not only at available research, but what happened in other states where charters already exist,” study author Amy Berk Anderson said. “It’s pretty clear that any increases in state spending would be negligible.”

The 13-page paper was produced by the UW’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, part of the Evans School of Public Affairs.

Referendum 55 would allow up to 45 publicly funded charter schools to be set up over the next six years by parents, teachers or other groups. Though independently run, charter schools are funded by the state and considered public schools, and must be authorized either by a local school district or the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Such schools often attract students from private or home school settings for whom the public schools did not provide sufficient options, Anderson said, so the addition of charters means the number of students entering (or re-entering) the public school system would likely grow. The additional cost of providing public education for such students is the main fiscal impact on the state budget.

In addition, the paper reports that:

  • Students transferring to charter schools would have a minimal impact on district budgets compared to the normal enrollment shifts districts already face when students transfer within and outside of their home districts.

  • Districts in other states have found charter schools can help meet the needs of specific populations of students at a lower cost, because of less expensive facilities and other factors.

“Unlike most school reform efforts, the increase in funding is not for a new program to serve existing public school students,” Anderson said. “It’s to serve formerly disenfranchised students for whom public schools become more attractive.”

However, the paper does spell out some $130,000 in additional annual costs that the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction would have to bear to oversee charter schools. That would be offset by an estimated $2.75 million a year in anticipated federal funding if the state authorizes charter schools.

“With so much healthy public discussion going on about the ballot measure, we felt it was appropriate for us to try to gather the most authoritative, factual information possible,” said Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which researches school reform, governance, financing, achievement and other educational issues.

In technical terms, Referendum 55 would implement a charter school bill passed by the Washington Legislature, which is now on hold pending the referendum.

Charter schools would be exempt from many statutes and rules applicable to school districts and, in return for this regulatory relief, would be bound to a contract requiring them to meet specified student performance and operational targets. Charter schools must, however, comply with health and safety laws, open meeting and public record requirements, laws concerning parents’ rights and laws against discrimination.


For more information, contact Anderson at (206) 849-1093 or berkanderson@hotmail.com, or Lake at (206) 616-1797 or rlake@u.washington.edu. The full paper is at www.crpe.org.