The Mackinac Center's latest evidence on Michigan charter schools has turned upside down the claims made by some of educational choice's highest-profile opponents. Driven by opposition to education secretary Betsy DeVos, some will go to great lengths to tarnish the legacy of school reform in her home state.
Last September, The New York Times welcomed the start of the academic year with a broadside, under the headline: "Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools. Its Children Lost." The Mackinac Center's Michigan Capitol Confidential led the phalanx of responses, debunking the "Gray Lady" point by point in its portrayal of school accountability, financing and academic results.
When you add up the pieces, Michigan's charter schools turn out to be far from a risky gamble, let alone a failure. In fact, they have proved to be a sound and superior investment strategy.
That's what Cato Institute Education Analyst Corey DeAngelis and I found in our new report, "Doing More with Less: The Charter School Advantage in Michigan." For every $1,000 the average charter school spends, it gets 32 percent better results on state tests than nearby district schools. For students, that translates into a 36 percent advantage in lifetime earnings.
In short, Michigan charter schools deliver a superior return on investment. The main reason is that they get less overall funding. For each full-time student, they get roughly $2,800 less, mostly because they don’t have access to local property tax money. Yet they perform as well as conventional districts — and sometimes, even better — after adjusting for student poverty levels.
"Doing More with Less" was inspired by a 2014 University of Arkansas study that compared charter productivity in different states. Our new work was the first published analysis of charters’ return on investment at the city level.
We compared the funding levels for charter and district schools in 92 cities. We also were able to use academic performance data from the Center’s Context and Performance report cards to compare charters to district schools in 71 cities. In 64 cities, charter schools were more cost-effective.
The cities where charter schools stood out the most tended to be larger cities where families have the most options for schooling. Take the Motor City, for example. Tens of thousands of students have fled district schools, but a prominent Democratic U.S. senator and the new superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District have both declared the results of that city's charter schools "disastrous."
Yet any reasonable comparison shows that charters clearly perform better than their district counterparts. Earlier studies from Stanford University-based CREDO have revealed the extra months of learning students get in charters.
That doesn’t even take into account the fact Detroit's charter schools get better results with $5,500 less spent per student. As our new analysis shows, that disparity translates into huge long-term benefits. Every $1,000 spent annually by a Detroit charter school ultimately nets its students two-and-a-half times more in lifetime earnings than if that $1,000 were spent by the city’s school district. That difference represents a real and potentially significant lifelong impact for today's young people.
The relative success of charters at a lower cost shows how educational choice in Michigan has been a win not only for students and parents but for taxpayers in general. It also undercuts the escalating cries for more funding as the answer to the state's inadequate academic achievement.
The answer instead starts with trusting and enabling parents. Arm them with meaningful information on school performance and give them access to more options. Let more of the dollars follow their children on the educational path they have chosen.
That should help create a greater incentive to emulate and expand, rather than slander, charter success.