Op-Ed: Educational opportunity is not a zero-sum game

‘Supporting public charter schools does not take money away from the children who attend traditional public school districts nor does it hurt children in district schools’
Michael J. Petrilli, left, and Harry Lee

Every parent wants a great education for their child and a supportive school environment that helps them grow and succeed. Unfortunately, achieving that mission has been sidelined in favor of a debate about financial support for certain types of public schools over others. In states and cities where public charter schools have grown to meet families’ needs, opponents perpetuate the myth that public charter schools “drain the coffers” of traditional, district-run public schools. Indeed, that was the reason offered by the New Jersey Department of Education recently for refusing to allow several high-performing Newark charter networks to expand to serve more students — and is the key question in front of the state’s highest court. Yet, a new study by one of our organizations shows the myth to be false, giving us hope that we can finally turn our collective focus back to the kids.

Commissioned by the Fordham Institute and conducted by New Jersey’s own Mark Weber, the study used enrollment and fiscal data reported by traditional school districts between 2001 and 2018 to assess the relationship between the proportion of students attending independent charter schools — meaning those not run by the local school district — and the finances of host school districts in 21 states, including the Garden State. Contrary to charter skeptics’ preferred narrative, the study’s key finding in New Jersey is that an increase in the number of public charter students is associated with more state funding per pupil for districts where those charters are located.

This trend has accelerated under the Murphy administration. Since 2018, under Gov. Phil Murphy’s leadership, the state has significantly increased its investment in education by providing more than $1.2 billion in new state formula aid. Much of this new funding flows to the state’s largest urban districts, including Newark, Paterson, Trenton, Camden and Plainfield, where public charter schools have become an integral part of the public education ecosystem.

Increased per-pupil revenues overall

Contrary to the rhetoric of charter critics, this boost in formula funding has resulted in increased per-pupil revenues for both traditional district schools and public charter schools. And why shouldn’t it? New Jersey’s funding structure was the result of bipartisan coalition-building aimed at creating a healthy and sustainable relationship between districts and charters. These policies have helped to create budgetary surpluses in many districts — including Newark, where revenue has increased by $200 million over the last five years. The data shows that the fiscal situation has actually improved in Newark Public Schools with the growth of charter schools.

Despite this overall improvement in education funding, public charter schools still aren’t getting their fair share. For example, a recent analysis found that charters in Camden receive 46% less funding per pupil than traditional public schools — in part because districts don’t pass through any of the funding they receive for facilities. Because New Jersey is one of the few states in the country that does not provide facilities support for public charter schools, many charter schools in the state are spending 10% to 15% of their operating budgets on facilities costs — money that would be better spent on teacher salaries, classroom supplies and addressing learning loss due to a global pandemic.

Nevertheless, studies show that charter schools in Camden and Newark are boosting student achievement. And a growing body of evidence suggests that charter schools also boost the academic achievement of students in traditional public schools. A recent study out of Stanford that focuses on Newark shows that not only can district and charter schools successfully coexist, they can thrive alongside one another.

Ultimately, this data shows that this isn’t a zero-sum game. Supporting public charter schools does not take money away from the children who attend traditional public school districts nor does it hurt children in district schools. We should be working to ensure that every child has the resources they need, no matter what school they attend. In short, let’s support educational opportunity for all children regardless of zip code, family income, race/ethnicity or ability level.