Nebraska’s McCook County Gazette recently asked why every school shouldn’t be a charter school. Good question. Nebraska is one of a handful of states that still doesn’t allow public charter schools. Some in the Cornhusker State claim they don’t need them to compete for as much as $75 million in federal Race-to-the-Top funds. A recent report by the Platte Institute shows otherwise.
National experts rank Nebraska’s public schooling system second-worst nationally with an overall grade of ‘F’ for its ability to innovate. Given a choice only about one in five Nebraska parents would actually choose a traditional, district-run public school for their children according to a recent survey of likely voters. Survey respondents cited the lack of accountability, overcrowding, and poor engagement with parents as primary reasons for wanting alternatives.
If Nebraskans and national experts alike express such lackluster confidence in the current public schooling system, there is no good reason to expect the rest of the country to lavish hard-earned taxpayer dollars on it through federal Race-to-the-Top innovation grants. A leading alternative favored by Nebraskans is public charter schools.
Here’s how they could help.
Public charter schools are founded by teachers, parents, and community leaders that operate under a written performance contract with a state, school district, or other entity such as a university or non-profit organization. Because they are public schools, charter schools are open to all students, they cannot charge tuition, they have no religious affiliation, and they abide by the same state and federal testing, financial, anti-discrimination, health, and safety regulations as traditional, district-run public schools.
Charter schools, however, have more autonomy over their day-to-day operations and are held strictly accountable for results. This means they have more autonomy to innovate, which has given rise to a wide variety of schools that focus on back-to-basics, career technical training, college preparatory, math and science, or the arts.
This structure fosters better partnerships among parents, teachers, and students to create an environment in which parents can be more involved, teachers have the freedom to innovate, and students are provided the structure and individualized attention they need to learn.
In exchange for more autonomy, charter schools are held strictly accountable for meeting the terms of their performance contracts, which detail each charter school’s mission, program, goals, students served, financial plan, and assessment methods. If charter schools do not deliver, they close-unlike traditional public schools, which typically get more money and more time to turn around.
Importantly, charter schools get results for a fraction of the cost. Freed from cumbersome regulations, charter schools do not maintain costly bureaucracies or operate under inefficient procurement, hiring, or labor practices. Operating this way helps make charter schools more efficient, and on average charter school funding amounts to 61 percent of what traditional public schools receive, about $5,800 per student compared to nearly $9,600 per student in Nebraska.
Thus charter schools could save an estimated $3,800 per student in Nebraska. Distributed among a smaller traditional public school student population those savings would increase per-student funding as well as ease overcrowding, helping reduce districts’ facilities costs.
Most important, charter schools typically educate struggling students who would otherwise be at risk of dropping out, which costs Nebraska an estimated $10,625 per student annually. Compared to their traditional public school peers, charter school students are more than five times as likely to be proficient in reading and more than three times as likely to be proficient in math. Competition from charter schools also spurs even under-performing traditional public schools to improve without spending a penny more.
With tens of millions of dollars in Race-to-the-Top innovation grants at stake, alarming numbers of students who are not proficient in the basics, and too many high school students who are not college-ready or do not finish college degrees, Nebraska can no longer afford the status quo-especially when empirical evidence shows charter schools are a win-win for students and taxpayers.