When Charter Schools Are Used to Undercut Private Schools

Yes, you read the title correctly. Bruce Baker explains (boldface mine):

It’s a rather clever financial model. If elite private school tuition is running at about $30k per year per child…and per pupil cost of a quality private education program about $32 to $35k… one could either pay that price, or gather a group of close friends, and apply for a charter, where each child might receive an allotment of $10 to $15k from the local district and then parents could quietly agree to chip in the other $15k to achieve similar quality schooling to the private option – at half the price.

Of course, there are many additional costs of getting that ball rolling, including finding and leasing space for start up years, and running capital fundraising campaigns for future years. By establishing a charter school in this way, these parents really couldn’t officially exclude others from their school or obligate private contributions within their “club”… but they sure could make any free-rider, or other resource drain on their schooling model feel uncomfortable enough to leave.

…it becomes more problematic when an above average income group in the community, with relatively low need children (by usual classifications), obligates the local public school district to subsidize their segregationist preferences. That is, asking those less well off than you to subsidize your quasi-private school alternative.

…would parents of advantaged children actually seek to establish a school that taxes those less well off than them, to subsidize their charter school, instead of paying the full price of tuition at local private schools? Evidence from Princeton, New Jersey suggests that the answer to this question may in fact be yes!

…to the extent that state charter policies permit the type of school establishment and segregation going on in Princeton, more an more parents may find ways to organize quasi-private-elite schools to serve their needs – effectively seeking taxpayer charity to support their country club preferences. This indeed may pose a threat to financially less well endowed private schools.

In a twisted sort of way, it’s rather like asking your local public parks department to pay for your membership to the local private country club – thus reducing the quality of services to others who really don’t have access to the country club (even if it proclaims it’s open to all comers).

At this point, is anyone surprised? Of course, there will be well-off people who are going to attempt to game the system. It’s nothing more than a backdoor voucher system. But I would add one thing: the ‘free-loaders’–parents who act as if the school is indeed a public school and don’t chip in–serve the same function as scholarship students at private academies. They enable the other families to feel as if they are not being exclusionary.

I’m surprised this is happening in the suburbs. If other suburban families–private and regular public school attendees–realize this, the political backlash could be formidable. Don’t they know you’re supposed to screw over families with little or no political clout?

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1 Response to When Charter Schools Are Used to Undercut Private Schools

  1. Newcastle says:

    Maybe the folks in NJ need to learn how to write laws as there is no way that you could do that in Utah at least. Charter schools have to be open to any applicants and if the number exceeds the slots available then entry is by random lottery. The rich folk would have to rig the lottery to keep all of the freeloading riffraff out. Second the charter can not charge fees beyond the usual football uniform-type of fee for extra-curriculars so those fees would have to be totally under the table. Third the state only spends ~$6,000 per student, charter or otherwise, so your parents would have to pick up closer to $30K. And amazingly enough the state audits the charter school’s books, you couldn’t hide 70-90% of the operating budget coming from parents’ “fees”.

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