San Antonio charter schools get more bang for buck

Corey DeAngelis

The evidence is in. Not only do San Antonio charter schools improve students’ outcomes; they do so at a lower cost to the public.

Last May, my colleagues and I at the University of Arkansas found that students in San Antonio charter schools received 20 percent less educational funding than their peers in district schools. But a just-released study by our team finds that despite the funding disadvantage, students in San Antonio charter schools outperform their district school counterparts on math and reading achievement exams.

In fact, we find that San Antonio charter schools are 35 percent more cost-effective and produce a 36 percent higher return on taxpayer investment than district schools.

Let’s make this a bit more concrete. The data show that every thousand dollars spent on education at district schools translates to around a $7,500 increase in students’ lifetime earnings. That is great. But that same thousand-dollar-expenditure produces an estimated $9,750 in students’ lifetime earnings if allocated to a public charter school in the city. And that 30 percent advantage is extremely important considering San Antonio taxpayers spend over $157,000 for each child’s K-12 education in district schools.

In other words, 13 years of equal funding in charter schools could produce around an additional $350,000 in lifetime earnings for San Antonio students.

Of course, this isn’t the only study finding that charter schools do more with less. In 2014, researchers at the University of Arkansas found that charter schools across the country were 40 percent more productive, as measured by gains in student achievement, than neighboring district schools. In addition, experimental studies by researchers at Harvard University and Princeton University found that male students that won a public charter school lottery were less than half as likely to a commit crime later on in life.

Overall, the scientific evidence suggests that charter schools improve academic outcomes for students. Researchers from the University of California San Diego recently completed the most comprehensive review of the evidence on charter schools to date. The review concluded that, on average, charter schools helped students achieve the equivalent of over a month of additional learning in math, relative to their peers in district schools. Three experimental evaluations also found that winning a random lottery to go to a charter school increases students’ chances of attending college. For example, an experiment published in the Journal of Labor Economics found that children that won a charter school lottery in Boston were 13 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college.

But the data aren’t the only evidence of charter school success. Every child in a public school of choice has a unique story. And I have one of my own.

I attended a public school of my choice in San Antonio. Luckily, I had the option to choose from four different magnet high schools, each of which had their own specialized mission. I ended up going to Communications Arts High School for my entire high school career. The teachers, students and staff were all highly motivated to achieve common goals because they all wanted to be there.

I personally feel like my San Antonio high school had a huge positive impact on my life trajectory. I ended up receiving a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in economics from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and–at 26 years old–I am about to finish my Ph.D. in education policy.

Personal stories tell us that San Antonio charter schools have lasting effects on children’s lives. The data confirm the lessons of these stories. Let’s magnify the positive impacts by giving children the same amount of educational resources, no matter what public school works best for them.

Corey DeAngelis is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.