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Study: For charter schools, more autonomy yields better results

By   /   May 23, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

The more independence a charter school has from Milwaukee Public Schools, the better the educational return for the tax dollars spent, says a new study that differentiates between the types of autonomy granted to charters.

In most comparative research about school performance, charter schools are usually lumped together to measure how they perform against their traditional school district competition, said Will Flanders, education research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and co-author of “Bang for the Buck,” which he says is the first study that compares types of charter schools with each other.

Photo provided by Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty

FLANDERS: “Instrumentality charters — to some folks they are charters-in-name only — are equally inefficient or slightly more efficient than MPS.”

By making intra-charter comparisons, and taking into account the amount spent per pupil in each, taxpayers can see which type of charter school is giving taxpayers the best return on investment.

The three types of charter schools compared were independent public charter schools authorized by the City of Milwaukee or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; non-instrumentality charters authorized by MPS; and instrumentality charter schools that are chartered by MPS but have limited autonomy. Instrumentality refers to whether a school is still considered an “instrument,” or part of the school district. 

Independent charter schools have the most autonomy followed by non-instrumentality charter schools. Both are responsible for hiring decisions, while instrumentality charter school staff are hired by the district. 

Traditional MPS schools and instrumentality charter schools receive $10,261 per student, while independent charter schools and non-instrumentality charter schools receive $8,075 per student. Using the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) and Badger Exam, the study found which schools were the most efficient per thousand dollars spent. (The WKCE was the statewide standardized test for measuring academic achievement until the 2014-15 academic year, when it was replaced by the Badger Exam.)

Independent charter schools and non-instrumentality charter schools were only 15 percent of the schools compared, but placed nine of the top 15 schools for efficiency when using the WKCE results.  Independent charter schools and non-instrumentality charter schools also represented 53 percent of the top 15 schools in efficiency when using the Badger Exam results. 

“We see a disproportionate good performance by these non-instrumentalities and independent charters,” Flanders said. “And not such a good performance by the instrumentality charters,” the schools governed most closely by the traditional public school bureaucracy.

The study also looked at schools that had more than 80 percent of the students participating in free or reduced lunch. Despite the higher poverty rate, Flanders said there was a “similar pattern” of non-instrumentality and independent charter schools being more efficient than MPS schools or instrumentality charter schools.

“We see the vast majority of the bottom of the schools in efficiency are MPS. All of the bottom 10 on the Badger Exam are MPS,” Flanders said.

Accounting for the racial makeup of the schools, the number of students who are English language learners and the number of students who are receiving free or reduced lunch, the study found that per thousand dollars spent the independent charter school category shows a statistically significant higher efficiency than public schools. A similar effect was found for non-instrumentality charter schools.

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Instrumentality charter schools did not show a statistically significant difference from the public schools in efficiency when using the WKCE. There was a slight statistically significant difference between instrumentality charter schools and MPS when using the Badger Exam for comparison.

“We see independent charter schools are more efficient on average. Non-instrumentalities are also generally more efficient than MPS,” Flanders concluded. “Instrumentality charters — to some folks they are charters-in-name only — are equally inefficient or slightly more efficient than MPS. No big differences there between the two.”

The most efficient schools in the study are “those that are receiving lower per-pupil funding, the $8,075, and they are those that have greater autonomy, greater independence from MPS,” Flanders said.

The study does not venture to explain why the independent charter schools and the non-instrumentality charter schools are more efficient. The study just shows that those types of charter schools are more efficient than their instrumentality charter school counterparts. 

It raises the question, according to the authors of the study, of whether instrumentality schools — which lack much of the independence typically associated with charter schools — should even be classified as charter schools.  The authors point out, “on many key items that could affect school performance, there is no difference” between instrumentality schools and traditional public schools. 

The authors also point out that non-instrumentality and independent charter schools receive significantly less funding per student. “Because these schools can do more with less, policymakers should reconsider the merit of this funding disparity,” the authors suggest.


James Wigderson is a Wisconsin-based reporter for Watchdog. He is also an online contributor to MacIver Institute and RightWisconsin, blogs at the Wigderson Library and Pub, and was formerly an award-winning local columnist for the Waukesha Freeman. James is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He lives in Waukesha, WI, with his wife Doreen and their children.