FILE - Downtown Indianapolis

Downtown Indianapolis

(The Center Square) – A new report finds that Indianapolis charter schools are doing more with less, and giving the state “more bang for its buck.”

The report, by researchers from the University of Arkansas and the Reason Foundation, looked at charter schools in seven cities, including Indianapolis.

It looked specifically at how much the charter schools received in state funds versus the traditional public schools, and calculated “cost effectiveness” by measuring how much student test scores on the NAEP tests increased for every $1,000 spent per pupil.

As a whole, charter schools in the seven cities that were studied got a third less funding than the traditional public schools and got the same or better results.

In Indianapolis, the difference was even more stark.

Traditional public schools in the city got an average of $16,230 in annual funding per student in 2017-2018, while charter schools got $9,299 per student.

But even with 43% less funding, Indianapolis charter school students had, on average, higher scores on the NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the “The Nation’s Report Card” as it is administered to students in every state.

The NAEP covers reading, math and science. The tests are administered every two years to a sampling of students in grades 4 and 8 in every state and every four years to a sampling of students in grade 12.

The report released this week, called “Making it Count: The Productivity of Public Charter Schools in Seven Cities,” shows that the average adjusted NAEP reading score for students in regular public schools in Indianapolis in 2019 was 262.91, whereas the average adjusted NAEP score for students in charter schools was 267.85.

This means that the “reading cost-effective advantage” for public charter schools is 78% – the charter schools were 78% more cost-effective than traditional Indianapolis public schools at reading.

For math, the numbers were similar. Students in traditional public schools in Indianapolis earned an average NAEP score of 279.57, compared to charter school students who got an average score of 286.03.

Taking into account the difference in public money the schools received, Indianapolis charter schools were 79% more cost-effective in math, according to the researchers’ calculations.

Indiana has a total of 113 charter schools, with about half of them – 65 – in Indianapolis.

Among the Indianapolis charter schools are a KIPP school, an alternative high school run by Goodwill Industries, a Spanish dual-language immersion school, a school for recovering drug addicts, two schools that are geared towards serving children with disabilities (one for autism and one for severe disabilities) and two classical high schools. A classical elementary school is due to open in the fall.

The main reason for the difference in per-pupil funding between traditional public schools and charter schools is charter schools do not get a share of local property tax revenue, which school corporations in the state usually use to pay off debt on a school building, or to build a new school, expand a school and also to fund bus transportation.

The local revenue amounts to an average of about $3,200 per student per year in Indiana, says Marcie Brown Carter of the Indiana Charter School Network.

The University of Arkansas/Reason Foundation report did not look at why charter schools performed better with less – whether it was a better curriculum, better teaching methods, better teacher training, better leadership or something else.

It also didn’t look at what schools spend their money on, and whether teachers in traditional public schools are paid more.

Brown Carter says teacher pay in charter schools in Indianapolis really varies, but that Indianapolis Public Schools likely pays its teachers more, on average, given that it passed a referendum in 2018 to give teachers raises. Those raises went into effect in 2020 and amounted to an additional $2,600-$9,400 per teacher.

But she said she noticed during the COVID-19 pandemic that what really mattered for charter schools was their ability to be flexible.

"There really is something to the idea around charter schools having autonomy and the ability to be very nimble when they see a need to shift," she said.

Charter schools were able to "turn on a dime in many cases,” she said, and respond to what families wanted, whereas school corporations are at a disadvantage because they are so much larger.

The University of Arkansas/Reason Foundation study looked at efficiency, but also tried to calculate the overall “return-on-investment” provided by charters.

The researchers calculated return-on-investment by estimating the future lifetime earnings of students who had higher NAEP scores, saying that charter schools in their sample in the seven cities would produce $487,177 more in lifetime earnings per student than the traditional public schools.

In the calculation for Indianapolis, the researchers found that the return-on-investment for charter schools was twice as high as that for traditional public schools.

Their findings, the researchers say, should “call greater attention” to the “funding inequities” between traditional public schools and charter schools.

“If the Biden Administration reinforces district schools at the expense of public charter schools, the funding disparities between the public school sectors will only increase beyond the current level of charters receiving an average of one-third less in revenue than TPS,” they write. “Furthermore, this funding discrepancy undermines the general belief that all students should be given the opportunity to succeed through well-funded education institutions.”