How much do charter schools cost LA Unified? Fact-checking the teachers union's estimate
If a study commissioned by Los Angeles' teachers union is right — that charter schools cost the L.A. Unified School District more than $591 million annually — it's a big deal.
Only extra cash expected in this year's state budget will allow L.A. Unified to balance its books over the next two fiscal years. And by 2018-19, officials have warned creeping pension obligations, health care costs and special education spending could push the district's budget deficit beyond $450 million. Reversing a $591 million loss would make a huge difference to the district's fiscal health.
But while L.A. Unified's enrollment — which roughly determines state funding levels — has declined more than 131,000 students since 2006, charter schools have only grown by about 66,000 students. A declining birthrate and transfers to other districts have also hurt LAUSD; some charter students would've never enrolled in an L.A. Unified-run school. Calculating how much of this loss to attribute to charter schools is tricky.
Last week, the California Charter Schools Association pushed back on United Teachers Los Angeles' estimate, calling the union-backed figure "riddled with inaccuracies." The district's principals union called for reading the report with a wary eye — "trust, but verify," as their newsletter put it.
But the report concluded the district's "financial future … is threatened and charter schools contribute to that threat." Who's right?
To fact-check the report's nearly-$600 million estimate, consider the biggest "cost" it identifies: an estimated $508 million due to lost enrollment.
Here's what makes accounting for the dollars lost so tricky: for example, if one-fifth of a school's student body were to leave, administrators could theoretically slash one-fifth of the school's teachers or one-fifth of the school's supplies budget. But some costs are "fixed": the school can't cut one-fifth of a principal; the costs of heating or lighting the building won't decrease by one-fifth.
The UTLA report's authors — a consulting group called MGT of America — assume 56 percent of the district's costs are fixed. The authors derived that figure from the study materials of the blue ribbon panel L.A. Unified convened to examine the district's finances last year.
That 56 percent figure is the linchpin for much of the UTLA report's overall estimate. The district receives a little more than $8,800 in state funding for the average student. But if 56 percent of the district's costs are fixed, the report figureseach departing student leaves behind fixed costs of $4,957.
The UTLA report's authors multiplied $4,957 by the enrollment in Los Angeles charter schools — around 102,000 students — to arrive at their estimate of $508.2 million in net revenues charter schools cost L.A. Unified.
The estimate is based, as the report notes, on the assumption "all students who How much do charter schools cost LA Unified? Fact-checking the teachers union's estimate | 89.3 KPCC: