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Many Happy Returns

• Sam Duell

This week, the University of Arkansas published an exciting new study called, “A Good Investment: The updated productivity of public charter schools in eight U.S. cities.”

This new research suggests that public education is in fact, a great investment. Even better, the news for these eight cities with large numbers of charter schools is stellar. The University of Arkansas report claims that for every dollar invested in a charter school student, the public can expect to see an average return of $6.37 in lifetime earnings. Traditional public schools in these eight cities studied have great returns too, averaging returns of $4.41.

Three main takeaways of this study include:

  • States and cities provide a lot less money to charter schools. For example, charter schools in Atlanta are allocated about half the funds provided to traditional public schools.
  • Charter school students score about the same or better on standardized tests when compared to students in traditional public schools.
  • Education is a great long-term investment. Lifetime earnings for students attending charter schools are four- to six-times the amount of money invested in their education. On average, they’ll reap $6.37 for every dollar in charter schools and $4.41 for every dollar in traditional public schools.

I think this report is best understood in three parts:

  1. measuring the cost or level of investment in charter and traditional schools,
  2. measuring the relative performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and
  3. calculating projections for lifetime earnings.


The report demonstrates that the amount of money invested in charter schools is substantially less than the amount of money invested in traditional public schools.

City Traditional Public School Revenue Per Student Chartered Public School Revenue Per Student


Charter–TPS = Difference

Atlanta $18,276 $9,382 ($8,894)
Indianapolis $15,380 $9,769 ($5,611)
San Antonio $14,147 $10,934 ($3,213)
Denver $15,230 $12,248 ($2,982)
Washington, D.C. $35,494 $25,236 ($10,258)
New York City $28,141 $22,701 ($5,440)
Boston $23,288 $20,423 ($2,865)
Houston $11,557 $11,040 ($517)


The report relies on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as NAEP. It takes scores from 2017 in the subjects of 8th Grade Reading and 8th Grade Math.

City Reading Math


Charter–TPS = Difference

  TPS Charter TPS Charter Reading Math 
Atlanta 261.26 262.34 274.67 275.30 1.08 0.63
Indianapolis 262.54 265.23 278.43 280.7 2.69 2.27
San Antonio 260.03 261.15 280.19 279.14 1.12 (1.05)
Denver 250.21 251.47 267.49 270.18 1.26 2.69
Washington, D.C. 246.86 250.25 265.85 270.54 3.39 4.69
New York City 254.01 255.16 275.04 280.11 1.15 5.07
Boston 257.24 265.50 279.61 290.95 8.26 11.34
Houston 257.09 257.72 280.64 281.45 0.63 0.81

Lifetime Earnings

This part of the study is fascinating because the researchers assume that if students learn less, they will earn less. Stated differently, if students learn more, then they will earn more. That seems logical. If their assumptions are correct, then the researchers can justifiably compare projected future earnings based on academic performance.

The researchers then calculate return on investment by comparing projected lifetime earnings to the amount of revenue provided for a student’s education.

In all of the eight cities studied, the return on investment for charter schools is higher than for traditional public schools. At the same time, this study finds that the return on investment for all public education is somewhere between 400 and 700 percent. That’s good for our students, good for our cities and good for the country! This April as we close out tax season, I think we can emphatically say: Many Happy Returns!

About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.