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New York is closing a charter school to ‘save’ money. But at what cost to students?


• Sam Duell


Last month, the New York State Board of Regents voted to not renew their contract with Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School (BuffSci). The Regents’ own staff recommended a five-year renewal for the charter school and an expansion of 144 students over the next two years. But the Regents disregarded their staff. One regent is quoted as saying, “it would be irresponsible of us to approve and obligate these districts … to spend this kind of money that’s needed to support the charter schools as well as the public schools.”

They believe the cost to the district is just too great. But what is the true cost—not just to the district, but to the students?

Annual Cost to Buffalo Public Schools

Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope math to find the potential cost of serving those 144 students.

The New York State Department of Education reported that in Buffalo Public Schools the district spent $11,922 per student in general education and $23,871 per student in special education last year. Assume for a moment that revenues and expenditures at the district are the same. (They aren’t, but this is back-of-the-envelope math so bear with me). Let’s also assume the percent of students in special education is consistent at BuffSci, and about 12% of students will receive special education services.

So, if we multiply the number of students in general education and the number of students in special education by their per-pupil amounts, we can estimate the amount of money that should follow those third and fourth graders next year.


(144 students * $11,922 per student * .88 general education population)

+

(144 students * $23,871 per student * .12 special education population)

=

$1,923,246.72


In other words, it would likely cost the district about $2 million dollars next year if they “lost” 144 more students to BuffSci.

That’s a lot of money, but it’s not the whole picture. The Regents didn’t ask the most important question.

Lifetime Cost to BuffSci Students

If the Regents close BuffSci, what is the cost to students? Let’s do some more back-of-the-envelope math. We know that degree attainment correlates with lifetime earnings. The higher your degree, the more likely you are to earn a greater income. (For more on that, check out this paper from the National Institutes of Health.) Since we can assign lifetime earnings estimates by level of education and since we can project how many of the BuffSci students would graduate, we can compare potential lifetime earnings of BuffSci students and BuffSci former students.

We also know there is a 29 percentage-point difference in graduation rates at BuffSci and in Buffalo Public Schools, 94% and 65% respectively. If BuffSci were closed—which is what the Regents voted to do—and if all their students move to Buffalo Public Schools, some of these transferring students who might have graduated at BuffSci might not graduate at all. And that has a huge impact on lifetime earnings.

Let’s assume the aforementioned statistics  indicate how many of the 701 BuffSci students will earn high school diplomas should their school close. For the sake of simplifying the equation, we will also assume the post-secondary outcomes for BuffSci and Buffalo Public Schools are the same – the same percentage of high school graduates will attend and graduate from college.  According to local Buffalo data, about 9% of those high school graduates will earn associates degrees, about 24% will earn bachelors’ degrees and about 11% will hold graduate degrees.


Potential Outcomes for the 701 BuffSci Students if the School Closes
Degree Attainment O = Number of BuffSci Students if the school stayed Open C = Number of BuffSci Closed and the students went to Buffalo Public Schools Cost = O – C
Less than HS 42 245 + 203 more HS dropouts
HS Diploma 367 254 -113
Associates Degree 59 41 -18
Bachelor’s Degree 161 111 -50 fewer college graduates
Graduate Degree 72 50 -22
Lifetime Earnings $1,051,053,817.71 $908,153,163.44 -$142,900,652.27 less income

Sources: New York State Education Department, National Institutes of Health, Open Data Network


With some back-of-the-envelope math, we can see the tradeoff clearly.

By closing Buffalo Science Academy Charter School, the Regents attempted to retain nearly $2 million for the district.

At the same time, by closing the school, the Regents have potentially cost students over $142 million in lifetime earnings.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

These calculations measure the potential cost of losing an opportunity, or what economists call opportunity cost. Again, this is back-of-the-envelope math. We are making several assumptions on what students choose to do after they graduate from high school, but the basic assumption is sound. BuffSci students graduate from high school at much higher rates than Buffalo Public Schools. That matters.

We are entering an economy that will be increasingly challenging for all school types. We simply can’t afford to ignore the costs to students when policymakers, like the New York State Board of Regents, remove access to existing or future opportunities.


About the author


Sam Duell

sam@excelined.org

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.