Charter schools “wreaking havoc on private education?” Not exactly.

The Cato Institute released a report from economist Richard Buddin today showing that “charter schools took approximately 190,000 students from private schools between 2000 and 2008,” a development that Cato scholar Adam Schaeffer said is “wreaking havoc on private education” while only marginally improving public schools. Overall, Buddin found that 8 percent of charter-elementary students and 11 percent of middle and high school students came from private schools. The numbers were worse for private schools in the nation’s major urban areas, where 32 percent of the elementary-charter enrollment was drawn from the private sector.

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Transfers from private to charter schools don't mean we're falling into a "charter-only reform trap."
Photo by Rennett Stowe.

It is true that charter schools have drained students from urban Catholic schools in particular (though my colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee has shown how enrollments declined at Catholic schools long before the first charters appeared). And Schaeffer and Buddin are right to point out the economic impact to the taxpayer when more private-school students leave for public schools—an impact they put at $1.8 million billion annually from 2000 to 2008.

But it’s important to keep in mind that publicly funded private-school options (vouchers and tax-credit scholarships) today enroll 210,000 students nationwide, a number that has increased by 25 percent over the last five years and which exceeds the number that private schools bled to charters in the timeframe Buddin reviewed. Of course, the migration of students from private schools to charters schools has surely swelled since 2008, but it’s hard to accept that we’re falling into a “charter-only reform trap,” as Schaeffer suggested. Not all of those 210,000 voucher and tax-credit students came from public schools, but a lot of them did (many of them were required by law to do so) and they saved state taxpayers a lot of money.

For his part, Schaeffer would like states to make more tax-credit scholarships available because they a.) lighten the burden on families who choose a private education for their children, b.) allow more freedom for the taxpayer, and c.) end up saving state governments money. These are all good reasons for a good policy, but they alone can’t replenish the losses private education has seen over the last dozen years. And they should not detract from the gains the charter sector has made.

Updated: 8/29/12

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