Associated Press

For districts in America's less affluent Northeastern cities, school choice has been a costly experiment.

For decades, education reformers in the U.S. have championed the establishment of charter schools, public schools empowered to operate outside the control and union work rules of traditional public school districts. Charters have generated noisy debates and relatively modest results. The latest report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found statistically significant benefits for some students, reversing findings from a similar study in 2009. But the gains are nothing to write home about.

Still, the schools are gaining traction. More than 2 million American kids attended them in the 2012-13 school year, that’s 4.6 percent of the total student population, according to Moody’s analysts. And their growth has real implications outside of the classroom, too.

Municipal finance analysts at Moody’s recently took a look at the impact of charter school growth on public finances, finding "while the vast majority of traditional public districts are managing through the rise of charter schools without a negative credit impact, a small but growing number face financial stress due to the movement of students to charters."

Moody’s found that charter schools have had particularly painful impacts on aging independent school districts in the Midwest and Northeast, where shrinking tax bases and population outflow make it tough to absorb the loss of government funding that occurs when enrollment shrinks due to students shifting into charter schools. Cutting costs to match declines in funding can be difficult, as decisions to close schools—even if they are half empty—can result in fierce political fights. And decisions to cut academic programs can actually exacerbate funding problems further by spurring still more students to leave for charter schools.

"It’s sort of a negative feedback loop," says Michael D’Arcy, one of the Moody’s analysts who wrote the report.

It's important to note that this loop doesn’t happen wherever there are charter schools. In areas such as the south and the west, where overall population and enrollment numbers are on the upswing, school district finances haven’t been badly dented by charter school growth.

But Moody’s analysts say charter schools have played a definite role in some high-profile instances of municipal stress lately. In July, Moody’s cut its ratings on Philadelphia School District bonds, citing—in part—charter school dynamics. (Philadelphia’s school district has been facing its worst financial crisis in memory.) And Detroit Public Schools—separate from the city government that filed for bankruptcy protections back in June—also saw its ratings axed by Moody’s over the summer. It’s an illustrative case. Moody’s analysts wrote:

A 25% population contraction between 2000 and 2010 led to a drop in enrollment from nearly 160,000 students in 2002 to less than 67,000 in 2012, a 58% decline. These losses include a loss of students to charter schools and have resulted in a steady reduction in state aid. The district received $1.2 billion in state aid in 2002, accounting for 75% of General Fund revenues; by 2012, it received $495 million, or 55.4% of revenues. General Fund revenue overall fell by 44% over the same period. Although district management was proactive in reducing annual expenditures, the decline in revenue outpaced the decline in expenditures, resulting in the district running operating deficits for most of the 

This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    Who’s Really Buying Property in San Francisco?

    A lot of software developers, according to an unprecedented new analysis.

  2. The facade of a casino in Atlantic City.
    Photos

    Photographing the Trumpian Urbanism of Atlantic City

    Brian Rose’s new book uses the deeply troubled New Jersey city as a window into how a developer-turned-president operates.

  3. a rendering of the moon village with a view of Earth
    Design

    Designing the First Full-Time Human Habitat on the Moon

    SOM, in partnership with the ESA and MIT, wants to accommodate research and maybe even tourism on the moon.

  4. A new map of neighborhood change in U.S. metros shows where displacement is the main problem, and where economic decline persists.
    Equity

    From Gentrification to Decline: How Neighborhoods Really Change

    A new report and accompanying map finds extreme gentrification in a few cities, but the dominant trend—particularly in the suburbs—is the concentration of low-income population.

  5. Equity

    The Hidden Horror of Hudson Yards Is How It Was Financed

    Manhattan’s new luxury mega-project was partially bankrolled by an investor visa program called EB-5, which was meant to help poverty-stricken areas.