Saturday, April 16, 2011

Vaunted KIPP Charters alleged to Spend $18K per Student

I've been following a raging battle over whether the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools are effectively attacking the achievement gap. There are about 91 KIPP charter schools (click here) in the United States. They tend to be middle schools serving fifth through eighth graders. They are controversial, because they tend to be non-union schools, although a number have been recently unionized. They make significant demands on teachers, requiring them to work longer hours. They expect students to sign contracts promising to meet high attendance and behavior standards. They provide longer school days for their students and have been held up as making significant inroads on the achievement gap.

A new report, called the Miron study, now asserts that KIPP charters spend $18 thousand dollars per students in efforts to close the achievement gap. (Click Here). KIPP has been held up as an example by pundits, national politicians, and critics of public schools, as an example of what school reform should look like. This has led public school interests to say: Instead of reforming public education by shrinking our budgets, give us $18,000 per student and we'll look pretty good too!

The use of KIPP as a model for what public schools should be doing has led to a series of studies and counter studies, interpretations and counter interpretations. One side adamantly claims that "the research" on these schools proves that KIPP students outperform equivalent students of similar backgrounds in public schools. The centerpiece of the KIPP advocates is the Mathematica study. (Click here) The KIPP skeptics adamantly claims that "the research" establishes that KIPP schools operate under markedly different conditions and that their success arises from selectivity, receive substantially greater funding. They claim that KIPP elevates its results artificially by ignoring the departure of students who aren't capable of fulfilling KIPP expectations. The centerpiece of this view is found in the recent Miron study. (Click Here).

The skeptics have long claimed that KIPP schools have an unfair advantage, because they are more selective than regular public schools. When schools enroll students by choice, the theory goes, they are likely to have better outcomes than schools who take all students. The Kipp supporters argue, on the contrary, the demographics of KIPP students, in terms of race and poverty, are comparable to the schools with which they are compared. That claim is hotly disputed by KIPP advocates.

The KIPP skeptics point out that KIPP schools take significantly fewer ELL (that is non-English speaking) enrollees, and that they also take significantly fewer special education students. KIPP proponents concede that this claim is true. Lower ELL and special education populations would negate statistical comparisons of student results, at least without significant adjustment. This suggests that KIPP schools have a significant cost advantage, (in addition to their receipt of greater revenues per student) because public schools must transfer scarce dollars out of regular education to fund costly special education programs that are not fully funded by the state and federal government.

This is a common flaw in criticisms of public school finance. Critics often divide the total cost of public education by the number of students for public schools and then compare that same ratio to private schools and charter. What they ignore is that the publics are mandated to spend huge sums on special education, but are not reimbursed for those extra costs. Calculating the average cost of educating all students (including non-English speaking students and special education students) for publics and comparing that cost to the cost of educating only English speaking non-disabled students for privates and charters is silly and misleading. That's like comparing the average cost of compact cars and SUV's for Ford to the average cost of compact cars for GM and claiming that Ford spends way more money to produce cars.

The critics also claim that KIPP schools experience higher rates of attrition than comparison schools. They argue that the drop out students represent potential KIPP failures, and so when we look at KIPP results, we are not counting students for whom KIPP fails.

Proponents of KIPP schools rely heavily on a research report which contends that KIPP students make greater than average progress. Critics of KIPP schools claim that this is a statistical artifact of the factors mentioned above. They argue too, as stated above that KIPP schools are beneficiaries of large foundation support, and that as a result, they function with about 50% greater funds than the comparison schools. According to the Miron study, KIPP schools spend about $18,000 per student, where as comparison schools spend only about $12,000 per student per year.
The findings in our report show that students with disabilities and students classified as English language learners are greatly underrepresented. The relative absence of students with disabilities and English language learners results in more homogeneous classrooms. Secondly, in both traditional public schools and KIPP schools, the additional costs for these students—especially students with moderate or severe disabilities—is typically not fully funded, and therefore some of the costs for regular education is devoted to students requiring additional remediation. Because traditional public schools have a higher proportion of students with disabilities, and a higher concentration of students with severe and moderate disabilities, the burden of having to subsidize their education falls more heavily on them.
I report these questions about KIPP despite the fact that I have long admired many of the good things that KIPP schools do. What does the research on KIPP prove? One thing that it seems to prove, beyond any doubt, is that the supporters of KIPP's approach are being disingenuous when they fail to recognize that KIPP schools are functioning on half again as much money per student as comparable traditional public schools. Ironically, many of the proponents use special schools like KIPP to justify reducing funding for regular public schools, when actually, the KIPP experience would seem to support the strong inference that the models which reformers tout, are actually way more expensive. If KIPP is successful, then the success justifies greater, not less, expenditures are necessary to close the achievement gap.

Past Posts on Achievement Gap
Attacking the Achievement Gap Means Helping Students Rise Above their Parents Education
Making Stuff up About the Achievement Gap
Get Ready for College
School Choice will not close the achievement gap
Some students cost more to educate (1)
Some students Cost more to educate(2)


  1. Mr. Von Korff,
    I greatly appreciate the balance you've shown in this article. As a special education teacher in Minneapolis to students who are among our state's most vulnerable, I'm extremely concerned about the degree to which various exemplary programs are touted as the answer to the achievement gap without us recognizing the cost at which they operate. Certainly, no one bemoans the successes they have, however, a strategy that pits programs like KIPP against community public schools fails to recognize that this "marketing strategy" may well end up destroying the local public schools altogether. Thank you for raising the bar and calling people to be more fully educated on something that is as important as this.

    Jim Barnhill
    Special Education Teacher, Minneapolis
    Recording Secretary,
    Minneapolis Federation of Teachers

  2. Thanks so much for your kind comments. I believe that the solution to improving public education is, well, to improve public education. Instead of spending our precious resources on creating safety valves where people can abandon the system if it is not working, we need to fix the system.

    We need to fix the system by engaging in deep searching reviews of every aspect of our public system and engaging in continuous progress. Boards of education need to constantly review whether they are being effective. School central office administrations need to constantly review whether they are being effective. School administrators and their staff, the same. We need to inculcate a culture of continuous improvement from top to bottom. That culture of continuous improvement needs to begin with the concept that continuous improvement is a collaborative venture in which we all work together to build stronger institutions, not abandon them.


comments welcome