Private Charter Schools Provide a Lesson in Growth

by Erik Knoder

August 1, 2019

Employment in private charter schools grew at an astounding 24 percent per year on average from 2000 through 2017. Despite the phenomenal growth rate, private charter schools still employed fewer than 2,000 people in 2017 on an annual average basis.
Before discussing private charter schools in more detail an explanation of what they are may be needed. Educators in Oregon probably consider the term “private charter school” to be an oxymoron; charter schools in Oregon are all public in the sense that they receive public funding through public school districts, and they are open to essentially any qualifying student at no cost. But charter schools do vary on how they were created and how they are managed. Most charter schools are required to first be nonprofit organizations and have applied to qualify as tax exempt by the Internal Revenue Service. If the school originally filed for an employer identification number as a private entity, then the Oregon Employment Department classifies them as a private-sector enterprise. If they filed as a public entity they are classified by the Employment Department as public sector. The Oregon Department of Education lists 135 charter schools in Oregon; the Employment Department classifies about 80 of them as private.

The Oregon State Legislature passed the state’s charter school law in 1999. The intent of the legislation was that new types of schools, called public charter schools, be created as a legitimate avenue for parents, educators and community members to take responsible risks to create new, innovative and more flexible ways of educating children within the public school system.” By 2015, about 5.4 percent of public school enrollment was in charter schools in the state. Today there is quite a variety of charter schools with many offering specialized curricula such as cooking or arts, and some are virtual schools offering online instruction, often to students who are homeschooled. What distinguishes charter schools from traditional public schools is their operational independence and their exemption from certain legal requirements that traditional schools face.

Industry Trends

Since private charter schools were first authorized, their employment has grown rapidly, as already noted, and so have their numbers. In 2000, there were six private charter schools that employed 47 people on an annual average basis. The number of schools tripled in three years, and employment increased to nearly four times as much. By 2017, (the most recent full year of data) there were 80 private charter schools, an average growth rate of 16 percent per year, and these schools provided 1,943 jobs on an annual average basis.

Employment in schools often dips during the summer, so annual average employment is usually lower than typical employment during the school year. Average employment in July is usually about 40 percent lower than in May. This seasonal decline gives the employment chart above a saw-toothed appearance, and it also makes education one of the most seasonal of all industries. (See Serving Up Summer Jobs for a discussion of seasonal industries.) Education’s seasonality is an oddity though in that most seasonal industries have low employment in winter. The fact that education’s break is in the summer makes it easier for education workers to find temporary work if they want it.

And many private charter school employees may want summer jobs because the annual average wage at these schools was only $35,048 in 2017. That was higher than the average wage for purely private-sector elementary and secondary schools ($33,306), but it was lower than traditional public schools ($44,403). The average wage for all payroll jobs in Oregon was $51,117. On the plus side, wages at private charter schools have increased by 32 percent from 2000 through 2017 after adjusting for inflation. That’s faster than wages for all payroll jobs in Oregon, which increased by only 12 percent after inflation during the same time period. The total payroll of all private charter schools was a little more than $68 million in 2017.

Education Occupations

The most common occupations in elementary and secondary education are teacher assistants, teachers, and substitute teachers. Occupations are determined by overall industry, which is elementary and secondary (K-12) education, not by whether the school is public, private, charter, or alternative education, so the occupations described in this section are for all such schools, not just private charter schools.
Although private charter schools are growing rapidly, most school employees still work in traditional public and private sector schools. Total employment in all these occupations was about 80,000 in 2017, and this is expected to increase about 7 percent to nearly 86,000 in 2027. Given their history it is probably that charter school employment will continue to grow faster than the overall industry, though it will almost certainly slow at some point in the not too distant future.

Alert readers will notice that although total occupational employment is expected to increase by about 6,000 over the next 10 years, we are forecasting that there will be nearly 83,000 job openings. How is that possible? The answer is that most job openings are due to replacing workers who retire or leave the field to begin a new occupation. This is true for most industries.

Not surprisingly, teachers are the most common occupation in education. The analysis breaks out several different types of teachers, such as elementary and secondary, but teachers of all types combined accounted for 41,104 jobs (51%) out of the 80,181 total in 2017. Teacher assistants is also a large occupation in education, and there are other education occupations such as librarians and instructional coordinators that are less common.

Other occupations in the education industry aren’t unique to education. Schools also employ many secretaries, janitors, cooks, food preparation workers, and clerks. Other occupations found in schools may be more surprising: Oregon schools employ about 650 translators and interpreters, 440 speech or language pathologists, and 190 registered nurses. And, as the next school year begins, we will remember that schools employ about 400 bus drivers and 350 crossing guards.

Muddy Creek Charter School

Muddy Creek Charter School opened in September 2006, two years after the Corvallis School District closed a traditional school in the same rural location. Parents and others in the rural area south of Corvallis wanted to keep a community school and starting a Kindergarten to fifth grade charter school was a good avenue to achieving that goal. The school opened with 64 students and about seven paid staff: three full-time teachers, two part-time teachers for physical education and art, and two classified staff. Jennine Livengood, one of the founding parents, noted that the early school relied on lots and lots of volunteers – for playground duty, the kitchen, and maintenance.

This coming year Muddy Creek will have about 21 staff that will include teacher aides and custodians as well as teachers and administrative staff. Charter schools are allowed more flexibility in hiring than traditional public schools. Their employees are often not unionized and they can hire teachers who are licensed to teach in only charter schools. These charter school licensing requirements are less demanding than those required for teaching in traditional public schools. Although using charter-only licenses is an option, Muddy Creek executive director, Bryan Traylor, stated that Muddy Creek does require traditional licenses for its full-time classroom teachers. The school will accept the alternative charter school license for part-time teachers of art, music and similar subjects due to the difficulty of recruiting for these positions.

Charter schools in 2019 face the same tight labor market as other employers. And they have an additional constraint – charter schools typically receive less funding than traditional schools, and consequently offer lower wages. Traylor noted that, “Muddy Creek spending per pupil is about 60 percent as much as our sponsoring district (Corvallis School District 509J). That makes it tougher to attract a large applicant pool of qualified people.” So why would someone teach at a charter school? Traylor stated that his school offers more academic freedom and independence to teachers for implementing a dynamic curriculum. The school also has smaller class sizes and more of a small community or even family social dynamic for all staff.

Muddy Creek does have staff turnover, and Traylor thought it was probably a little higher among early-career staff who might face more financial burdens such as raising families, paying student loans, and buying homes. “We can’t offer signing or performance bonuses,” Traylor said. “We rely on our reputation and our culture to attract and retain staff.” The school does pay for professional development for staff, but Traylor was sure that the school’s supportive and close-knit culture was the main attraction to its long-time staff.

Muddy Creek’s growth mirrors that of charter schools across Oregon. It has roughly doubled in size since 2008, and it expects about 124 students in the coming year. There have been some changes, such as offering bus transportation to more distant students, and the school is slightly less a parent-driven project. Muddy Creek has grown and changed, but Traylor thinks that the school has strong foundations for motivating joyful and engaged students and employees now and in the future.

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