Collier Public School has more admin­is­trators than the charter school started recently. Courtesy.

More than 350 stu­dents in kinder­garten through eighth grade will begin classes at the newest clas­sical charter school of Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Ini­tiative opening in Fleming Island, Florida.  

St. Johns Clas­sical Academy is the initiative’s 18th school, joining others across the country from Michigan to Texas. As Michelle Knapp, the prin­cipal of St. Johns, pre­pares for the fall, the tight budget of the school charter limits her ability to hire admin­is­trators like an assistant prin­cipal, aca­demic dean, and test coor­di­nator — but it helps to keep deci­sions on instruction local, charter school leaders said.

“As the prin­cipal, I’m the instruc­tional leader,” Knapp said. “I oversee and make sure teachers stay on track. Prin­cipals should be doing that in the tra­di­tional public school, but instead, that’s decided at the dis­trict level.”

Although funded with tax­payer dollars, charter schools typ­i­cally receive less money than tra­di­tional public schools. This dis­crepancy can man­ifest in fewer admin­is­trators, as Knapp’s expe­rience demon­strates. Yet the smaller number employed by charter schools points to a fun­da­mental dif­ference in structure: Tra­di­tional public schools employ people at the dis­trict and state level, and charter schools do not.

“Charter schools are oper­ating on maybe a 5 – 10 percent variance in the number of admin­is­trators employed at charter schools versus tra­di­tional public schools,” said Phillip Kilgore, director of the Barney Charter School Ini­tiative. “This goes to show you that the glut is at the dis­trict and state-level for these admin­is­tration-level posi­tions.”

Charter schools became popular in the late 1980s to provide free edu­cation and greater autonomy to local school admin­is­tration than found at public schools. Instead of receiving cur­riculum and direct over­sight from the state, schools enter into a charter created by a private group, most com­monly parents with a shared vision for edu­cation. If the school does not meet the stan­dards described in its charter, the state can close it.

Today, more than 6,000 charter schools operate in the U.S. with state funding through a pay-per-student basis. As the schools’ enrollment expands, the charter school’s budget increases, but unlike tra­di­tional public schools, the majority of charter schools must pay for their facil­ities.

Kilgore said he believes the value of the admin­is­trator position in tra­di­tional public schools and charter schools reflects a dif­ference in a phi­losophy of edu­cation. For example, physical edu­cation and the fine arts, “important parts of our program,” Kilgore said, are being cut in tra­di­tional public schools instead of the admin­is­trative posi­tions such as the librarian, guidance coun­selor, and full-time food service.

“These schools are not flushed with money,” Kilgore said. “Employing an assistant prin­cipal or teacher aids would be great — that would be a luxury.”

The absence of bureau­cracy above the prin­cipal is the hallmark of the charter school and enables stu­dents to receive a Hillsdale College-inspired edu­cation at no direct cost.

Hillsdale College serves as a source of over­sight for affiliate charter schools, pro­viding advice on staffing, sched­uling, school culture, uni­forms, and policies and pro­ce­dures.

At Mason Clas­sical Academy in Naples, Florida, Prin­cipal David Hull oversees 12 admin­is­trative per­sonnel and 52 teachers for 750 stu­dents in kinder­garten through 11th grade. In the upcoming school year, enrollment will reach 850, and there are more than 500 appli­cants on a waiting list, Hull said. When Mason opened in 2014, Hull waited until the next year to hire an assistant prin­cipal.

“We def­i­nitely have a smaller admin­is­trative staff than tra­di­tional public schools, which requires us to work incredibly long hours and have to wear a lot of dif­ferent hats,” Hull said. “But we love it because this mission to provide a quality edu­cation is so important. We spend our money fru­gally so that it can be spent on the stu­dents.”

Kelly Lichter is on the school board for the Collier County Public School Dis­trict and the founder and pres­ident of Mason Clas­sical Academy.

“Each of the tra­di­tional public schools in Collier County have a large admin­is­trative staff that we don’t have at Mason,” Lichter said.

She ref­er­enced the dis­trict office building for Collier County, calling it “five floors of bureau­cracy,” as evi­dence of admin­is­trative glut.

“Many tra­di­tional public schools are actually lacking admin­is­trators, because they are moved higher up to the dis­trict level,” Lichter said. “A lot of the time it’s a job pro­motion, for example, failing prin­cipals will get pro­moted to admin posi­tions at the dis­trict office where dif­ferent titles are made up.”

From his expe­rience advising new schools, Kilgore said he sees the number of admin­is­trators in tra­di­tional public schools as evi­dence that “charter schools are offering a better edu­cation on a tighter budget.”