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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.”