Friday, July 20, 2007

Smoke and mirrors from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

NAPCS recently released an issue brief entitled "The Bottom Line: Six Myths About the Financial Impact of Charter Schools". Within this brief, the NAPCS decided to explain how charter schools actually help large urban districts. My reaction follows; excerpts from the report are italicized.

Myth #1: Charter Schools Rob Money from the Public Schools.

NAPCS argues that because CS are public, that the money still stays in public education; it simply just transfers from one organization to another. They then go on to state that they actually bring in more resources to public ed through grants and private fundraising. They state "So instead of robbing funds from public schools, the presence of charter schools actually increases the total spent on public education for a community’s children."


I'll play the semantics game with you. When I move money from my savings account to my checking and then spend that money, I transfer the money-- however, once I use it, I'll never be able to get it back. Also, when a fellow teacher earns their doctorate and moves up on the step scale, it increases how much money is being spent on teacher compensation in my district, but I'll never see a penny of it. So from now on, I'll just say "Charter Schools transfer money from public school districts and make it impossible for them to spend it on their students."

Myth #2: Every Dollar a Charter School Receives is a Dollar’s Worth of Fiscal Pain for the School District.

In this myth, NAPCS argues that districts lose state funding per pupil to CS but gets to keep their local funding. This is true. They also argue that some states have adjusted funding models on a sliding scale over time to compensate public school districts to give them some breathing room to adjust to CS losses. This is also true. They also say that with the "transfer" of funds, districts end up spending more money per pupil then they did before the fund "transfer".

The brief states "Because charter schools typically receive less than full funding,6 districts are
actually left with more money per pupil when a student moves to a charter. Suppose a school district with 5,000 students has per-pupil funding of $10,000 (for a total of $50 million in district funds), and no charter schools. Two charter schools open in the district, serving a total of 500 students. The charter schools receive $9,000 per pupil for total funding of $4.5 million – money that the district would otherwise receive. The district now serves 4,500 students, with total funding of $45.5 million – less than before. But per-pupil funding now totals $10,111 – an extra $111 to spend on each remaining student, thanks to the new charters.

They also argue that charters that take high-cost students (ESL/ LEP, low-income and students with IEP's) help public districts in the long run by assuming those costs.


While per-pupil funding will increase, the overall budget for a district goes down. This results in layoffs of teachers and a reduction in services for current students. No BOE member in any district will say "Thank God for those charters, now we can spend more money on each of our students!". At least I've never heard any say that. The cold reality is simply that high-end programs, the length of the school day, busing (to a degree), sports and extracurricular activities are the line-item victims due to the "transfer" of these funds. In my state, many charters do not accept IEP students; they are left to the public schools because most of the charters are not willing to educate them because they do not have the resources or the ability (read: qualified teachers). Please ask any of my colleagues who have been laid off since the charter trainwreck has begun in my state if they are thankful that our district can now spend more on each student.
Myth #3: Districts Cannot Reduce Expenses.

NAPCS argues that public districts are too slow to reduce expenses and adapt their budget and that the scale of large public districts restrict their ability to reduce their costs in a truly responsive way.


Surprisingly, I agree with some of this. Many districts are slow in their response to the "transfer" of students and funds to CS. One of those reasons is that the BOE makes the ultimate decisions on school closures; they in turn are responsible to the community of voters that elected them. Should they act too quickly or act without taking into account community views and sentiment, they will loose their seat on the BOE in the next election.

In contrast, CS board members are not voted in, they are appointed. They do not have to deal with property owners within their district or voters since they do not get local funding; indeed, their baseline funding is a simple multiplication formula, Number of students (N) * State Funding (S) = Budget (B). School districts in my state cannot operate in the red; therefore they must adjust their budgets in response to the "transfer" that is being caused by CS. They don't do it they way they always should; but you're never going to make everyone happy all the time.

Myth #4: Charter Schools Cause Teachers to be Fired.

NAPCS argues that jobs are created for teachers when charters open "often producing a
net gain in teaching opportunities in the community
"; they also add that public districts are already overstaffed and that CS offer the option for districts to lessen their hiring needs through attrition, saving them the $8,000 cost of hiring and training each new teacher.


I agree that CS do not cause teachers to be fired; they cause them to be laid off. While the opening of charters does add to the overall number of teaching jobs in a community, I cannot agree that it increases the number of teaching jobs availible. Indeed, so-called "Virtual" charter schools give those CS teachers larger student loads than traditional brick and mortar schools; effectively reducing the number of teachers needed for those institutions. If charter schools receive less funding per student than do their local district competitors, how could they possibly create a net gain in teaching positions, even with the substandard wages that are paid to those teachers?

Public districts may be overstaffed-- I think this is a case by case basis, and I have neither facts nor figures to support this position. I will say that an inventive program of teacher buyouts (offering a bonus for retirement) can alleviate some of the financial hardships created by the "transfer" of monies to CS, reducing the number of teachers at the highest salary steps and allowing the district to hold on to as many teachers as possible without adversely affecting the students who continue to attend the district.

Myth #5: Without Charters, Districts Would Be Much More Stable.

The report states that "high student mobility rates swamp any impact of charter-driven mobility." They cite a study in the Detroit Public Schools that of 9,500 students that left the district, only 37% left for charters; the rest left for other reasons. Charter school mobility, they posit, is not the major cause for mobility instablity in public districts, especially large urban ones.


I teach in a district that has high mobility; many students attend multiple schools at the same level during their stay in our district. Our district has formulated a response to intra-district student mobility, and it has had a positive response. We can't do anything for students that leave our district to go to charters; even if they are a public school. Without Charter Schools, Districts would be MORE stable.

Myth #6: The Whole Story of Charter Impact is Found in the District’s Budget.

Debates about charter schools’ fiscal impact almost always center on their effect on the budget of local school districts. While this is one part of the picture, it makes sense to back up a step and ask: what is the long-term fiscal impact of charter schools on a community as a whole? From the perspective of mayors, citizens, and others with a community-wide view, this question is the most important one.

It is an important question; I don't think that the answer can be obtained yet.

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