Monday, March 10, 2008

Charter Schools: Good or Bad? - Part II

The Columbus Dispatch today published an editorial arguing that charter schools do not diminish the funding to the public schools, as many public school advocates will claim.

I wrote a blog post about this back in Nov 2007, in response to a Northwest News article in which HCSD officials seemed to be saying that charter schools bring financial harm to public schools. I don't think they do.

This Dispatch editorial describes that when a kid goes to a charter school, the only funding that gets diverted is the State Aid components. Readers of this blog know that the State Aid provides less than one-third of the funding per pupil, and that percentage has been going down. The home school district gets to keep the other two-thirds without bearing the cost of educating that kid.

Yes, I know we have to acknowledge that some costs are fixed and some costs are variable, a point I also discuss in an earlier post. The argument is that the loss of one kid from the HCSD does not really reduce costs by the full per-pupil-spending (PPS) amount - about $10,000 - but rather most of those costs remain.

But you have to ride that argument both ways: the addition of a kid has no incremental cost either. You can't add 1/20th of a teacher or 1/1800th of a school building just because one additional kid shows up. There's not even that much change in the cost to heat/cool the building or provide water.

There are times to do what is called a marginal analysis (the actual cost of adding just one more kid), and times when the fully loaded (the total cost averaged over all kids) calculation makes sense. You really have to do both to get the true picture.

The truth is that charter schools can ease the growth pressure on the HCSD. There will be no economic benefit realized this week, but the more we have kids who go to charter schools, the longer it might be before we have to build yet another building.

So who is opposed?

The folks who are employed by the public school system mostly. Dick Hammond lost his endorsement by the Hilliard teachers' union, and perhaps consequently his school board seat, because he sits on the Board of a charter school. Charter school employees are not typically unionized, and are paid much less than the public school employees. That's one of the main reasons charter schools can run on a third of the funding of public schools.

Some will say that's because the charter schools provide an inferior education, and lack the facilities of a full-blown public school system. And I think some of them do. Whenever the government creates a new money spigot, there are always unscrupulous folks standing by with a scheme to get some of it. There are accusations that White Hat Management is not on the up-and-up. They might be true.

But there are plenty of other charter schools which are helping kids that were failing in the public schools.

If I could have it my way, we would have only charter schools. Any kid could attend any accredited school, regardless of which neighborhood the kid lived in, and the voucher would serve as 100% of the tuition. Professor Milton Friedman made an elegant and compelling argument for voucher systems, but I doubt that any politician has the bravery to suggest such an approach, given the political power of the education labor unions that represent the employees of the public school districts.

This is not a criticism of our local school system. In spite of the tension surrounding the levy vote, funding challenges, and the negotiation with the teacher's union, we get a lot of things right in our district. There is much to improve - starting with the relationship between the school leadership and the public - but our school district is not broken.

Yet it doesn't serve every single kid well. For those kids who fall through the cracks, a charter school can literally be a lifesaver.

If it's really about the kids, and not paychecks, then the charter school option should be something we're all in favor of.

1 comment:

  1. Paul,

    Excellent article.

    I have several friends from the UK and they have shared how much better the public schools are over there since they went to this kind of model. I don't know if it is formally a "charter" model, but basically every family can choose a school to go to, and if some schools can't get enough students, they close. I think this would be GREAT for our system, but unfortunately the NEA and teacher's unions have too many lobbyists. Sad thing is, this type of system would benefit the good teachers and would only hurt the dead-wood, which unfortunately exists at Hilliard as well (though well protected by the efficient and always "about the kids" teacher's union).