Thursday, November 1, 2018
The Fundamental Fallacy of Charter Schools
Before we talk about the quality of education or the importance of freed, when it comes to charter schools, there's a much more fundamental fallacy that we must address first, a fallacy that addresses a premise of virtually every charter program launched in this country.
You cannot run multiple school districts for the same amount of money you used to spend to operate just one.
This really should not come as a surprise to anyone. When was the last time you heard of a business of any sort saying, "The money is getting tight, and we need to tighten our belts. So let's open up some new facilities."
Opening up charter schools can only drive up the total cost of educating students within a system, for several reasons.
Let's imagine a school district that serves 1,000 students. Five charters open up in the district, so that now the public system serves 500 students, and each of the charters enrolls 100. What exactly makes this more expensive?
Duplication of personnel. Let's assume that the six districts employ the same number of teachers that the old single district did. They probably don't, because students don't leave in neat class-sized numbers, so if five out of twenty-five fifth graders leave the public school, it can't cut a fifth grade teaching position, but the charter will still have to hire one for those five new students. But let's assume that the numbers work perfectly, and the exact same number of teachers is employed. Each of the six systems will still need its own superintendent (or CEOs or whatever you want to call your highest muckity-muck), building principals, psychologist, business manager, cafeteria manager-- the list can be as long as you like, down to dean of student activities and administrative assistants all around. The six districts will employ more personnel than one did-- and many of the "extra" hires will be the priciest personnel.
Excess capacity. All six schools will operate without knowing year to year what their enrollment will be. Each of the charters will have an optimum number it needs to survive, and it will want to have more seats than that to fill so that it can function at more-than-subsistence level. The public school will have to be prepared to take any and all returnees; if all five hundred charter students decide to come back to public school tomorrow, the public school has to take them in. Ditto if one or more of the charters closes mid-year. So it won't just be a matter of redistributing the original 1,000 seats-- each school will need to maintain extra capacity, which means the total system will maintain far more than 1,000 seats.
Physical plant. Renting or building a school is pricey, and every one of those five charters needs a place to be. Charter advocates in many states have been working on this one with some success, giving charters the right to siphon off some public tax dollars for charter building use. That almost acknowledges the truth-- that you can't add five new buildings to a school system at zero cost to that system.
New costs. Charter schools often spend truckloads of money on advertising and marketing. In fact, public schools are sometimes driven to start advertising in order to compete. Nowhere in the old public system finances was there a budget category for advertising. It's a whole new cost to the system.
Some charter advocates will argue that none of this matters because we're talking free market competition. You don't make this argument against Burger King just because they want to build next door to McDonalds. But fast food restaurants draw money from thousands of different customers, which offsets the amount of total money the "food industry" is spending. Schools draw money from one source-- the taxpayers. If the schools in the area start spending more money, there's only one source with which to offset the extra costs.
Some of the increased costs are hidden. The charters may refuse to provide transportation, and so that extra cost is absorbed by the parents. Some charters require parental participation in "volunteer" work at the school. Some draw contributions from generous charter backers; heck sometimes even the feds like to chip in a bit. Some charters try to even things out by paying their staff peanuts. Stale, tiny peanuts. Sometimes the extra cost becomes the fatal blow to a charter school that was run by someone who just didn't understand the funding side of education. But most often the extra cost is absorbed by the public school in the form of slashed programs, cut faculty, and loss of resources for students.
None of this makes a charter-choice system necessarily evil or wrong, but it does make most of them fundamentally dishonest. That may be because nobody wants to go to the taxpayers and say, "We have a great idea for a way to provide robust choice and options for our students, but in order to do it, we're going to have to raise your property taxes a whole bunch." That would be an honest approach, but probably not a successful one. So the fundamental fallacy remains.
Originally posted at Forbes