Friday, February 19, 2016

WI: Trying To Hide Charter Truth

One of the great lies of the charter-choice movement is that you can run multiple school districts for the price of one.

A school district of, say, 2,000 students can lose 75 students and with them about $750,000 dollars of revenue, and somehow that district of 1,925 students can operate for three quarter of a million dollars less. And how does the district deal with that loss of revenue? By closing a building-- because the more school buildings you operate, the more it costs.

The other common response of a school district to the loss of revenue to charters is to raise local taxes. If charters want to look at where some of their bad press is coming from, they might consider school boards like mine that regularly explain to the public, "Your local elementary is closing and your taxes are going up because we have to give money to the cyber charters."

We can run examples a dozen different ways. What is cheaper in the aggregate-- to house your ten person family in one house, or to house each family member is a separate building? Is it cheaper and more efficient to educate 2,000 students in one district with one set of administrators and special areas teachers, or in five school districts with five sets of administrators and special area teachers?

The inefficient, multiple provider model of charter schools creates greater expense, and the difference can only be made up one of two ways-- either taxpayers must fork over more money for education, or schools must cut services. If you are going to add charter-choice schools to a system, those are the only two options.

States have tried to fudge their way around with various systems of reimbursements to school districts for the students they lose to choice-charter. IOW, when that district loses the $750K, some states help make up the shortfall, either partially or completely. This is solidly in the Taxpayers Must Pay More category, but by funneling the money through the state, taxpayers might be kept unaware that they are paying more tax dollars so that a handful of students can go to a private school at public expense.

Which brings us to the morning  news from Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin is a happy land for school choice fans, with vouchers in play through three separate programs, robust choice advocacy groups, and a governor who tries to expand school choice every time the sun shines. So they have had plenty of opportunity to feel the effects of voucher prorgams sucking the life blood from public schools. Choice advocates have tried combating the bad PR with bad arguments ("it all just kind of evens out over time, somehow"). But now the legislature is trying to patch, or at least hide, the bleeding.

The 2015-2017 let local school districts draw on additional tax dollars, through state aid and through property taxes, to cover the money lost to vouchers, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn't like that plan, feeling that local school districts could "pocket" the difference (schools would probably have squandered those tax dollars on books and programs and education stuff, and we can't have that). Vos's proposal would have dramatically reduced the amount of revenue that districts could call on to plug the gap, actually leaving districts in the hole.

Thursday the legislature passed a break-even compromise. If a school loses $750K in voucher money, they are authorized to gather some combination of additional state aid and local tax increases to raise exactly that $750K.

Which means that having vouchers in a Wisconsin school district raises the cost of educating students in that district by exactly the cost of the vouchers. The vouchers represent not a backpack of student money following students from school to school, but additional taxpayer dollars injected into the education system. The taxpayers will pay extra so that some students can go to a private school.

This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. If you want to stand up in front of the taxpayers and sell the idea that they should pay higher taxes so that some students can go to a private school at public expense, go ahead and try to sell that idea. But if you are going to insist on lying about it and insist, for instance, that people's taxes are NOT going up to finance vouchers-- well, that sort of dishonesty doesn't benefit anybody.

Wisconsin is a fine example of a state that has successfully avoided having an honest discussion about what they are actually doing, which is increasing taxes in order to fund a new entitlement-- the entitlement of a handful of students to attend a private school at pubic expense. Such an entitlement may or may not be a good idea-- that's a separate discussion, but step one in having that discussion is to be honest about what you want to do.


  1. "The inefficient, multiple provider model of charter schools creates greater expense...."

    And of course the business-y, rephormy types know this - that's why mergers and acquisitions are so hot. In the business world it's great fun to acquire new companies and fire all their billing, accounting, HR and other office type people (and then sell off the assets and run the rest of the company into the ground, but that's a different rant). It just shows how disingenuous our rephormy friends like teaching economist are when they pretend that charter schools don't take any more from public schools than parent-paid private schools do.

  2. The fastest growing charter sector is the store front blended learning charters. We have never had a conversation about educating students in isolation. Besides being lucrative, is it a good idea?

    1. I found this article touting the benefits of blended learning:

      Teachers + Computers = Success

      Hmm... It is probably not quite that simple.

    2. I make a large amount of use of the new communication technologies. Multiple short videos, screen shots, computer graded homework, economic experiments, even some digital humanities types of things like word clouds. It is for the most part just a dynamic extension of reading (reading is, after all, a way to access a learning technology as well).