The Center for Reinventing Public Education is an advocacy group intent on pushing corporate reformy agenda. They've taken shots at holding schools and teachers acountable, and they've fought for charter schools in their home state of Washington. And like many of these corporately-funded reformily-networked pseudo thinky tanks, they like to publish the occasional "report." Their newest one offers some bold and ballsy solutions to the problems of shrinking public schools.
Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment is a masterpiece of concern-trolling self-serving For The Children with a side-order of PR spin advice for charters. And I have read it so that you don't have to.
Robin Lake, the director at CRPE, sets a tone with the very first introductory adverb clause--
When districts go into a major period of “declining enrollment,”
So it's only so-called "declining enrollment," meaning that something else is really going on?
Whatever it is, it's happening to many districts, like Detroit. Lots of folks want to call charter schools a factor in this phenomenon, but Lake is not so sure. So she got together with the Economics Lab at Georgetown and Afton Partners, a DC consulting firm that specializes in school finances, along with some un-named various edu-leaders gathered in Houston.
Lake is not going to make us read the whole thing to get to her point:
The bottom line: public charter schools are not to blame for districts’ financial struggles, but it is in their best interest to be part of a solution moving forward.
That's the pre-concluded conclusion of this paper-- all that's left is the how's and why's. Nothing, Lake says, will change the inevitable marching onslaught of charters, and school districts are just going to have to figure out how to be more nimble and learn how to compete. And CRPE wants to "help lead that work." Because of their deep concern for public education and also, for the children.
A quote from an unnamed "District superintendent" says that there are always transition costs and the charter movement "forgot that in the transition from the monopoly district system to individual schools" transition costs would rear their pricey heads. Man-- which district superintendent referred to traditional public schools as a "monopoly district system"? But let's move on.
Declining public school enrollment has led to the "perception" that charter expansion is coming at the cost of public schools, and that perception "even if unfounded" has led to "tensions" between charter and public schools. Yes, and the declining number of hairs on my head has led to the perception that I'm balder than I used to be.
There's a message here for charteristas from CRPE-- you can pooh-pooh these "perceptions," but you just got your ass handed to you over Question 2 in Massachusetts. But CRPE doesn't want readers to think they're simply discussing a tweakage of charter marketing-- the defeats of charter initiatives could hurt the children who are trapped in public schools that "decline in quality." So charters have got to up their PR game. For the children.
Also, the writers are concerned-- really concerned-- that public schools are not holding up well under the pressures created by declining enrollment, because that would be bad For The Children, and so CRPE would like to offer some suggestions, just to help. Because they're so concerned. About the children.
What We Know (And Don't Know) About District Transformation
Lots of districts had declining enrollment before charters showed up. But it sure does look like more recently, charters have certainly contributed to public enrollment decline. In Detroit and DC, public school enrollment dropped. In fact, in DC charter enrollment grew more than public enrollment dropped over 18 years "implying that a significant minority (11,000) of charter students had come from private schools or outside the district." There are some interesting numbers being thrown around, though I'm kind of wondering if CRPE knows that new students can also be, you know, born.
CRPE notes that public schools are designed to grow rather than shrink, and I'm not sure I believe that, but they do manage to describe, with a handy graphic, a district financial death spiral-- cuts in money leads to cuts in service leads to drops in enrollment leads to cuts in funding etc etc etc.
But CRPE has some thoughts about what public schools need to do to better respond flexibly to the various cuts they suffer from. Let's see what they have in mind to "help" public schools.
Oh, This List Again
Eight items. All familiar.
1) Close schools and make some money selling real estate.
2) Redistricting and tweaking enrollment set ups.
3) End FILO so that you can fire the more expensive senior teachers. In discussing this CRPE barely pretends there are issues of quality here (the old "save our great young teachers and can those washed up burnouts"). No, if you fire old staff, you can keep more warm bodies.
4) Advocate for reform of long-term, fixed-cost obligations. AKA, ask your legislators to get you released from your pension commitments.
5) Ending unsustainable/unfunded salary commitments, such as automatic step-and-lane raises. You can save so much money if you don't have to pay those damn teachers jack. Also, though CRPE doesn't mention this, if public schools weren't paying teachers so much money, charters wouldn't be under pressure to keep their own salary offers competitive.
6) Create a uniform funding system that would blah blah blah "pay charters more" is where I think we're headed here.
7) Commit to long-term decision-making to help manage decline. In other words, you may just think that public schools are sick and need some treatment to get better, but we think it's time to check them into a hospice. Stop trying to save them, and start working on death with dignity.
8) Keep looking for "operational efficiencies, in part by making more costs, such as transportaion and special education, variable." Which I think is business-speak for "find ways to squeeze and screw your suppliers and subcontractors."
Notice that none of these suggestions include mitigating the outside pressures on public schools. For instance "Cap charter growth" or "Fully fund schools" did not make it onto this list.
CRPE notes that the issue can be complex. They even note that the financial crunch is often felt worst by the students who need support most. A one-size-fits-all strategy won't work, but, CRPE, "it is also important to transcend finger-pointing." No single party is to blame and no parties are blameless. There's trouble created on many sides. On many sides. (And don't forget, charters-- though none of this may be your fault, you've still got to have a plan for managing the optics and politics of it.)
Anyway, here are some specific issues/thoughts/stuff that they came up with in their Houston meeting with all those anonymous folks.
The charter-district dynamic can no longer be thought of as a zero-sum game.
Um, no. That's exactly wrong. Under current charter laws, it is exactly a zero-sum game. Every student who attends a charter is a student who doesn't attend a public school. Every dollar sent to a charter school is a dollar that public schools no longer have. It is the very definition of a zero-sum game.
But the folks at CRPE's meeting were really talking about something else.
Participants agreed that the issue must be framed around creating better opportunities for all students, meeting their widely varying needs and learning styles, regardless of what kind of school they’re in.
In other words, if charters want to handle their PR more effectively, they've got to stop saying out loud, "Those kids still in public school aren't our problem. Screw 'em." Charters must at least pretend to care that all students are "buffered" from the effects of "disruptive change." CRPE doesn't really know what that looks like. But I am going to give them credit for at least talking about how charters affect all students in a community-- not just the ones at the charter.
Districts have a responsibility to act in the best interests of students-- existing and future
This is a cool new spin on For The Children. Basically, we have to cut costs and keep staffing cheap so that we will be viable, and when we have to cut even more, it won't hurt the children.
Note that it does not mean to go lobby hard for legislators to fully fund all schools.
More of the same. This may seem kind of hard to read about, but whenever you see "legacy costs" just think "financial promises made in the past that we find it inconvenient to live up to in the present."
The charter sector needs to have a credible answer to concerns about harm to district
Well, that is a challenge, because the public has eyes and ears and, for the most part, brains, and over the past decade or two they've been able to plainly see how charters do, in fact, harm public school districts. Not only that, but charters leave the vast majority of students in those public schools that are being harmed-- and they do so after deciding which students they feel like "saving."
The old answers don't work. "Charters are cooking up awesome game-changing innovations" has turned out to be false. "Just pay attention to the ones we're saving," is less and less effective. And nobody has ever really addressed the biggest charter lie of all, which is the notion that we can run three or six or ten parallel schools for the same money we spent to run one. If you really want to have four different school systems serving the same community, you need to fund four school systems. For some reason, nobody wants to be the one telling taxpayers, "We are going to raise your taxes to pay for schools to duplicate the work of the school's you are already paying for."
CRPE knows this, because one of their pieces of advice is "close school buildings" because operating fewer buildings is cheaper. So what do you suppose it does to overall costs in a community if we close one district school building and open four charter buildings?
Charter schools and districts alone don't own all the problems.
And by "problems," we mean "pensions." And laws about teacher tenure, and how schools are financed. Legislators need to fix some of this. Not, mind you, by using caps to manage charter growth, or by expanding financing to cover several school systems.
First Steps Toward Solutions
So how do we fix all of these things? CRPE has some thoughts.
Districts need to close schools and negotiate contracts that don't spend so much money. The closing school solution seems to run up against the "don't take on long-term debts and costs" solution, as schools frequently manage consolidation of schools by taking on construction projects.
They would like to see more partnership, but their example is "if charters find a way to give cheap retirement plans might encourage public systems to adopt similar systems." So, yeah, charters that want to pay teachers less could, I suppose, try to convince public schools not to outbid them. That's cooperation, sort of.
And there would need to be city-level strategy sessions. Which should be a hoot as long as nobody ever addresses the underlying zero-sum game that is charter vs. public schools. But that's not going to happen, since one proposed solution is that districts "publicly identify" their legacy costs in exchange for a charter funding formula that more closely resembles public per-pupil costs:
For example, charter schools might receive less per-pupil funding under such an agreement but would be able to tell the public, with confidence, that charter and district students received the same classroom funding and that charter schools weren’t contributing to a district’s impending insolvency.
Yeah, that doesn't even make sense. "Getting same classroom funding" doesn't equal "not sucking public school dry." So maybe the suggestion here is that charter's get their funding and public schools admit that they're insolvent because their buildings and pensions and teacher pay are all just way expensive. In other words, charters agree to get paid public tax dollars, and public schools agree to publicly say it's their own damn fault they're having financial problems. Why would public schools want to enter into this deal, exactly? And would the funding formula include all the "philanthropic" contributions to charters?
CRPE also suggests that public schools be given some limited extra funding to be used only as a means of down-sizing. Or if districts can prove they're shrinking as fast as possible, charters would agree to a voluntary growth slow down. Or some other grand bargain that basically involves charters conducting business as usual while public schools agree to work harder at dying, already.
CRPE also has a list of Things To Discuss and Research Further. Gather more data about how much financial vampirage charters are really committing, and how much is just, you know, other reasons for districts to lose money. More data about "fixed costs" and just generally how teachers are draining money by wanting to be paid. Figure out the greatest number of students the charters could handle, because that's the ideal, apparently-- as many students taken out of public school as possible. More power for superintendents. They don't say which power, exactly, but context suggests that old favorite-- hire, fire and set salaries without stupid rules and unions. Learning from other sectors like energy and healthcare, because they're just like schools.
CRPE is correct in one thing-- we do have to look at how charters affect the whole local educational eco-system. But their belief in the inevitable supremacy of charters gets in the way of a useful conversation.
The report seems to boil down basically to "Charters and public schools should work together to make employment conditions worse for teachers. Also, they should team up to help charters thrive and to help public schools die more efficiently and without making charters look bad. For The Children."
Maybe this is supposed to be an innovative approach to the Socratic method, and public schools are just supposed to take a hemlock bath because it would make life easier for charters. But I don't imagine many takers will line up to take CRPE's offer. Not even for the children.