Saturday, February 23, 2019

TN: Market Forces Are Not Magical

Shelby County is running up against two of the fallacies embedded in most charter school policy.

One is the modern charter policy lie-- the notion that you can run multiple parallel school systems with the same money that used to run one system. The other is that charter systems don't need a lot of regulation because the invisible hand of the market will take care of it all.

Shelby County Schools in Tennessee has noticed that it has problems with both of those principles.

The issue was raised back in August when the board considered nine more charter applications-- which would have brought the grand total to 63 charter schools in the county. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson put his finger on the problem:

“No surprise, we have too many schools in Memphis,” Hopson said. “If you got 12 schools in a three-mile radius… and all of them are under-enrolled, we’re not serving kids well.”

Shelby County is home to Memphis, one of the great early charter playgrounds in a state that has always ridden on the reformster train. About 14% of students in the county attend charter schools, and that's enough to leave some schools feeling a financial pinch (the overhead of maintaining a building does not go down whether you lose one student or one hundred). That's also before we count schools being run by the state in the Achievement School District (a method of state takeover of school districts with low test scores).

Nor are the schools well-distributed. Check this map and you'll see that some neighborhoods have clusters of charter schools, while other areas of the county have none at all. It's almost as if market forces do not drive charter businesses to try to serve all students, but only concentrate on the markets they find attractive! Go figure. (Note: charters in Tennessee can be run by profit or non-profit organizations or, of course, non-profits that funnel all their money to for-profit businesses.)

The problem did not happen overnight-- a local television station did a story entitled "Charter Schools-- Too Many? Too Fast?" back in 2017. The answer was, "Probably yes to both." But it also included the projection that SCS would some day be all charter. It does appear that Shelby County is in danger of entering the public school death spiral, where charters drain so much money from the public system that the public system stumbles, making the charters more appealing, so more students leave the public system, meaning the public system gets less and less money, making charters more appealing, so students leave, rinse and repeat until your public system collapses.

Except that's a problem if some of the public system collapses in communities where there are no charter schools. This is one of the many great dangers of an unregulated charter system-- the charters can kill off the public system without actually replacing it, leading to a school system that only covers the most attractive parts of the "market." That's perfectly sensible business functioning in a free(-ish) market, but it's terrible education policy.

 Which brings us to this news:

Shelby County Schools is developing guidelines that would determine if a neighborhood has too many charter schools, addressing a longtime concern of school board members.

The charter school guidelines, called the Educational Priorities Document/Rubric in a proposed district policy on charter schools, would also prioritize what the district wants charter schools to focus on, such as early literacy.

It's a 21-page document, and it removes a considerable amount of the wild west from Shelby County's charter sector. It's the kind of policy that might help save the whole system for the families of Shelby County. Stay tuned to see if charters squawk and push back.

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