The Right Way to Assess Charter Schools


Protestors gather on the steps of the state Capitol in Juneau for a “Save Our Schools” rally in February, 2014 to speak out on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow public money to be used for private and religious schools.

On November 8, Massachusetts residents went to the polls not only to cast their vote for president but also to weigh in on a hotly debated question regarding charter schools. The ballot initiative—which proposed lifting the state’s cap to allow establishing up to 12 new charters or expanding existing charters annually—had generated a heated battle for months, with voters inundated by mailings and advertising from both sides. About $34 million was spent on these efforts, making them easily the most expensive ballot initiative campaign in state history. Teacher unions provided nearly all the money to fight the measure, while out-of-state donors and Boston’s business community shelled out most of the money in support.

The debate mostly went like this: Supporters of the ballot measure, known as Question 2, argued that charter schools in Boston have proven extremely effective for disadvantaged students. They pointed to research studies that show students who attended Boston charter schools, compared to students in Boston’s traditional public schools, were more likely to graduate high school in five years, more likely to attend and complete college, and less likely to enroll in remedial education. In addition, researchers found attending Boston charters led to significant gains in state tests, AP tests, and the SAT.

Supporters of charter expansion also pointed to long charter school waiting lists as evidence that families, especially poor families, desperately seek better school options. If the ballot measure failed, proponents insisted, it would be because wealthy white suburbanites were too selfish, or short-sighted, to let low-income African-Americans escape their failing public schools. Polls conducted throughout the campaign did reveal higher support for charter school expansion among black and Latino voters.

Critics of the charter school ballot initiative challenged the legitimacy of the waitlist figures that supporters wielded—pointing to evidence that the stats were substantially inflated. Critics also pointed out that the research on charter school effectiveness was dramatically less impressive outside of Boston, and this statewide ballot measure would impact schooling all over Massachusetts.

But the most salient argument critics levied—and one that Question 2 supporters never figured out how to overcome—was that the ballot measure might expand opportunity for some students, but would ultimately drain money and resources from those students who remained in traditional public schools. Supporters tended to dismiss these concerns, saying that per-pupil dollars would “follow the child” so there would be no real negative impact on other students who didn’t attend charters. But a number of experts, including Boston’s chief financial officer, said the fiscal strain would be tremendous. This became the rallying point for Question 2 opponents—and the primary reason the ballot measure failed 62 percent to 38 percent, with cities all over the state, including Boston, voting in opposition.

Throughout the campaign, many Massachusetts voters said that they found the news coverage confusing. Someone would make an argument, a new report would come out claiming the opposite, so-called experts would go back and forth about it, and the media would often do little more than cover the “he says, she says” discussion—leaving residents unsure of what the truth really was.

Today, the Economic Policy Institute is publishing a report by Bruce Baker, a national expert in state school finance, charter schools, and teacher and administrator labor markets, that he hopes will help improve the level of public discourse the next time residents and political leaders are asked to make such high-stakes education decisions.

Baker’s report looks at the fiscal impact of charter school expansion—an area that has received surprisingly little academic attention, despite the charter sector’s 25-year existence, and the growing public awareness that this is a critical issue to understand.

I covered the topic back in June, and at the time the only real research study available on the issue was one published in 2014 that documented the negative fiscal impacts that traditional public schools in Buffalo and Albany had experienced from charter schools proliferating. Since then, David Arsen, an education policy professor, published research finding that the biggest drivers of fiscal distress across Michigan school districts were declining enrollment and revenue loss, particularly where school choice and charters were most prevalent. Moody’s Investor Service, a bond credit rating agency, has also been sounding the alarm about the severe financial distress a growing number of school districts face as charter schools expand.

For Baker, the debate over whether charter schools are seen as good or bad was for a very long time “one-dimensional”—based on whether charters produced marginal increases or decreases in students’ standardized test scores. The debate over whether to lift Massachusetts’ charter school cap, Baker says, was more “two-dimensional,” in that people talked about both academic impacts and some fiscal tradeoffs. But still, the parameters of the fiscal conversation were limited, and Baker says he hopes his new report will provide a framework for a more “multi-dimensional” discussion of tradeoffs going forward.

So what does a multi-dimensional discussion look like?

“If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available,” Baker writes. “That is, resources should be used most efficiently and equitably to achieve the best possible system of schools for all children.”

Baker suggests moving the conversation away from the individualistic, consumer-choice narrative that market-driven reformers have promoted over the past two decades, and towards one that centers public education as a collective responsibility for communities to provide as efficiently, and equitably, as they can.

In an interview with the Prospect, Baker emphasizes that we need a far better understanding of all the costs and benefits associated with running multiple, competing school systems in a given space—public policy questions that are surprisingly ignored on a regular basis. He cites transportation costs as one example that rarely gets attention when leaders decide whether or not to open more charter schools.

“If we’re saying that driving kids two hours here, and one hour there, is creating liberty of choice, which some people simply like as a policy, and we’re also getting some marginal test score gains—well, we have to be clear about how much we’re spending to get those things,” he says. “We have to ask, could we be getting similar test score gains, and similar favorable public opinion for a better price for more students? We’re not even bothering to take those measurements and to ask those questions.”

Baker says that before leaders decide to open new charter schools, they should take into account the inefficiencies created from having multiple transportation systems, duplicative administrative overhead costs, additional financing fees associated with alternative capital investments, and any transition costs that arise from creating new school systems. Baker wants to see leaders wrestle with whether it’s possible to achieve comparable gains by investing in programs and services in existing public schools. Do the gains of charter expansion outweigh the costs? Is it possible to design a more equitable and efficient system by other means?

Economic Policy Institute president Larry Mishel says he hopes this report will lead to greater attention paid to the impacts of unbridled charter school expansion, especially under Donald Trump’s presidency.

“We would like the focus to be on what really matters—giving the students the support they need to make great learning possible, which involves their homes, their families, their neighborhoods—and to integrate those concerns with schooling,” Mishel says. “We’ve had a 25-year history of being distracted by issues of governance. We see charters as an evasion of the core questions.” 



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