I received this e-mail from a reader named Nate and thought it was provocative on the issues of choice and charters. I am posting Nate’s original note to me, my response and his follow-up. (Pour a cup of coffee as this is long.) He gave me clearance to put it all up here for our discussion.
After reading an Op-Ed piece that you posted in a recent paper titled “School boards: Charter school law violates constitution” I thought to myself… It would be good if an organization like the GA Public Policy Foundation or some similar unbiased organization could publish a paper that details in something akin to layman’s terms, how education funding works within the context of Charter Schools, and other choice legislation in GA. They could highlight a few scenarios:
How Is Education Funding for Traditional Pubic schools affected when..
1. A “regular ed” student previously enrolled in a traditional public school attends a charter school
2. A “regular ed” student previously enrolled in a private school attends a charter school
3. A “special ed” student previously enrolled in a traditional public school attends a charter school
4. A “special ed” student previously enrolled in a private school attends a charter school
5. A home schooled student previously attends a charter school
6. A mild-case (i.e., student deemed to require less than $10K to be educated in trad setting) special needs student elects the Special needs voucher
7. A severe case (i.e., student deemed to require more than $25K to be educated in trad setting) special needs student elects the Special needs voucher
8. As a state we max out on the tax scholarship amount which I believe is $50 million.
There could be other scenarios worth highlighting but these are just a few that immediately come to mind.
Personally, I would love to know the answer to these questions, however, if I had to guess the answer to many may start with “it depends….”. That said, surely some answers could be devised based on a set of ideally unbiased assumptions. Ultimately, $$$ (ie. control of it) is what a lot of the debate is about. Would you, by chance, know the answer to any of these questions? Alternatively do you know of any documents, websites, or otherwise that you can point me to to find out.
Personally I am a supporter of school choice. That said, I do think that it’s still worthy of debate by informed parties. However, it just seems that in GA, at least based on what I hear and read, that the debate is quite primitive. When we talk about how charters, the tax scholarship, or the special needs voucher (for example) impact public schools, why is the debate not quantifying the amount and then qualifying exactly how that impacts traditional public schools, if at all. It seems a bit trivial to hear leaders, and particularly larger ones that have 9 digit revenues complaining about how any of GA’s choice initiatives are undermining public education especially since such a tiny fraction of students are taking advantage of them.
I recall hearing a senior education official in a Cobb County presentation mention a number that I am pretty certain was far north of $50K as the amt required to educate a single special needs child with severe disability. To be fair it was not a presentation that discussed anything pertaining to choice, it was just a generic presentation about the state of Special Education in the county base on what I recall. Nevertheless, I immediately thought to myself that if the parent of that child opted for a special needs voucher, wouldn’t several tens of thousands of dollars be saved since the special needs voucher doesn’t come close to matching that dollar amount??? I am not implying that the quality of services would be better or worse as that would be best left up to the parent to determine, but based purely on dollars and cents why not promote more vouchers, for example.
I just wish that someone who is sensible and that has an audience could really try to frame the debate about school choice in GA around facts that are devoid of the fear mongering, rhetoric, and continual regurgitation of shallow points that are raised by both advocates and proponents alike. I want to believe that we truly have leaders in GA that understand the complexities of the issues and that perhaps by the time that it makes it to the general public for consumption that the points are deliberately watered down a bit; however, of late, I have begun to doubt that assumption. Personally, I just want the unbiased facts.
Also, last night while doing some casual Internet searching I also came across a somewhat dated (2005) policy paper that talks about how School Choice Can Help States reduce Education Costs. I have not finished it yet, but it does seem like it would be a timely read for state leaders as they prepare to grapple with the state budget. If you are interested, you can view it at http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa551.pdf.
I suppose the point of my letter to you is somewhat of a vent about the lack of quality debate that is occurring in the mainstream around school choice. On the other hand, it is also a request to ask if you could reach out to contacts you may have to try to pull together an article that you could publish that takes an initial stab at a higher quality debate around the issues. At the end of the day, while much of this “debate is going on, we still have student in GA that need to be educated at a much higher level than they currently are if they are to have a good chance of being able to compete with their global counterparts in any areas that require an ability to be able to think critically, solve problems and innovate.
And this was my response with Nate’s follow-up responses in italic:
On the individual scenarios that you post, I think the issue is that traditional public schools contend that there is an impact and al oss when students leave for charter schools that go well beyond the per pupil costs.
In theory, any child who leaves a traditional school – whether reg ed or special ed – for a charter is only taking his/her per pupil allotment with them. But the systems argue that the impact is far larger as there are fixed costs to running a school whether there are 230 kids or 200. So, if 30 kids leave for the new charter down the road, the traditional public school still has heating and electrical costs etc. that remain the same despite the loss of those 30 kids. I have no doubt that a surge in charters would mean less operating money for traditional schools. The question is whether that ought to matter.
I agree 110% with your point about whether it should matter. I would add to your sentence and say.. should it matter if your main focus is to insure that the child is an optimal learning environment that works for the individual child. Furthermore, as is the case with an underperforming charter school, a traditional public school should also be forced to “close” as well. We are well past the point of more reform that could take years to implement and reap benefits from because meanwhile the students that are subjected to poor instruction are left further and further behind as time progresses.
To me, the bigger issue is who controls the decision-making. Everyone points to big systems like Gwinnett that should easily be able to accommodate a few charter schools, but there are small systems in Georgia that have put into place strong reform models.
If the local school board has a plan in place, how far should the state go to make the system accept charter schools that divert from those plans? Those small systems have less money on hand, so divvying it up with even two charter schools could create a funding strain.
I suppose that is why some of the smaller systems have opted to convert to charter systems. Again, I agree as well that the bigger issue is who controls the decision-making. Ultimately, I think that it should be the parent. My point about needing to have a more quantifiable/quantifiable debate is highlighted even more by the small school system scenario you raised. If there is in fact a point of diminishing return for ALL students as a result of fiscal concerns then perhaps that’s the debate that needs to take place. I have never seen any one size fits all reform efforts that work in all cases and charters are no different. Perhaps, some metrics for determining this “point of diminishing return” particularly for smaller systems needs to be determined. In some cases it legitimately may not make sense to have even a single charter. In that case, the taxpayers in that particular district could lobby the board to convert to a charter system as a way to provide the innovation they are looking for in their school(s). As a side note I still can not figure out why every Supt in the state (even those responsible for the larger school districts) wasn’t/isn’t chomping at the bit to convert to being a charter system. It seems to me that it would serves two key purposes — 1. More autonomy that should theoretically make it easier for them to be successful, and 2. Position them to better compete with charters and private schools. Perhaps there is a fundamental issue I am missing there but that’s another one that I can not figure out.
A good place to review the research on choice is Columbia University’s National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Taken as a whole, I think it would be fair to say that the research suggests that the move to charters and choice has not proven yet to change education outcomes.
Thanks for the Columbia info; I will definitely take a look at their research.
Every charter that is approved has hundreds of “claims” for lack of a better term that essentially serve as the terms that the school are bound to meet. Is it possible that the reason that the research may show educational outcomes of charters to be mixed is due to insufficient accountability on the part of the charter authorizing body (i.e., the LEA Board, Charter Commission, Local university in some states, etc..)? I am of the school of thought that better oversight of charters (on an annual and not just at the charter renewal milestone) would in fact lead to them performing at a higher level than their public school counterparts. After all, aside from a unique curricular theme or focus, you are not likley to see a charter approved that has achievement targets that at a minimum are equivalent to area traditional public schools. I would tend to believe that the majority of charters, after about their 3rd yr of Operation are shooting for academic achievement targets that intend to exceed that of their peer traditional public schools.
I fear that we spend a lot of time debating choice when the real solution is teacher quality and how we educate teachers.
Again, Amen to that! Unfortunately the problems that plague public education are so broad and complex and what’s worse is that many extend beyond the “system” (i.e, poor parenting, economic downturn, job loss); that we cannot afford to only focus on one singular issue, because in the process we may be doing irreparable damage to generations of kids. While we work on arguably the most important issue of improving teacher quality (pehaps with a little performance based pay, but that is a different topic altogether), we have to provide alternatives, even if not permanent, to as many students as possible to seek out the best educational environment possible until we can provide better prepared teachers for them. I recall reading a piece of research years ago that stated that if a child is exposed to two consecutive years of poor teaching that you will start to see full grade levels of negative academic achievement show up with the student. Assuming that to be accurate, I think we have a long way to go on the issue of teacher quality.