Education Week Blog Piece on Charter School Funding Research

This caught my eye yesterday….for several reasons.

The first is that we can expect the charter school movement to latch on to these findings and demand that more states impose upon cities and communities the sorts of “protections” that were recently added to the New York state budget, which amount to extraordinary favors to well connected and already well funded chains of charter schools.  I have no doubt that there are probably many small, individual charter schools that do excellent work and struggle for sufficient funding, but I also have no doubt that the biggest noise about so-called threats to charters are coming from chains like Success and KIPP that are lavishly funded and connected to hedge fund billionaire patrons.

The second reason is that the blogger actually raised important additional considerations about why charter funding may be lagging on a per pupil basis that is frequently overlooked by lofty news organizations that report on charter school claims.

The issue of charter funding and the disparities that exist may depend on the methods used to do the calculations, though.

 

“For me, this is not research that’s helping draw good policies,” said Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who researchers and evaluates school reforms and education policies.

 

Drawing on his own previous analyses, Miron contends that charter schools already have a cost advantage that may not be captured and explained by the data.

 

“Special education and student support services explains most of the difference in funding,” said Miron. “Charters can get a lot more funding, but it would require that they enroll more students with severe and moderate disabilities. They aren’t enrolling these students.”

 

Other categorical funding, such as that distributed for vocational education, would also bring more funding to charters, should they choose to provide it.

 

In fact, in his studies, Miron found that charters have a cost advantage, because charters do not have to provide the same services or have the same expenditures as traditional public schools.Transportation costs, for example, are an area in which charters have a funding advantage. Districts are required to provide student transportation while charters are not.

If charter schools do not enroll similar numbers of students on IEPs and English Language Learners, it is entirely reasonable for their funding to be less than entirely public schools that are required to fully serve those populations of students.  Without accounting for that, the report draws a very questionable conclusion using figures that have dogged public discussion of education for years but which are, bluntly, one of my biggest pet peeves.

Which is reason number three: per pupil allocations as a marker of funding and a tool for policy.  It is an easy number to come up with: take the total school budget, divide it by the number of students in the district and voila! You have a per pupil spending figure.

And you have absolutely no idea what that number could possibly mean.

Per pupil costs make for a simple talking point, but a very little thinking effort demonstrates that two children do not necessarily cost the same to educate.  A classroom full of AP students may cost more than a classroom of college preparatory students because the teacher may be a well compensated veteran with a smaller number of students.  A student with an IEP or in ESL classes will cost more than the per pupil average if the district is properly committed to providing them with all legal accommodations, including additional personnel.  A district that is top heavy with administrators will have a higher per pupil cost without necessarily having more resources for the classroom. A district that cannot budget capital improvements will have a higher per pupil cost to cover the price of additional heating fuel in the winter due to leaky windows — and kids will have a harder time concentrating if they remain cold from November to April.

Any policy or discussion of policy that ignores or glosses over these facts is both deceptive and possibly destructive.  Consider vouchers as an example.  Taking a child’s “per pupil” money and handing it over to a new school does not make the old school magically one child less expensive to run.  Until enough children leave that the school starts dismissing staff and faculty or perhaps shuttering a disused wing, the lost student just ups the per pupil average for those who remaining — while skimming money out of the budget.  Meanwhile, the school getting voucher money did not magically become exactly one more student more expensive to run.

Here’s a mantra to repeat to politicians and education reporters: An individual child’s public education is not a product.  It costs what it costs to most effectively assist that child to learn as much as he or she can…and to preserve that child’s joy for learning and curiosity about the world.

Practices that shunt aside students who are harder to accommodate or that cover content while crushing the spirit, may be good for the budget, but we don’t aspire to them for children. So when we are discussing whether or not a particular sector of education is being “underfunded” it is important to consider far more than the sum of money they receive.

 

 

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Filed under charter schools, Funding, Media, politics, schools

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