Readers: this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Each entry assumes there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution and author, How the 5th US Revolution Begins and About the Author.  Many entries are formatted as conversations. Occasionally I do a “sense check” about the likelihood of a Revenge Revolution.  Entry #318 is the most recent “sense check.”  One more note — sometimes I write about another topic that does not quite fit the theme of the blog.  Those comments are available on the page titled “JRD Thoughts and Comments.” 

In the entry describing the coming technology tsunami (#319), I suggested a way to help mitigate the impact of the inevitable tsunami was increasing support for public education. A major step toward achieving that goal would be prohibiting publicly funded charter schools…and publicly funded vouchers for private schools.

So what’s the problem with charter schools?  Why insist on publicly run schools? The private sector always accomplishes a task more efficiently and effectively than the public sector. Besides public education is broken and needs to be fixed. More support for public schools sounds like more socialism. Well, supporters of charter schools, if public education is socialism, then what would you call public support of private institutions through tax breaks and lower tax rates…try calling it by its real name, “welfare for the wealthy.”

First, most everyone agrees certain aspects of public education need to be fixed. But maybe what needs to be fixed is not what advocates of more publicly funded charter schools claim needs to be fixed.

Public education per se is not the problem. What makes any school a good educational institution, whether public or private, is not the source of funding, not the school building, not how much money is spent on fancy support materials, not how good the sports team are…and a host of often discussed other “nice-to-have” items. What makes a good educational institution is commitment by all involved – students, faculty, parents and community. Education truly requires a community effort.

Look at schools where students get a great education and you will find a community supporting that educational institution. I agree that families which opt for charter schools may be more committed to education than other families. But why do we…again the proverbial ‘societal we’…allow communities to “evolve” – maybe “dissolve” is more appropriate characterization – to a point where there is a lack of commitment to public education?

Charter schools do not help a community rebuild its commitment to quality education for all students. In fact, charter schools do just the opposite. Charter schools further erode a community’s commitment to quality education for all by diverting mental support and tax-dollar support to privately run schools.

The idea of having a “specialized school” or certain education track is a good one. Both can be accomplished within the public school system. While the term might not be politically correct today, I was part of a group that for four years of high school had all “accelerated classes,” other than physical education.   As far as I know, the “accelerated” classes were based strictly on merit and anyone meeting the academic requirements was eligible.

New York City and other urban areas have long had schools specializing in certain academic fields. These schools have been open to all students in the system who met certain criteria.  Thus, if a community wanted a more-specialized “charter-like” school, there’s no reason why such a school could not be created within the exiting school system – many systems have “magnet” schools that operate within the larger public system.

A key aspect of charter schools not often discussed is the lack of scrutiny. Charter schools receive public funds, yet are not subject to the same oversight as public schools. Why? The answer is simple…but the answer should not be accepted by taxpayers. The lack of scrutiny is by the design of ownership groups of charter schools. The lack of scrutiny allows charter-school owners to avoid many of the rules required of public schools.

The theme of the charter-school owners? Just give us public money but don’t ask how we spend it. Stating the incredibly obvious, charter schools are another version of efforts by the political far right to privatize major portions of the government and with privatization, minimize, if not eliminate public scrutiny.

A second key aspect of charter schools not often discussed is the true cost. Proponents of charter schools may claim the cost for operating a charter school is the same or less than a public school. The “proof” of the same-as or lower-cost claim is that charter schools receive only a certain amount from the state and do not charge tuition. But do charter schools really cost less?

Let’s look at some costs. A very high percentage of the cost of education is fixed, or semi-fixed. Fixed/semi-fixed costs do not vary with changes in volume. As an example, think of your own house. Fixed costs for the house are the mortgage payment, taxes, maintenance, utilities and similar expenses.

Say there are two parents and three children living in the house. Then one child heads off to college. Now there’s an extra bedroom not being used. So does the family just pack up and move to a smaller house?

No, the family stays in the house. And the mortgage payment is the same; the major maintenance expenses are the same; the cost for heat, electricity, water, internet is the just about the same whether five people or four people live in the house. If you were calculating the cost per person to live in the house, the cost per person would be lower for five people compared to four people. While some other costs do vary with the number of people – food, e.g., — the overall cost per person in higher for four people than for five.

The same cost structure applies in education. What are primary fixed costs in education – teachers’ salaries, administrative overhead, building maintenance, utilities, much of the food-service staff and some other items. Thus, if say 20-25% of the students of a public school transfer to a charter school (think of the one child going off to college), most of the expenses for the public school remain the same.

But how are public schools funded? While the formula can vary by state or locale, many public schools are funded based on a payment per student. So if students leave for charter schools, the payment to the public school is reduced because of fewer students. The money follows the students so money that was formerly paid to public school is diverted to a charter school.  While the number of students in the public school has declined, the costs for educating students did not decline as much as the loss of funding to the charter school.

So how is the loss of funding made up? Where does the extra money come from? Two sources: (i) taxpayers, state and/or local, who end up having to increase the amount of funding per student for public schools…and by default also charter schools; (ii) cutbacks of expenses at the school level. Students end up getting short-changed as less money is available to spend for supplies, extracurricular activities, teachers’ aides, and maintenance. As maintenance is deferred over time, the building and infrastructure deteriorate. Eventually repairs and/or building a new facility end up costing even more than the deferred maintenance…another hit to taxpayers.

I did a rough calculation about the increased cost to taxpayers of charter schools. The estimates need to be refined with more analysis. Say 25% of the students transferred from public schools to publicly funded charter schools.  Under this scenario, the cost per student for taxpayers would not go down, as some proponents of charter schools claim; the cost per student would not remain the same as other proponents claim; the cost per student would increase 20-25%.

Where is the added cost coming from? With the creation of charter schools, a parallel overhead cost system is also created. Rather than one “superintendent”, there are now two – one for public schools and one for charter schools. Rather than one principal for a given school, there are now two because a second school was added. Rather than one building, there are now two. In addition, there are more teachers.

How does the public school manage with lower funding? The number of teachers for core topics remains about the same. What the public schools end up eliminating are teachers for what some people label as “non-essential” topics – art, music, Phys Ed…and oh, yes, those nurses and other health-care workers in the school system.

What is the motive behind charter schools? Why support a system that costs taxpayers more when there are no demonstrable benefits? Yes, some charter schools are more successful at increasing graduation rates.  But many…and possibly more…are not.

With these uneven statistics, why not tweak the public school system to provide more specialized schools as many urban areas have for decades? The underlying reasons why charter schools are supported? (Stay tuned. More to come.)