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A (this) Libertarian and charter schools

Begin with a comment rescue from Duffy:
I'm a little surprised that as a libertarian you come out for the state schools and against charters.
Actually, Duffy, I have not come out against charter schools at all.  I do support the idea of charter schools, and my twins attend one.

But you asked about "as a libertarian," and opposed "state schools" and "charters," so I guess it is important to make some distinctions.

The apparent buy-in for a libertarian and charter schools is, I suppose, that freedom from regulation to innovate.  At least that's what I am constantly told, and is what appears in the Delaware Code:
The purpose of this chapter is to create an alternative to traditional public schools operated by school districts and improve public education overall by establishing a system of independent "charter" schools throughout the State. 
To that end, this chapter offers members of the community a charter to organize and run independent public schools, free of most state and school district rules and regulations governing public education, as long as they meet the requirements of this chapter, and particularly the obligation to meet measurable standards of student performance. Schools established under this chapter shall be known as "charter schools." 
This chapter is intended to improve student learning; encourage the use of different and innovative or proven school environments and teaching and learning methods; provide parents and students with measures of improved school and student performance and greater opportunities in choosing public schools within and outside their school districts; and to provide for a well-educated community.
Authorized by the State, accountable to the State, and funded by the State.

So, Duffy, charter school advocates in Delaware like to chant, "Charter schools are public schools."  Public schools are, by your definition, state schools.  They are just a different flavor of state schools.

By analogy, think of some of the often proposed "privatization" models of Social Security.  These would have allowed people to take some or all of the money they were required to have withheld from their paychecks to invest in one of a small menu of government-approved mutual funds.  In theory, I guess, this was sold as an improvement in that you had some choice in the matter, but you still had to have that amount taken out of your paycheck every month, and you could only use it for a slightly wider menu of government-approved choices.

Again:  if charter schools are public schools (as the statute says), then charter schools are state schools.

So let's get to the crux of the matter about why I have some problems with the extremist advocates for Delaware charter schools.

1.  A long time ago we were consistently told that the great benefit of charter schools is that they could do more with less.  This, from New York City, is typical of the hype:
Once again, facts are getting in the way of those who would question the success of charter schools. Critics often claim that charter schools are more effective than district-run public schools only because they are better funded. In fact, according to a new report, New York City's charter schools are thriving despite receiving fewer public dollars than other public schools get.
Except that there is some big mythology going on there, that has been pretty specifically refuted in Delaware, and (as we shall see) by at least one very unusual source.

Consider this 2007 study commissioned by the Delaware Public Policy Institute (one of the "house organ" mouthpieces for the charter movement) and its rather awkward finding:
Delaware is the first state where APA was asked to conduct a professional judgment panel focused exclusively on charter schools. The panel was made up of charter school educators and school business officials from around the state. APA found that charter schools’ costs were comparable to the costs identified by other school-level panels that were conducted as part of this study, with charter school costs coming in slightly higher than other school costs when examined on a per pupil basis. 
Ah, what's that?  Charter school costs NOT less than that of traditional public schools?  An outlier report, you say?  Charter schools receive so much less, you say?

Let's unpack that a bit.  The Rodel Foundation asserts that
In Delaware, charter schools receive approximately $3,000 less per pupil in funding.  
But how true is this well-circulated meme?

Not very much, or at least not consistently, if you visit the Delaware school profiles maintained by the Delaware Department of Education.  Here's the actual table summarizing the State:
First let's note that Rodel is just flat wrong:  the difference is not an average of $3,000/student statewide, it is only $1807.

Then let's pay attention to the fact that these costs are widely variable by county:  that Charter Schools in Kent County actually expend MORE per pupil than the tradition public schools by $103/student.  In Sussex the difference is nearly $3,000 ($2,934), and in New Castle County it is $2,279.

But charter spending is highly variable, (DE School Profile pages attest).

Kuumba Academny spends $11,750/student, while the Red Clay Consolidated School District spends $12,305--a difference of only $555 per student.

Odyssey Charter spends $10,101/student, while Red Clay spends $12,305--a difference of $2,224.

Academy of Dover spends $11669/student, while Capital School District spends $13,676--a difference of $2,007/student.

On the other hand, Milford spends $11,365/student--$304 LESS than Academy of Dover--and Milford's test scores are comparable or better than Academy's in nearly every category.

To throw just another monkey wrench into the works, charters dealing with high special needs populations WAY OUTSPEND their local equivalents.  Positive Outcomes spends over $30,000/student, and Gateway spends over $14,000.

For all that spending, however, the Rodel Foundation admitted two years ago that Delaware's charter schools are "a mixed bag." For those of you who might think I quote out of context, here's the whole sentence in which Rodel says that without additional funding charter schools cannot compete:
In Delaware, charter schools receive approximately $3,000 less per pupil in funding.  This inequality is exacerbated by two factors, including (1) charter schools are required to pay for facilities (estimated at about 15% of their costs) out of their operating budget and (2) charters do not have access to major capital funding, which districts utilize for facilities.  This glaring difference in access to resources only leads to one conclusion – our policy environment is not ripe for attracting those with proven track records to our state.  Until we take a more proactive approach and incorporate charter schools into our state’s overall reform strategy to increase student learning, Delaware’s charter schools will continue to be a mixed bag. 
There's that nigglingly inaccurate $3,000 figure again, alongside the frank admission by the state's number one charter school cheerleader that charter quality (for all the hype) is a "mixed bag."

It's amazing what Rodel forgets to scrub from its website.

So what we have here is charter school advocates over-estimating how much less they get (and John Kowalko can tell us that with the transportation games they play the difference is even less that you think), while at the same time admitting that they need more money because they really cannot do more with less.

Then there's this:

2.  Delaware has some of the most charter-favorable language in its state code of any state in the country, and extremist advocates are still whining.

You know, Delaware has that "special interest" provision that allows charter schools to weed out the students they don't want to serve.  Many other states run charter schools (at least according to them) quite happily without such provisions.

Consider Pennsylvania:

Charter schools may not discriminate in admission and all students are selected by lottery.
Or Indiana:
As public schools, charter school must comply with all state and federal laws concerning open enrollment. A charter school is forbidden by law from denying enrollment to a student based on the student's academic level or special needs.
I found (on a quick survey) at least a dozen charter states that do not allow the "special interest" provision.

I've defended that provision in the past, to be completely candid, but my thinking is changing.  While there is a realistic use for such provisions, the problem is in drafting the legislation restrictively enough that charters cannot use it to weed out students based on special needs or academic record as long as the students can demonstrate a legitimate interest in the content area.

But truth is considerably more insidious than that.  New proposed charter school regulations (thanks, Earl Jaques) would extend the accountability of "high-performing" charters from every five years to once per decade.

In other words, depending on how "high-performing" is defined by the former Chief of the Vision 2015 Network who is now our State Secretary of Education, many charters will be effectively exempt from any state supervision for several generations of students.

Not that state supervision (hello Pencader, hello Moyer) is any great thing, mind you.

So extreme charter advocates want more than a chance to try out educationally innovative strategies as they were given in the original law.  Instead, they now want:

1.  Capital financing.
2.  Preferential transportation budgets that they can use as a slush fund if they don't spend them.
3.  Exemption from accountability for a full decade.
4.  Different rules for the appeal of their pupil decisions to DOE than the school districts have.
5.  Continued exemption from any transparency of operation because, you see, they are state-funded corporations and therefore not accountable (hello Fannie Mae. Sallie Mae, Federal Reserve).
6.  Continued ability to simply boot out (ok, counsel out) students back to their old districts.
7.  Bail-outs from the state when their finances go belly up.

This is not a free market innovation:  this is educational welfare for a particular social class.

Which leads me to item 3:

3.  Charters has a disparate impact on specific student populations in Delaware.

Libertarians profess to believe that the primary role of government is to protect its citizens from the use of force or fraud against them.

The idea, embellished in the Delaware Code, that you could set up "a system of independent charter schools throughout the state" without thereby picking winners and losers in a big BIG way was always a fraud.  I didn't originally think so, but I have watched the steady change in the demographics of Wilmington city schools over the past 15 years as they become darker and poorer, and have less and less resources devoted to them by school districts having to constantly retrench against decreasing state budgets.

Charter is, of course, only one component.  Choice and neighborhood schools have contributed as well; it is a package deal.

Did you ever hear the definition of the Yiddish term hutzbah?  That's when a boy kills his parents and then pleads for mercy from the judge because he's now an orphan.

Or, it's when a specific class of schools (and its organizers) make promises that they can do more with less, don't quite deliver it across the board, change their tune to demand they can do more with more, and shout so loudly that nobody can hear the quiet sounds of resignation from the children whose parents don't have the time or the political pull to demand equal treatment.

In this I will admit that I am not, per se, a mainstream Libertarian who is ready to just get the government the hell out of all public education.  In an ideal society that might work, but this is not the roadmap to that society.

This is just one group of people trying to leverage tax dollars to their own benefit at the expense of other, less resourced, groups of people, while pretending all along that there are no adverse consequences of their actions.

I do not condemn the parents or the children who go to charter schools.  It is the first responsibility of any parent to do the best thing possible for his or her child.  Charter School of Wilmington exists, and it is paid for by my tax dollars.  My twins are the kind of students who thrive in that environment, and who managed to convince the school that they had a "specific interest"  (their test scores were high enough if you come right down to it).  I am privileged.  They are privileged.

But at the same time there is a requisite intellectual honesty required to say that this has all had a cost in societal terms, and that our elected officials have largely been willing pawns rather than the watchdogs they are supposed to be.


Nancy Willing said…
gosh, I will have to come back tomorrow to read all of this! We are lucky to have you on the DE Blogosphere.
Duffy said…
Thanks Steve. There's a lot in this post I didn't know. I thought charter schools were much more of an independent entity than they apparently are.

Do you think there is any advantage to charter schools? Do you think secondary education is unique in its ability to support a market for both public and private entities?

To what do you owe the different cost levels across counties? Better management or other externalities?

Would the "poorer and darker" as you put it, not be better served by vouchers?

Should we group students by ability either by classroom or by school?

Do you think special needs kids will be well served by our current DOE's absolutist belief in mainstreaming?

Too many questions at the start of the day. I will try sometime tomorrow.
pandora said…
I'll take a stab at a few of Duffy's questions!

Do you think there is any advantage to charter schools? Do you think secondary education is unique in its ability to support a market for both public and private entities?

I think the advantages that come with the few successful charter schools are due to the charter's ability to control its population. If you only take the smart kids and keep them smart is that really an educational accomplishment?

From what I've seen, successful charters succeed on who they let into their classrooms.

As far as a market for both charter and public schools... I'm not seeing it - at least not in its present form. Charter law gives charters the advantage. They pick their population - by entrance exams or not participating in the free and reduced lunch program and by the ability to "counsel out" students that don't "fit".

By contrast, public schools have to take everyone - even the kids charter schools counsel out. When Pencader Charter was ordered closed at the end of this school year and the Pencader board threatened to shut it down before the end of the year (April 30th) unless the state gifted them 350,000.00 it wasn't the charter school community stepping up to take the Pencader kids - it was the public schools who scrambled to find/make room for these kids. Of course, Pencader got its taxpayer gift so they finished the year on our dime - Did you receive a thank you note? Hope so, since we won't be getting that 350,000.00 paid back.

To what do you owe the different cost levels across counties? Better management or other externalities?

I haven't looked into these figures yet, but that's a good question.

Would the "poorer and darker" as you put it, not be better served by vouchers?

IMO, No. Take a look at what's happening in Louisiana. The "good" private schools in Louisiana (schools like Tower Hill, Ursuline, Friends, etc) are taking about 3-4 voucher kids each - and I'd love to see their admission's standards.

That won't cut it.

What is happening is the sudden creation of Voucher Schools, many of which are religious based. You should google these schools. Their curriculum (man existed with dinosaurs, the Loch Ness monster is real, etc) is jaw dropping. Seriously, google Louisiana's voucher program.

So vouchers don't appear to be working as they've been sold, but when you really think about vouchers you realize they never would work the way they were promoted. And a LOT of the push back against vouchers is coming from private school parents who are paying tuition.

Vouchers would, however, hurt charters and public schools. Since private schools have complete control over who makes up their student population they would simply take the best and the brightest. They would empty out the Charter School of Wilmington and High School AP/IB students. Makes sense, no?

As far as your last two questions, I'm not a teacher so I'll defer to someone who can give you an answer.
Citizen said…
Libertarians may be interested in this detailed analysis of how significantly Newark Charter (DOE's biggest charter "success" story, since CSW is not directly under them) under enrolls low-income and minority students:

This despite the fact that NCS has lottery-based admission with no special interest element (no explicit test or audition). But, it doesn't offer the meals that sustain low-income kids at all other public schools. Its under-enrollment of high-needs kids means their over-representation at surrounding public schls., leading to an increasingly class-segregated, two-tier public system. This is Delaware's future, if we aren't careful. It is what we'll retain if the deeply flawed HB 165 passes next week w/o significant amendments; several are proposed.

The author of this study is a UD Econ. Prof. with a Univ. Chicago PhD, so libertarians can safely take him seriously ;). He wrote this as a private citizen & Newark resident, not in relation to his usual macroecon. research program at UD.
NCSDad said…
This discussion and the references seem to say we should eliminate the teachers union and pay more. Charters eliminated the union, but I don't think anyone can pay enough to make teaching truly competitive with other fields.

I view losing the union as a net gain. Unions are necessary when workers are poorly managed (I micro and macro ).

Amazing that real teacher pay has declined in the face if massive increases in k-12 funding over 30 years. Have we surrounded the classroom with that many meddlers to keep track if our now mediocre teachers?

My view is that its always been about the management. And the management of our school system is directed by politics. I hope someso charters could model good management. And maybe shake up the management of the TPS.

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