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The real reason teachers' unions oppose charter schools

After hearing complaints from the Ohio Education Association that charter schools siphon off funding (a common criticism of school choice generally), the inimitable Mike Antonucci delivers the numbers on state spending in this week’s Communiqué (scroll down to #2):

EIA’s school district spending and enrollment tables, updated with the latest U.S. Census data, show clearly what happened in public school spending in Ohio during the three years referred to by Allen in his letter to the Times. And the effect was opposite that claimed by OEA.

Most of Ohio’s charter schools are located in six of the state’s seven largest school districts. Only the sixth-ranked South-Western City School District lacks a significant group of charters, and is the only one of the top seven that experienced enrollment growth in the years between 2000-01 and 2003-04.

Here are the enrollment and per-pupil spending statistics for the other six:

State average – enrollment down 2.04%, per-pupil spending up 19.53%, spending on employees up 19.83%

Cleveland – enrollment down 7.97%, per-pupil spending up 19.29%, spending on employees up 24.80%

Columbus – enrollment down 2.19%, per-pupil spending up 18.47%, spending on employees up 22.11%

Cincinnati – enrollment down 13.29%, per-pupil spending up 39.08%, spending on employees up 37.89%

Toledo – enrollment down 8.62%, per-pupil spending up 29.37%, spending on employees up 32.34%

Akron – enrollment down 8.42%, per-pupil spending up 25.08%, spending on employees up 26.40%

Dayton – enrollment down 21.39%, per-pupil spending up 21.86%, spending on employees up 32.40%

Does this mean the state and local governments are actually plowing more money into districts with declining enrollment? Not necessarily, but it seems the district workforce does not decline commensurate with enrollment. Same payroll or higher, with fewer students, equals higher per-pupil spending for regular public schools.

That sounds about right.  The thing is, in the real world, when an organization experiences less demand for a product or service, said organization has to adjust accordingly.  Translation: cut costs through layoffs.  That sounds heartless, but as Randy Shain pointed out last week, it all depends on whether educating children or employing teachers is the goal of education. 

Furthermore, such a mindset completely lacks a macroeconomic viewpoint, which can reasonably be articulated as:

  1. Charter school enrollment increases. 
  2. Public school enrollment decreases.
  3. Due to decreased demand, public school teachers are laid off. 
  4. Due to increased demand, charter school hires more teachers. 
  5. Net teacher unemployment levels remain steady.  

So who loses in this arrangement?  Mike Antonucci nails it:

If it’s a win-win situation for all involved, why are the unions so opposed to charter schools? Simple. This lovely arrangement can’t last forever. Eventually enrollment declines have to lead to layoffs, attrition and other staff reductions. As unionized employees retire or are laid off, and the students they used to teach increasingly enroll in non-union charter schools, the union eventually ends up in a membership death spiral.

Each teacher working in a charter is some $440 in annual dues not being received by OEA. With more than 85,000 Ohio students enrolled in charters, it’s really starting to cost OEA some money.

Suddenly those union complaints about charter schools really start to come into focus.