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Home » Chalk Talk – Charter School Holy Wars

April 25, 2005

School districts have launched a holy war against charter schools. Kansas City schools superintendent Bernard Taylor told the Associated Press it’s time to “rethink” charters, that they are a drain on his budget. He’s suing the state to avoid sending local dollars to the city’s 17 charter schools. A proposition put forth by Albany, New York school board members, seeks a moratorium on new charters and a decrease of funding for existing schools. “We’re getting murdered,” says Ohio union boss Tom Mooney.

Some may wonder why the managers of conventional public education seek to eradicate charter schools. A reporter asked me today if the rhetoric has become more heated in the last two years. He also wanted to know why this seems to be such a stridently emotional battle.

Let’s start with that inquiry. In 1992 there were a few hundred children in charter schools. Today there are more than 800,000. Charters are a dominant force in cities like Washington, DC and Boston. They have challenged the conventional wisdom about what schooling should look like. There are small charters and large ones, charters focused on high school dropouts and ones on pre-school children. The Detroit public school system has seen radical enrollment drops since charters started. One leading reason – the city that made Motown famous only graduated 44 percent of its high schoolers and the story is just as bad for the younger students. Only 35 percent of Detroit’s eighth graders are proficient on the state’s MEAP exam.

So as school systems continued to ignore parental cries for better results, charters began filling that void. The top ten research studies show that charters are having a positive impact on the children they serve with as much as 10 percent more gains depending on the state. Yes, there are some studies that show equal performance with conventional schools, and a few that show a drop. But it is more likely given all we know that charters are doing better.

And a major accountability factor often overlooked is that parents are NOT required to send their children there. They can walk when they want, and that factor has driven charters to work hard and driven school systems to start a backlash.

That backlash is focused around money.

So even though Kansas City superintendent Taylor’s district received more money from state and federal sources than most, only 13 percent of the city’s students are proficient in reading and only 12 percent are proficient in math. But he is suing the state to avoid giving charter schools the money they are due by virtue of the fact that their kids live in the same district that collects revenue to subsidize all public schools.

Now Taylor admits it’s about money, and not kids. “If our resources continue to dwindle and the district is cutting back in terms of services but you have a law that says you can still expand … charters, then it means all we are going to do is take a decreasing amount of resources…”

Taylor never mentions the kids going to the charters who are no less entitled than those who remain in district schools. What’s extraordinary about his comments was actually revealed in an April 14 Kansas City Star article that found the district has a $31.7 million rainy day fund, and another $168 million in a capital projects fund, against which bond payments are estimated to be only $27 million this year.

So that’s why Taylor can’t give charters the $6 million they are owed!

Incompetence or arrogance? Perhaps both. Because about 40 years ago, school district officials went from being stewards of schools to being protectors of school systems. Their entitlement mentality, while government support swelled, fixed their attitude in place.

So after legislative attempts to bleed charters dry failed, the special interests took their case to the courts. Repeatedly, state supreme courts threw out their arguments that charters were not constitutionally permitted and told them they were public schools and thus entitled to public funds.

Now they’re back in legislatures – in droves. In Massachusetts earlier this year, special interests convinced lawmakers to subsidize school districts for students who leave. Last year in Indiana they got a complicated funding formula interpreted to mean they didn’t have to pay. Thankfully that is about to be corrected. In South Carolina, school district officials are trying to influence the passage of a bill that looks good for charters, but in reality puts the full burden of paying for charter students on the state, holding the districts harmless.

Some districts have taken to advertising to get kids back. That’s a much better response, as long as they tell the truth. Canton, Ohio officials kicked off a $50,000 ad campaign with a new logo, an art contest and monetary prizes. Their representatives are busy in Columbus, though, trying to convince legislators that charter funding should be restricted. In Tucson, Arizona, as in Mesa before that, leaders are taking to the air to counter the effects of cutting back on staff because students are leaving.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? If students are going to other schools, districts do not need to maintain the same level of services, the same number of staff. They became accustomed, however, to maintaining funding levels year after year after year, regardless of enrollment trends. School finance has remained consistent before the advent of charter schools, despite enrollment declines and surges.

Where were the districts when the birth rate went down after the baby boom, causing enrollment declines system wide? They didn’t campaign for more pregnancies, they just lived with it.

Charters should be viewed as a natural evolution as well. With approximately 3,500 charter schools serving nearly one million children, they are here to stay and will continue to grow. Isn’t it better that we work to help the children who attend them benefit fully, rather than stage a fight every time a new one opens?

But we’re so far beyond reason at this point. Even the media are picking up on the special interest rhetoric:

“Charters are siphoning money from the district.”
Siphoning? You mean they are sticking a hose in and pulling it out involuntarily?? Money belongs to all of us, and charters are entitled to public funds to educate public kids no less than a school district.

“Charters are draining money from the budget.”
Who’s draining what? Aren’t kids leaving because the think they’ll do better in another school? Maybe it’s really the parents that are draining the budget, in which case, you’d be picking on the parents. Not a good move, is it?

Here’s a better way to look at it, courtesy of the Gary, Indiana Post Tribune, April 11:

“Parents are showing their disenchantment with their feet. They’re walking away in droves from the city’s traditional public schools and toward newly created public charter schools. They say they’re looking for safer schools, smaller class sizes, and a better academic foundation.”

Draining? I think not. These parents, and the thousands like them nationwide, are working for their kids, not the system. It costs us all when we don’t educate children. We should applaud when we find ways to keep people attending public schools, and if that costs the district funds they’d otherwise love to keep, maybe they need to act and stop complaining.

Until then, when you hear that charters are costing someone money, remember who pays for the schools and why they are supposed to exist. Money is for education, not just to perpetuate a system or jobs or programs that may not work for every child. If kids are leaving, it’s safe to say that there’s a problem. Thank God there are parents who care enough to buck the status quo.