Elephant in the School Choice Room

Peter Greene explains what it is at Curmudgucation:



Magical Money And School Choice

Posted: 14 Jun 2019

Pennsylvania’s legislature is currently having Version 2,433,672,127 of the same argument that emerges every five minutes in the places where charter schools and public schools bump up against each other. The PA legislature just passed a suite of charter school bills addressing a variety of issues, but not the single issue that folks on all sides want to have addressed:

Absent from all four bills is any mention of the elephant-in-the-room issue when it comes to charter schools, namely how they are funded.

School districts complain that the bills to educate resident students who choose to attend a charter school are one of the largest expenditures in their budgets. According to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, 37 cents of every new dollar that districts raised from property taxes in 2017-18 went to charter schools.

Charter schools, meanwhile, complain they are underfunded because the amounts they are paid are less than what a school district spends to educate their own students.

Public schools are getting hammered by the loss of public tax dollars that have been diverted from public school finances into charter and choice school accounts. Charters, having forgotten the era when they bragged that they could do more with less, complain that they are underfunded compared to public schools.

The problem here, as with several other choice-related issues, is in a false premise of modern school choice movement. That false premise is the assertion that we can fund multiple school districts for the same money we used to use to fund one single public system.

This is transparent baloney. When was the last time any school district said, “We are really strapped for funds. We had better open some new schools right away!” Never. Because everyone understands that operating multiple facilities with multiple staffs and multiple administrations and multiple overhead expenses– all that costs more than putting your operation under one roof.

But the choice pitch has always been some version of, “Your community can have twelve different schools with twelve different flavors of education in twelve different buildings with twelve different staffs– and it won’t cost you a nickel more than what you’re paying now!” This is carnival barker talk, the same kind of huckster pitch as “Why buy that used Kia? I’ll sell you a brand new Mercedes for the same price!”

Adding charters and choice increases educational costs in a community. Sometimes we’ve hid that by bringing in money from outside sources, like PTA bake sales to buy a public school office equipment, or pricey benefit dinners for charters, or increasing state and federal subsidies to help charters stay afloat.

But mostly school choice is the daylight savings time of education– if we just shuffle this money around in new and different ways, somehow there will be more of it.

This trick never works. And we talk all too rarely about why it never will.

The reasons for avoiding the financial elephant in the educational parlor are several. For some choice advocates, it’s a feature and not a bug. It is hard to look at, say, Florida’s legislature and not conclude that they are fully aware that they are starving public education and they’re perfectly happy about that, that the hope is that public education can be shrunk down to nothing. DeVosian dominionists like that idea as well; I’ve heard more than a few religious conservatives declare that it’s time for the church to take schools back from the government. Starve the government, starve the evil teachers’ union, shrink the whole public system until it can be drained out of the proverbial bathtub.

There are other choice advocates who are sincere believers in a hybrid system in which charters and public schools coexist, thrive, and help each other. But even among those folks, there’s nobody who has the political will to say to the public, “We want to expand our education system into a beautiful spread of shiny options, bringing freedom and choice and other swell things to education, but to do it will take a lot more money, so we’re going to have to raise your taxes to get it done.”

And so the lie persists, the false notion that we can education 100 students in either one school or in ten different schools, and it will cost exactly the same amount. Maybe if we pass the money through a different set of hands in an tax credit scholarship or some other kind of super-voucher, it will somehow multiply.

Of course, if money were no object for all students in education, we’d already have public schools so great that the subject of choice would never have come up in the first place. But the defining trait of US education has always been that we want a Mercedes at Kia prices, and Those Peoples’ Children should just use a bicycle. (and teachers should only have their wages raised when they reach the point that they’re actually embarrassing), and we definitely don’t need to talk about using money and resources to improve the societal conditions that create the environment in which education occurs.

Despite my reputation as a charter hater, I can actually imagine a world in which charters would be a useful addition to the educational landscape– but it would be a world without magic. The falsest promise that choice advocates have made is that somehow we can have a super-greater education system without having to actually pay for it. That kind of magical thinking is not going to help anybody except, of course, the hucksters with snake oil to sell.

Published in: on June 14, 2019 at 2:11 pm  Comments (10)  

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  1. Aa a former inner city district teacher and administrator who children attend urban districts, I watched as fellow teachers and administrators moved out to suburbs, I question your assertion that there is just “one school district.

    Despite your assertion, we never “funded just one school district” except in Hawaii. Wealthy and mostly white families have been leaving urban districts since shortly after WW 1. Why is it ok for such families to have options but not low/moderate income families? Why is it ok for suburban districts to block inner city families that want to send their children to their schools (and in some cases hire police and attorneys to go after inner city families that want their children to attend these “public” schools?


    • Be less ingenuous about the concept of a community funding only one school district. That’s right, a community. Peter is not talking about a state run system, but you already knew that. I would guess that very few states are responsible for most of the school funding, but you already knew that, too. How we fund schools has a lot more to do with the quality of the schools and demanding that a system that does not adequately fund some schools now magically fund more than one is irresponsible at best. I am disappointed that you failed to mention your charter background.


      • The majority of states provide the majority of funding for public schools. Having helped create and work in a number of district options, I’m very familiar with the arguments conservative, traditional “one best way” educators make against options. One of the reasons to create options is to help more students succeed. Another reason is to provide options for educators who want to try something different. Indeed, some of the strongest supporters of chartering are district educators who have become frustrated with the opposition of some district educators to new, potentially more effective educators.


      • “The majority of states provide the majority of funding for public schools.”
        And you got your information where? A quick search online did not support your assertion.


      • Thanks for your question. The source was a report by either Education Commission of the States or Education Trust. I am unable to find the report so will check on Monday.


      • A US Department of Education report for the 2016-17 school year found that 25 states provided more than half of the overall funding for public schools, and 25 states provided less than half. So I was not correct. It’s 25 do, and 25 don’t.

        The same report showed that nationally, state sources provide 47% of the K-12 funding, local sources provide 45% and the rest comes from the federal government. To find the report go here and then click on table 5: https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2017/econ/school-finances/secondary-education-finance.html


  2. The point of the Curmudgucation is not primarily about who provides the funding (state, locality or feds): it’s that is is simply more expensive to have two, three, or a dozen school districts administering education through the publicly-funded schools of a given community. So the idea that charter schools would produced better and cheaper education because of competition is simply ridiculous on its face.
    Plus, the secret sauce of any school system is more funding for more intensive education, coupled with more time, coupled with a student body that buys into the system.
    No secrets there.


    • No argument. Was just commenting on the fact that underfunded school districts are not in a position to fund a dual system even if charters had a better record than they do. States providing slightly more by % than the local community does not deal with the fact that most states are underfunding their schools to begin with, particularly the poorest systems. It would appear that “many” states find it too expensive to fund one system, much less two.


    • The same argument (it’s more expensive) was used 40 years ago when some of us proposed creating new options within districts. It’s cheaper and wiser just to invest in traditional neighborhood schools – was the argument.
      Providing options within some limits was (and remains) valuable for educators, as well as students and families. Educators like Deborah Meier (and yours truly) created new options like Montessori, or Core Knowledge, or project based schools – despite intense opposition from traditionalists. This helped some students succeed who were not doing well in traditional schools. And it respected and respects – the professional insights and knowledge of educators.

      There’s a new variation on this them, being carried out in some traditional as well as charter districts. It’s the “teacher led” or “teacdher powered” school idea. In some places, like farmer coops – the teachers themselves are the majority of the board of director that runs the (public) schools.


  3. Until the United States changes it funding model of allocating resources based on the property values of the school zones we will continue to have pockets of schools in low-income areas that are under-resourced (to use a polite term) to the point of starvation. I teach in such an area.

    In other countries, there are schools that serve poor children, but the schools have the same resources as all the other schools in the country. There are no poor schools.

    As long as we tolerate poor schools, we will continue to make little to no progress is helping disadvantaged children to achieve academic success.


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