Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Charter compromises

I had an interesting conversation with a Democratic state legislator from New Hampshire two evenings ago.  He was complaining about the dozen charter schools in the state, saying that the public schools are already underfunded (which they are: they only get a measly $3,900/student/year) and when a charter school opens and draws students away, the revenue leaves the local public schools, but the costs don't go down at all since not enough students leave to warrant hiring one fewer teacher, for example.  He said he'd support charter schools if they were funded separately, such that the regular public schools weren't adversely impacted.
This isn't a new point of view, obviously.  It's a widespread concern -- for example, consider this paragraph from the article below on DC charter schools:
As charters have proliferated, the number of students attending traditional schools has plummeted from 80,000 a decade ago to 58,000 last school year. Because tax dollars follow the student, charters now claim at least $140 million a year that might otherwise flow to neighborhood schools. That has led traditional schools to cut programs, lay off teachers and, for the first time in nearly a decade, close.
Of course, with 22,000 fewer students to educate, the District can hire far fewer teachers and cut certain other costs, but the reality is that many costs are fixed or somewhat fixed and to the extent that a school loses only a handful of students (as appears to be the case in New Hampshire typically), there are virtually no savings at all.
I share this story because it's important for those of us who champion charter schools to understand exactly what motivates those who don't support our cause.  Too often I think we dismiss them as lackeys for the teachers' unions who don't care about the children or don't understand the value of competition and choice.  This is sometimes true, to be sure, but often they are thoughtful, caring people who want what's best for all children and have a legitimate concern about already underfunded public schools being put in even more of a financial pinch.
There aren't any easy answers here -- to some extent, I WANT regular public schools to feel some financial pain, as this can spur efforts to improve to keep parents/children from defecting the charter schools -- but I think there are some compromises we should be willing to make.  Here are some ideas:
a) Perhaps a regular public school wouldn't lose any funding for the first 10 students who left, but then started to lose a certain amount per student thereafter; and/or
b) Perhaps the school would only lose, say, 50% of the fully funded per pupil amount when a student left; and/or
c) Perhaps the school wouldn't lose any funding during the first year a student left, but then lost, say, 25% the 2nd year, 50% the third year, 75% the 4th year and the full amount thereafter.
Of course, all of these plans require additional funding, which can make it harder to get charter legislation passed -- as I said, there are no easy answers.

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