In Blog Series, Bruce Baker Explores Issues at the Intersection of Money and Reform

Bruce Baker, professor of education finance and education policy and law at Rutgers University, is also the author of the Education Law Center’s annual review of school funding adequacy and equity across the states: Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card. In his blog, School Finance 101, Baker explores issues of school funding fairness as well as other matters he is investigating for academic research.  At the end of October to launch a connected series of posts, At the Intersection of Money and Reform, he declared, “At times, this blog serves as a palette for testing/sharing ideas.  So… in this, and a rapid fire sequence of follow-up posts, I will share some excerpts of forthcoming, and early stage, in-progess work.”  What makes this series  so interesting is not only Baker’s summary of the history of the current state of school policy but also his dive into the research literature.

In the first post, Baker deftly discounts the often repeated myth that paying teachers based on their earning masters’ and doctors’ degrees and based on their years of experience fails to improve their students’ education and is, therefore, a waste of money. Reviewing the research literature, he concludes:  “To summarize, despite all the uproar about paying teachers based on experience and education… this line of argument misses the point… (T)he average salaries of the teaching profession, with respect to other labor market opportunities, can substantively affect the quality of entrants to the teaching profession, applicants to preparation programs, and student outcomes.  Diminishing resources for schools can constrain salaries and reduce the quality of the labor supply.  Further, salary differentials between schools and districts might help to recruit or retain teachers in high need settings.  In other words, resources used for teacher quality matter.”

Baker’s recent series then moves to several posts that explore primary policy concerns about the charter sector.  He begins Part II with a serious investigation of the idea that charter schools are more efficient: “The core assumption is that charter schooling improves efficiency because the flexibility afforded through chartering permits charter schools to engage in more creative teacher compensation strategies and technological substitution, such as trading small class sizes for efficient use of technology through blended and online learning. Further, efficiency improvement yielded by charter innovations creates competitive pressure on traditional public schools to improve.”  Are charters really more efficient?  Evaluating the research literature, Baker cites a study of “efficiency advantages” in Texas charter schools, and concludes: “(W)ork by these authors reveals that the lower overall expenses are largely a function of lower salaries and inexperienced staff… That is, compensation was held lower not because of creative technological substitution, or alternative compensation, but relative inexperience and high turnover.  Epple, Romano and Zimmer (2015) suggest that these patterns are similar across studies of charter school teachers. Thus, estimated efficiency gains, where they do exist, may rely on maintenance of high turnover and relatively inexperienced staff, a questionably scalable and sustainable option… By and large, charter schools that spend more appear to spend more providing competitive compensation for their teachers, offering longer school days and school years, and maintaining smaller classes, while those that spend less do so by maintaining inexperienced staff and high turnover.”

Baker’s next post investigates how the hybridized public/private governance of charters affects the accountability of the schools and impacts their capacity to protect the rights of students, teachers, and taxpayers.  “(T)he U.S. Constitution prohibits the government or its agents from violating individuals’ rights to free speech, due process, and freedom from unreasonable searches. Therefore, students and employees in public schools maintain these constitutional rights.  In contrast, students in schools run by private entities, or employees engaging in contractual arrangements with private entities (the Charter Management Companies) may not enjoy the same protections.  In many of these cases, employment contracts or school discipline policies provide employees or students (and their parents) only the rights guaranteed under private contract law.”  He wonders about weak state laws that fail to prevent conflicts of interest between charter boards and their management companies: “Maintenance of public accountability relies on the presumption that any charter school’s (or any business entity’s) board of directors is sufficiently independent of the contracted private management company that it may sever ties with that contractor and seek alternatives for school management, if necessary.”  “The multiple layers of private school operations and management, governing boards of private citizens, and in some cases, authorization by private entities, presents far greater opportunity to shield documents and avoid constitutional and statutory protections in the charter sector.”

A follow-up post provides Baker an opportunity to explore the difference between two charter models—portfolio and parasite. “In the portfolio model, a centralized authority oversees a system of publicly financed schools, both traditional district operated and independent, charter operated…. A very different reality of charter school governance , however, has emerged under state charter school laws—one that presents at least equal likelihood that charters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources.  One might characterize this as a parasitic rather than a portfolio model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator…”  Not necessarily won over by the rhetoric of collaboration said to be embedded in a “portfolio” model and condemnatory of the “parasitic” model , Baker explores the damage likely to result when a school district is expected to support a dual system: the traditional  public schools and a growing charter sector.  He describes advocacy organizations like Bellwether Education Partners (which advocates for rapid growth of charters and the subsequent death of traditional public school districts) and other charter school advocates who merely stress that “charter expansion causes no financial harm to host districts.”  Both are mistaken, writes Baker, based on the research from Moody’s Investor Services that “charter schools pose the greatest credit challenge to school districts in economically weak urban areas.” The problem, he writes, is that school districts have fixed costs that cannot be minimized as individual students opt through school choice to leave for charter schools. “In addition, numerous studies find that charter schools serve fewer students with costly special needs, leaving proportionately more of these children in district schools.”

Baker calls the last post in his series a “musing”:  “It is important to acknowledge that charter school market shares are not, in recent years, expanding exclusively or even primarily because of market demand and personal/family preferences for charter schools.  Traditional district public schools are being closed, neighborhoods left without options other than charters, district schools are being reconstituted and handed over to charter operators (including entire districts), and district schools are increasingly deprived of resources, experience burgeoning class sizes, reductions in program offerings sending more families scrambling for their ‘least bad’ alternative.  These are conscious decisions of policymakers overseeing the system that includes district and charter schools.  They are not market forces, and should never be confused as such.  These systems are being centrally managed without regard for equity and adequacy goals or the protection of student, family, taxpayer and employee rights, but instead, on the false hope that liberty of choice is a substitute for all of the above (including, apparently, loss of individual liberties.).”

I hope you’ll read Baker’s posts which summarize academic studies that explode the mythology being circulated by those who promote privatization and seek to undermine traditional public schools and discredit school teachers.  Baker believes that public schools governed by public boards of education are the institutions most likely to serve the needs and protect the rights of our nation’s children.

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