I am a great fan of Eve Ewing’s book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard. I have read the book twice, visited in Chicago some of the sites she describes, given the book to friends as a gift and blogged about it. In that book, Ewing documents the community grief across Chicago’s South Side, where the now three decades old Renaissance 2010 “portfolio school plan” pits neighborhood public schools and charter schools in competition and closes the so-called “failing” neighborhood public schools when too many families opt for a charter school.
In a column published in Monday’s NY Times, Eve Ewing wants to make peace with charter schools. She writes that we should allow families to choose and ensure that neighborhood schools and charter schools can all be well resourced and thriving. Ewing grasps for a third way—some sort of amicable compromise in a very polarized situation.
Ewing is a University of Chicago sociologist, and, in her column she examines many of the factors by which neighborhood public schools and charter schools have been compared and rated. She points out that academic quality is a mixed bag with neighborhood and charter schools sometimes besting each other in terms of student achievement. Then she wonders, “What would it look like if we built an education policy agenda dedicated to ensuring… resources for all students?
The problem in Ewing’s column this week is that she never identifies or addresses the matter of public funding for education. I assume she wants to equalize school funding across both sectors. But when charter schools compete for students with public schools, there are now two separate education sectors to split what has proven to be a fixed pot of money. In every single place I know about where charter schools have been allowed to open up, this is a zero sum game. A sufficient and growing body of research demonstrates that there is no way to split the funding both ways without cutting the funding that most states and local school districts have been budgeting for their public schools.
Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, explains that one must consider more than the comparative test scores and students’ experiences in neighborhood schools and charters, and instead examine the impact of adding new charter schools into what he calls the entire educational ecosystem of the school district: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide…. Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.” “In this report, the focus is on the host district, the loss of enrollments to charter schools, the loss of revenues to charter schools, and the response of districts as seen through patterns of overhead expenditures.” In his report, Baker calls charter schools “parasites.”
One issue is that charter schools tend to serve fewer English language learners and fewer students with extremely severe disabilities, leaving behind in the neighborhood public schools the children whose needs are most expensive to serve. Research by Mark Weber and Julia Sass Rubin at Rutgers University demonstrates, for example, that: “New Jersey charter schools continue to enroll proportionally fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students than their sending district public schools. The special education students enrolled in charter schools tend to have less costly disabilities compared to special education students in the district public schools… (D)ata… show that many charter schools continue to enroll fewer at-risk students than their sending district public schools.”
In Pennsylvania, the state funds special education in charter schools at a flat rate of $40,000 per student no matter whether the child is autistic, blind, a victim of severe multiple handicaps or impaired by a speech impediment. Peter Greene reports that in Chester Upland, where a charter school is sucking up a mass of special education funding, in a court decision, Judge Chad Kenney declared: “The Charter Schools serving Chester Upland special education students reported in 2013-14… that they did not have any special education students costing them anything outside the zero to twenty-five thousand dollar range, and yet, this is remarkable considering they receive forty thousand dollars for each one of these special education students under a legislatively mandated formula.”
The biggest financial loss caused by the introduction of a charter sector into a school district is that it is not possible for the school district to recover the stranded costs when children exit to charter schools. In a groundbreaking 2018 report, the Oregon political economist, Gordon Lafer demonstrates that California’s Oakland Unified School District loses $57.3 million every year to charter schools. Here’s how: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”
Lafer concludes: “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.” In the same report, Lafer adds that in 2016-17, the San Diego Unified School District lost $65.9 million to charter schools.
In a subsequent report, Lafer explains: “Public school students in California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District are paying dearly for privately managed charter schools they don’t attend… Charter schools add $27.9 million a year to WCCUSD’s costs of running its own schools… That’s a net loss, after accounting for all savings realized by no longer educating the charter school students.”
The financial loss for any state’s public schools is not limited to local school district budgets. There is substantial evidence that state legislatures do not create a separate budget line item funded with additional dollars to pay for school privatization; funding is instead sucked out of what used to be budgeted for the state’s public school districts. In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black traces how funding charter schools depleted public school funding in Ohio during the decade following the Great Recession in 2008: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015. While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)
In her brilliant 2018 book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, what Eve Ewing examines is really the social impact in one South Side Chicago community of marketplace school choice in the form of the competition for students between neighborhood public schools and a growing charter school sector. The Renaissance 2010 charter school marketplace expansion was ultimately the economic driver of Chicago’s closure of 50 neighborhood public schools at the end of 2013. The growth of a Chicago charter school sector was a primary cause of the “ghost” neighborhood schoolhouses left abandoned across Chicago’s South Side.