Students suffer when we pretend the cost of charter schools for public school districts is zero

Donald Cohen
May 24, 2018 · 4 min read

The following was written by Gordon Lafer in response to critiques of In the Public Interest’s new report, Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts. Lafer is a political scientist and professor at the University of Oregon.

Earlier this month, In the Public Interest released a new report that I authored, measuring the cost of charter schools for neighborhood schools and public school districts. The report put numbers on a phenomenon that everyone knows is going on but no one could quantify.

Of course, charter schools aren’t the only cause of fiscal crisis for California’s school districts — but they are a significant contributor and, until now, they are the one cost that has gone unmeasured. Read more about the findings here, here, and here.

Unfortunately, some charter school advocates have responded with defensive, head-in-the-sand proclamations, insisting that the cost of charter schools is zero, or that no matter the cost, school officials should be banned from taking it into account. In some cases, these statements have come from advocacy groups who have been engaged in what they describe as a “tipping point strategy” aiming to force local school districts into crisis.

One such advocate — Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE)— has repeatedly questioned the accuracy of our numbers but so far has neglected to engage with anything specific about the analysis. It’s important to note that CRPE receives funding from the pro-charter Bill & Melinda Gates, Laura and John Arnold, and Walton Family foundations, and that Lake has professed an “affection” for entirely replacing public school districts with an “all-charter system.”

As the report’s author, I invited Lake to identify any numbers in the report that she believed were inaccurate and suggest what she believes would be a more realistic number. More than two weeks after the publication of the report — containing 38 pages, 88 footnotes, and a 10-page methodological appendix — she has yet to identify a single number that she believes is incorrect.

Instead, Lake and others have argued that if only school districts were better managed, net losses of tens of millions of dollars wouldn’t be a problem. Lake herself argues that neighborhood schools could close the gap by:

  • Increasing class sizes
  • Cutting teacher salaries
  • Having more students commute longer distances and fewer attending neighborhood schools
  • Making teachers do more administrative work
  • Having principals be responsible for multiple schools instead of a single school
  • Having more teachers work part-time at multiple schools
  • And making services such as special education and school transportation more “variable” — which is typically code for privatizing and contracting out these services.

But all of these steps would undermine the quality of education for the majority of students who are served by neighborhood schools — which reinforces the central point of our report. The only way this would not be true were if Lake or others could identify cuts to neighborhood schools and school districts that would not impact the quality of education for their students.

We have identified very dramatic and daunting costs created by charter school expansion. If other analysts believe the numbers have to be adjusted somewhat higher or lower — we invite that conversation. If advocates believe there are places that school systems can lay off personnel and cut services without harming the quality of education for local students — we invite those proposals. We hope that people of good faith both in the charter community and in neighborhood schools will join in this discussion.

We stand by the recommendations in our report, which doesn’t include closing charter schools. There are many possible policy responses to the problem. California legislators could, for instance, determine that expanding the charter sector is an important undertaking, but that it should not be paid for on the backs of neighborhood school students — and therefore identify alternative sources of funding to make charter expansion possible without harming the quality of education for other students.

We call for two commonsense policies that should be universally supported. The first is that all school districts should conduct their own analysis to measure the cost of charter schools in their own communities. Secondly, elected school boards at the local, county, and state levels must be empowered to take these costs into account as one of the factors they weigh in determining how many and what type of charter schools serve the interests of their community’s children.

Unlike charter operators that run a single school or a small chain of local schools, elected school boards are responsible for managing the total pot of available school funding in a way that maximizes educational opportunity for all students in the community. We need to let the people we elect do their jobs.

The exact costs imposed by charter schools — and the services that should be cut to make up for this — is something over which reasonable people can differ. What no one can reasonably do is pretend the cost is zero, or to suggest that elected officials should be prohibited from accounting for such costs in figuring out how to make scarce education dollars serve their community as a whole.

In the Public Interest

In the Public Interest is a nonprofit that advocates for democratic control of public goods and services.

Donald Cohen

Written by

Exec Director of In the Public Interest, a non profit promoting the democratic control of public assets and services.

In the Public Interest

In the Public Interest is a nonprofit that advocates for democratic control of public goods and services.

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