Charters, School Closures, and Public Control

Mari Taylor, vice president of the Washington State School Directors Association, wrote a fairly effective anti-charter school op-ed in yesterday’s Seattle Times which raises some issues worth analyzing. She goes straight for the heartstrings with:

Communities across the state have dealt with the wrenching process of shutting small schools down to close budget gaps. The new privately run I-1240 schools, with new facilities and costly overhead, would take $100 million away from communities that need every available resource for their existing schools.

The implication is that charter schools will reproduce the pain of budget cuts, by adding overhead. But this is false. Budget cuts are painful because they are all pain and no gain. Schools have to be closed to fill a gap, and this is not only disruptive to the families forced to change schools, it means that the schools receiving them become more crowded, leaving everyone worse off than before. With new charter schools the case is totally different: the money follows the students. So while losing students to charter schools may lead districts to consolidate some of their schools, the net result is that the number of schools, and the overhead of running them, remains unchanged.

To give the loss of a district school to a charter school some bite requires an argument that the charter school is somehow worse than the district school was. The way that Taylor does this is with the specter of the loss of local and, strangely enough, parental control. Because the charter schools are overseen by a state commission, losing a district school to a charter means the community loses its democratic control over its schools.

To consider this a real loss we have to believe in a rosy, pastoral picture of local school politics. But the “wrenching” nature of school closures, which, as Taylor herself points out, happen regularly without charter schools, paints a different picture. The fact is that school closures are an expected part of running school districts with changing demographics. But they are wrenching to school board members like Taylor because they are contentious. For a district, with relatively constant per-school fixed costs (such as administrative salaries), a small or under-enrolled school requires high per-pupil expenditures. This means that students at such schools effectively receive more resources than at large or over-enrolled schools. Closing these schools evens out the distribution of resources; from the perspective of the families attending those schools, however, resources are being taken away from them. This is most troubling when there are several candidates for closure across a large district, but in neighborhoods with substantial differences in political and financial resources. The choice is then between closing schools attended by the well-off and the politically powerful and those of the poor and politically weak. I need not say which is the more likely choice.

This actually spells out why we need charter schools: to fill needs that remain unmet by the political and bureaucratic processes of local school districts. Without charter schools, when a struggling, under-enrolled neighborhood school gets closed by the district, its students are at the mercy of whatever reassignment policy the district comes up with. With them, the need for a school in the neighborhood can be met by a different organization, even in the same building. As far as public expenditure is concerned, the charter school would be cheaper because it would only be allotted the average per-pupil rate. The reason a charter school could succeed in a location the district had to abandon is that it would be free to make different choices about its overhead to make the small school environment feasible; it could pay its administrators less than the prevailing rate, for instance. And because it specifically targets that neighborhood and its population, it might be able to raise funds a district, or district  foundation could not.

Families who do not agree with the tradeoffs a charter school chooses would remain free, of course, to choose a different one, or the district reassignment. In this way charter school law creates power that is more local than the control exercised by school districts, not less. To be certain, it takes away some power from the democratic majority and cedes it to individuals. But balancing the power of the majority with the power of the individual is how modern liberal democracy works.

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