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Robin Lake: Assessing charter schools’ impact on districts is too important to get wrong

Robin Lake | May 8, 2019

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Several months ago I critiqued a report by Dr. Gordon Lafer that was published by In the Public Interest (ITPI), a think tank that has long been critical of charter schools and recently helped rally supporters of a five-year moratorium on new charters. Unfortunately, the report continues to inform policy deliberations in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom has tasked a commission to study charter school policy changes.

Lafer’s methodology, which has not been peer-reviewed, measures the budget impact of closing local charter schools on three hypothetical school district budgets. It makes several flawed assumptions that result in unsupported conclusions.

The study assumes that without charter schools, all the charter students within district boundaries would attend that district’s schools. Then it assumes that the district’s new tax revenue connected to those new students would exceed the cost of educating them, resulting in an improved financial picture for the district.

The questionable assumptions don’t end there.

Lafer assumes the Oakland Unified School District wouldn’t hire any new staff in its central office to help educate the 15,000 new students the district would gain if charters were closed. He also assumes no new costs for school buildings and transportation.

His low-cost estimate to educate a lot more students doesn’t even agree with Oakland Unified’s financial history.

Oakland’s enrollment in 2000-2001 was as high as it would be if all charter students returned to district schools today. Nineteen years ago, the district was beleaguered and schools were just as poorly resourced as they are today. Moreover, when enrollment grew previously in districts like Oakland, spending increased at a higher rate than revenues, not at a lower rate.

The author is trying to turn an institutional failure into an advantage — a creative approach, but not an accurate assessment.

History shows a district that is already spending more than it should on its central office and operating too many under-enrolled schools would not become more efficient if it grew significantly.

Actual district expenses rise and fall as enrollment numbers change, even though most districts find it painful to cut staff when enrollment numbers indicate they should.

The study focuses its analysis on charter school growth, ignoring other influences on district enrollment. While charter schools have drawn students away from district classrooms, so have other school districts, private schools and changes in family size. School districts must not look to one source of financial give-and-take.

The author highlights the fact that the loss of a few students sprinkled across the various grades cannot be solved by laying off any single teacher — a point that economists refer to as a “lumpiness” problem. This is a challenge for districts every fall, whether or not they have charter schools, and applies whether enrollment is growing or falling.

If this were a true cost-benefit analysis, why are the academic benefits to students not considered in the equation? A Stanford University analysis found urban charter schools in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay significantly boosted student achievement in both reading and math.

I’ve outlined specific methodological problems, but several other facts undermine Lafer’s implied claim that charter schools are to blame for district financial problems:

  • Oakland, one of the three districts profiled in Lafer’s study, has had stable enrollment for the past five years — and rising revenues.
  • Many California districts have financial problems and few, if any, charter schools. Clovis Unified, for example, has the 10th largest deficit in the state and few charters.
  • Many districts are financially stable, despite having a large number of charter schools, such as Albany City Unified and Capistrano Unified.
  • Most California districts that encounter fiscal problems stabilize over a few short years. Long-term fiscal distress is unusual, confined to a few districts with a history of gross financial mismanagement.
  • California’s own Legislative Analyst’s Office finds that the key predictors of fiscal distress in school districts are unsustainable collective bargaining agreements, failure to maintain healthy reserves, and flawed enrollment and income projections.

Financial stability is a challenge for all school systems. California has an opportunity to lead the way in developing new solutions. Transition funding, for example, could help districts make adjustments when they lose enrollment. State policies should help districts with particularly troublesome expenses, such as the long-term costs of school buildings, or retiree health care and pension costs.

Studies that suddenly blame long-standing problems in public education on charter schools make it harder to identify the real problems and potential solutions.

Robin Lake is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.

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