The fabrications of a charter school critic

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Last Sunday, the Columbus Dispatch ran contrasting op-eds on the question, “Should Ohio charter schools receive more state funding?” I authored one of them, and in it I highlight the fact that charters receive far less public funding than school districts to educate pupils with comparable needs. I make the case that underfunding charters is simply unfair to students choosing a different type of school for their education. William Phillis, a harsh critic who’s called charters “parasites,” authored the opposing editorial. He trots out several tired charter canards and half-truths, notes the misconduct of the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, and implies that charters misuse funds on things such as marketing and administration.

Let me first say that I agree with Phillis that the responsible stewardship of public dollars matters immensely. Just like districts, charters should be leveraging their resources to do the most for students. If a charter school is spending excessive amounts on marketing or administration, its governing board should reprioritize its expenditures. The same principle applies to district boards; they too should be combing through their budgets to ensure dollars are being well spent.

But two of his claims require strong refutation. The first deals with a serious mathematical error. Phillis challenges my finding of a charter funding shortfall by citing the following data:

Another set of data from Ohio Department of Education files is needed to complete the fiscal picture. According to the department’s school year 2017-2018 Expenditure Flow Model, charter schools, on average, actually spent $360 more per pupil than school districts ($11,819 vs $11,459).

Here’s the problem: The data he cites represent an unweighted average across districts and charters that ignores pupil enrollments. When he computes the statewide average, each district is treated as an equal contributor to the average, even though districts enroll widely varying numbers of students. For instance, under this method, the spending of a 500-student rural district is weighted just the same as the 50,000-student Columbus City School District. This is, of course, absurd—akin to treating California the same as North Dakota when computing the per-capita national GDP.

When one does a proper student-weighted calculation, the correct numbers are:

According to the department’s school year 2017-2018 Expenditure Flow Model, charter schools, on average, actually spent $360 $1,654 more less per pupil than school districts ($11,819 vs $11,459 $10,300 vs. $11,954).

This significant charter disparity at the statewide level in FY 18 tracks with conclusions from my paper for FYs 15–17.

Unfortunately, absent also from Phillis’s statement is an acknowledgement of the vast differences in the student backgrounds of Ohio charters versus districts statewide, rendering it an apples-to-oranges comparison. Because charters serve more disadvantaged students than the average district, they ought to receive more funds to support the greater needs of their students. Sadly, however, they receive less.

When one conducts an apples-to-apples comparison of Ohio’s urban Big Eight charters versus Big Eight districts, a much larger funding disparity appears. In these cities, charters receive a staggering $4,092 less per pupil, a funding gap of 28 percent. Disparities of this magnitude limit children’s educational opportunities and result in an unhealthy environment for charters to grow.

Aside from playing fast and loose with the data, Phillis also misfires in his comments about the regulatory framework for charter schools. He writes:

The only way to secure accountability, transparency, and credibility in the charter industry is to subject charters to the same laws and regulations as school districts. Thus far the reforms in charter law have merely nibbled at the edges of the defects.

And he adds:

Charters are exempt from scores of laws and regulations, which should reduce their costs dramatically. These factors argue for less, not more money for charters.

Notwithstanding the bizarre notion that charters should be regulated in the same way as districts—the very idea of charters is to allow schools to do things differently!—there are other holes to this argument.

First, it asserts that charters are freed from all sorts of regulations that burden districts and drive up costs. But let’s put this to the test: The Legislative Service Commission (LSC) produces a helpful catalogue of charters’ exemptions and non-exemptions from state law. What you’ll notice is that the exemptions are largely due to inherent differences in governing and funding arrangements. For instance, a raft of exemptions relate to district board elections and local tax laws that simply don’t apply to charters. The challenge to critics is be more specific: What exemptions are so worrisome? And if indeed they have a legitimate beef about a burdensome regulation from which charters are freed, they should ask legislators to remove that regulation for districts too. (I hear some legislators are interested in deregulation.)

Second, it fails to mention that a key difference between districts and charters lies not in the amount of regulation, but rather their approaches to staffing and employment. Though not required under state law, all districts bargain with local teachers’ unions around wages, hours, and the “terms and conditions” of employment. Covering numerous topics, these elaborate collective bargaining agreements limit what district schools can do with their time, talent, and money. Nearly all charters don’t bargain with a local union, offering them greater flexibility to meet students’ needs or pursue innovative programs. Though sure to rankle union interest groups, some see charters’ ability to work outside of the collective bargaining model as a core strength.

Third, it elides critical laws and regulations that charters are subject to in the same way as districts—and even some that are distinctive to the charter model. Returning again to the LSC catalogue, it lists dozens of statutes from which charters are not exempt, including laws on public ethics and meetings, state assessment and accountability, financial reporting, health and safety, and teacher licensing. Among these, the state’s report cards, with their clear A–F ratings, are the most important tool for holding charters accountable for performance in the same way as districts. On key report card measures, charters perform similarly, if not better, than comparable district schools. Furthermore, charter schools are also subject to a unique oversight system that includes sponsors, entities that have the authority to close schools for underperformance. And unlike districts, charter schools also face an automatic closure penalty under state law when they receive poor report-card ratings.

It’s a shame that Sunday’s readers received such a distorted view of Ohio charters. Perhaps that’s par for the course in a world where pundits can say just about anything and get away with it. As we think how the charter model can drive student learning for more Ohio students, here’s hoping for a more fact-based debate.

 
 
Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.