“…It’s a fairly rudimentary exercise to be frank with you…Revenue follows the student to charter schools. Fixed costs do not follow the student proportionately. So therefore, the more revenue loss you get, the fixed cost base stays the same. There’s erosion. So it’s a pretty simple model…” –Independent Auditor discussing the Metro Nashville Public Schools audit
Those were the words used by the independent auditor hired by Metro Nashville to look at Metro Nashville School Districts operation. It would be an understatement to say that this was not what those commissioning the study thought they would hear. School Board member Will Pinkton had been saying for over a year that we were getting to a point were the approval of more charter schools was financially unsustainable. The charter crowd dismissed these evidence based claims as politics and bias. In fact the hidden agenda of calling for the audit was to discredit Pinkston and fellow board members who had been raising this flag for months.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has long been a friend to charter operators, helping recruit many to Nashville during his time in office. He’s on record as saying that he believes we could handle the financial impact and wanted to see more charter schools, this audit was a way to counter any opposition to increased charter growth.
Council Person Emily Evans spearheaded the effort for the audit from the Metro Council side, which some perceived as a witch hunt. Evans took great umbrage to this, proclaiming that “[The Audit Committee] They have been doing this for years,” she says. “They are staunchly independent and operate with great integrity and commitment to this city.” I hope she remembers these words now that things didn’t turn out quite as planned. Her expectations were that the audit would show a mismanaged central office and an ability to absorb more costs if the district streamlined.
What turned out was a report that every school board member across the country should read. If you haven’t watched the video above, I strongly encourage you to do so. Delivered by an independent voice, is evidence of what fiscally responsible folks have been saying for years. The growth of the charter sector is unsustainable. The auditor himself called it a rudimentary exercise, unfortunately one that we’ve had to dedicate a lot of time and energy to over the past number of years.
Charter operators have, and will continue to, make the argument that cost shouldn’t be the sole determining factor in charter school expansion. They like to say the child is the most important thing. I would tend to agree, but I don’t see the benefit of dismantling an existing system and creating another one, especially when the new one shows no signs of being scalable or any better than the existing system. That’s like going out and buying a new car when you already own a comparable one that just needs new tires. That would be fiscally irresponsible. Yet that’s what is continually called for by the reform crowd.
Despite claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that shows a consistent differential between the performance of charter schools and traditional schools. Only an ardent zealot would argue differently. Yet the argument continues. Previously, the debate was confined to education circles but as the charter industry got bigger and greedier, the argument has spilled out to auditors and accountants. People who are not swayed by ideology but rather raw numbers. When that starts to happen, people start to pay attention.
Tennessee, and specifically, Memphis are deeply affected by the Achievement School District. The ASD was started as a vehicle for the state to take over low performing schools and transform them. However, as of late, it’s become nothing but an independent charter authorizer with very limited results. All but five of the 23 schools in Memphis and Nashville taken over by the Achievement School District are run by private charter operators. The money that would be designated for the children attending a district school now gets directed to the ASD, which obviously leaves the district with less money to execute their mission. Lack of funds leads to lower performance, which leads to more schools getting taken over. It’s a brilliant plan and one they’ve been executing flawlessly until this year, where families have begun to be able to get legislators to really start looking at finances and impact.
Speaking of finances, Tennessee currently has a voucher bill pending. This voucher bill would give students enrolled in schools ranked in the bottom 5% money to go to a school of choice. Many others have written more eloquently then I have on the detrimental effect this plan would have on the state. The interesting part to me is that we already have an entity that was supposedly created to address the needs of those kids in the bottom 5%: the ASD. I guess the money is not fleeing the public school system fast enough with just charters so we need to kick up the pace and add vouchers as well. This is a game plan for privatization and it’s being executed.
Currently the Achievement School District can only take students who are zoned for the schools that they take over. Have no fear though, the ASD is not one to let roadblocks get in the way of more money. There is currently legislation pending that would allow the ASD to recruit kids zoned for other non-ASD schools in the bottom 5%. You know, the ones that are eligible for vouchers. Now I’m not making any accusations, but that sure would be convenient. Of course, that would take even more money out of a system that already isn’t fully funded, meaning potentially more schools eligible for take over in the future – which, in turn means more students eligible for the ASD and vouchers since there will always be a bottom 5%.
We all know money matters. In order for schools to be successful, they have to have the financial resources necessary. Tennessee has put a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort into improving its public education system and the results have come. The last NAEP results showed Tennessee to be one of the fastest rising states in the Union for educational outcomes. The president himself has visited on numerous occasions to tout our educational progress. In a recent email to constituents, Rep David Alexander(R-D29), who is Vice-Chair of the Committee for Finance, Ways and Means wrote this: “We already have Achievements School Districts, Magnets Schools and Charter Schools in our State. There have been many changes in our Tennessee Education Department over the last four years, and we moved the needle farther that any state in history as far as increased test scores of our Public School students. And now, for some reason, there are people who want to figure a way to get students out of that public school system.” Based on this, the question that bears asking is, why?
Why would we spend all this time and money improving a system that has shown measurable improvement only to hamstring it by stealing resources? It makes you wonder if all this really is about the child. Look at the last couple school board races here in Nashville. A 100 thousand dollars is no longer considered an astounding amount of money to raise for a school board race. In fact, I’d argue it’s almost a necessity. That kind of money being donated for an unsalaried and frankly, thankless position further begs the question of why? What do private operators hope to accomplish by investing that kind of money in an unpaid position? I think the answer is becoming more and more apparent, especially as we continue to follow the money.
Please don’t think for a moment this is limited to the local and state level either. In April 2014, the House approved the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10) by a vote of 360-45. A provision of that Act upped the money for charter schools from 250 million dollars to 300 million dollars. How do you justify giving that much money to an experiment that at best has proven to be a wash academically, and if you considered the peripheral effects, a detriment to our to our public schools that serve the majority of students. Imagine if that money were spent to fully fund our public schools instead. Perhaps we could level the funding gap between rich districts and poor districts.
It’s been said many times that public education is a cornerstone of our democratic values and I hold to that. Public education has never been perfect, but then again, neither has democracy. Our history has shown us the many problems – women’s suffrage, civil rights or environmental issues, etc. – that have arisen as a result of our democracy allowing some to exploit all of us. But we have never abandoned our democratic principles; instead we have always come together and worked on solving our issues; united in reaching a solution and strengthening our democracy, two goals united and not exclusive.
Imagine if during the civil rights era we would have just given up on local governments and allowed the corporations to set up bodies that would dictate to us what equality would look like. Imagine if we had turned environmental regulation over to corporate interests? We might have seen some short term goals met, but we would have lost a key element of what makes our society so unique and in the long run it would not have been beneficial.
The same holds true for public education. There are problems and room for improvement, but none of them can be fixed by turning our schools over to private entities. Only by coming together and working through solutions as people with a vested interest can we find solutions. The fact, is we can’t fiscally afford to privatize our system nor can we morally afford it.
Our schools shape our children’s future. Those who say the delivery method doesn’t matter are being disingenuous at best. It absolutely matters. If we don’t protect children’s constitutional rights now, how will they defend them as adults? It is time to reaffirm that our schools belong to us, and we want them back from the corporate reformers who care more about the bottom-line than about our children.