Outsourcing education: the problematic expansion of charter schools


By Danielle Damper Source: BP Blogspot

In mid-November, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board (LAUSD) discussed the possibility of changing the district to one entirely run by charter schools. There are only a handful of school districts in the state that have fully converted to the charter system, however, none educate more than 2,000 students. As the second largest school district in the nation, LAUSD is responsible for the education for 647,000 students. If LAUSD were to shift to an all charter district, it would undoubtedly shift the statewide discussion of education reform to one based in charter expansion. But is this a good thing?

While charter schools have many benefits on a case by case level, the widespread expansion of the charter system hurts public schools as a whole.

Charter schools and district funding

One of the main reasons people choose to invest in charter schools is their low cost relative to traditional public schools. According to the California Poverty center in L.A.“per pupil per pupil costs for Alliance charter high school students to be $10,649 per year, compared to $15,372 per year for students at traditional public high schools.” These heightened costs for public schools are often attributed to bloated bureaucracy at the district level and powerful teachers’ unions.

One often-lauded benefit of charter schools are that the vast majority are non-union. This allows schools to sidestep long and costly contract negotiations and go straight to the educators themselves. People often point to unions as the reasons why per pupil expenditures are so much more expensive at public schools. However, teachers nationwide are not getting paid in excess. The average starting salary for teachers nationwide is $36,141, while the national average for recent college grads in all majors is $45, 478. With a starting salary almost $10,000 dollars less than the average student, it’s obvious that union negotiations are not the pinnacle of teachers’ greed.

Instead, costs are absorbed in maintaining crumbling infrastructure and an overblown executive branch. In L.A., Infrastructure has grown so poor that citizens mandated at least $7 Billion dollars in repairs with Measure Q; however, not all of this money went into fixing the buildings themselves, 110 million dollars was spent on luxury investments, such as putting iPads in classrooms. Investing in technology is undoubtedly a good thing, but should never come at the cost of more immediate repairs. Other instances of fiscal mismanagement is the salaries given to executive employees. The last LAUSD superintendent, John Deasy, made almost $440, 000 dollars a year before his resignation. This bureaucracy eats up funding with little benefit to students.

To add to current problems, especially the acute mismanagement of funds at the district level, public schools receive less funding with each child who moves to charter schools, acting as a drain on already shrinking public school resources. LAUSD will be facing a budget imbalance of over $300 million in the next three years, with the potential for it to increase by as much as $150 million a year after that. Why then, is the school board proposing a $490 million plan to expand charter schools when the funding could just as easily be appropriated to the schools?

In the last six years, 100,000 students moved to charter schools in L.A., taking with them over $900 million in funding. As enrollment continues to decline, so does the opportunity to make meaningful reforms to the public education system. A school district cannot look to expand the school day or a teacher’s salary when they’re just fighting to keep their doors open in the first place. So, as charter schools expand, it continually leaves traditional school districts in the dust for funding and reform.

Some would say that this is just an example of the inevitable decline in traditional schooling, and that this is a sign that we should shift our investment to charter schools. However, charter schools bring with them a host of other problems, which is why we should think twice about the rhetoric that charters are the future of modern education.

Why charter schools are not the answer:

Financially unstable

Charter schools are not a sustainable school model in the long run. While they offer many opportunities for innovation, these reforms are costly. So much so that charter schools must rely on outside donations to keep their doors open. The proposed LAUSD expansion is actually being brokered by the Broad Foundation, the charity of billionaire real estate moguls. When donations cease, charters are left with an unsustainable budget, and little chance to keep the proposed reforms up and running.  In fact, of the charter schools that eventually close their doors, 41% attribute their failure to finances, while 24% percent claim mismanagement.

High teacher turnover

Also unstainable are how these broad reforms affect the staff itself. While not a lot of data exists on the hiring process of charter teachers, the popular employment website Payscale.com places the average charter teachers’ salary at about $35,700, slightly higher than the average salary of public school teachers. However, charter teachers are often expected to work far longer than the minor salary increase suggests. Take the workday of this former teacher at a KIPP school, one of the most popular charter networks.

“I’d get up at 5:00, leave my apartment about 6:20…And I wanted to make sure I was in the cafeteria by 7:00 or 7:20, which is when we were supposed to be in the cafeteria as a staff...Then [after school] from 3:45 to 5 PM came the co-curricular period {CCP), or when electives were offered such as art or music or sports or debate, depending on availability of staff to teach direct these activities. ..Kathryn said most students left at 5, but she would usually stay until 6, sometimes visiting with other teachers in their rooms (by design, there was no teacher room or lounge).  She would get home around 6:30, “have about an hour for myself,” and then grade papers and plan until 9 or 9:30.  Kathryn was also on call during this time for parents and students.”

This amounts for almost 12 hour days and little financial incentive to keep working those long hours. This leads to alarmingly high teacher attrition rates, in some cases reaching 36 percent. This has become such a problem that many charters are looking to alternate programs, such as free childcare, just to convince teachers to stay.

So much of teaching lies in building lasting connections with students. High teacher turnover leads to less experienced teachers in the classroom, and also burnout from teachers because they feel spread too thin. Moreover, high teacher turnover often results in less personal connections with students that would otherwise foster important relationships. These relationships are key to shaping and building positive attitudes in students towards academic achievement. Charter schools are frequently built in high-poverty, urban areas, where familiarity is especially important in order to keep high-risk students on track. High teacher turnover does not let these relationships flourish, diminishing the potential to build a community of learning.

Many argue that with “high teacher expectation”, such as the long schedules and impossible to reach goals mandated by Kathryn’s KIPP school, comes high performance. However, as a whole, this is not the case.

Charter schools are unaccountable

A study carried out by The Center for Research on Education Outcomes in both 2009 and 2013 found that performance results from charter education are fairly mixed by school, demographic group, and subject. While some schools outperform outperformed their public counterparts, some underperform, and others still perform about the same. In California, charter education has the effect of providing 22 more days in reading instruction than a public school student, a vast outperformance of public schools. Yet, in math, these same schools underperformed public schools in the equivalent of 7 days less of math instruction. While a gain in 22 days of instruction clearly shows that some charter school reforms work very well, these mixed results could be seen as a result of the instability of charter schools as a whole.

Charter schools are not bound to the state in the same way that public schools are. They do accept public funding, and as such are prone to some forms of regulation, but as a whole are left to be mostly self-governing. As such, charter schools can both be excellent and inadequate. For the charter schools that fail, there is no system in place to remedy this failure; and in charter schools that are high performing, there is no system in place to apply these reforms elsewhere.

In many ways, the vast disparities within the charter system exemplify the very problems of education inequality that charter schools were designed to fix.

A better school system 

Charter schools can be immensely beneficial at providing additional resources outside of traditional curriculum, especially for hard to reach minority populations. However, charter schools are unstable, relying on corporate sponsors and overworked teachers to reach their laudable goals. All the while, charter schools operate on a lottery system, where involved parents will go through the application process, leaving behind students who may not have a great home life in a public school system constantly losing funding. This creates two warring school systems maligned by both reformers and traditionalists alike.

As a nation, we are moving towards a more nationalized education system with common core leading the way. At the same time, we are looking to remove accountability by expanding charter schools. These systems can not and should not work together. Instead, we should be looking to combine the best practices of both school systems to truly provide for student success. We need the flexibility and some reforms of charter schools with the accountability and sustainability of public schools. We need to invest more in our teachers and alternative approaches to education. We need to seriously look at the way we fund schools and look to cut expenditures that do not truly help children learn and fully utilize all resources provided.

Will this be easy? Of course not. But nothing great is ever easy. The expansion of the LAUSD charter system amounts to the district looking at all of the difficulties of public schools, and deciding that it’s too hard to fix--that they they’ll just let someone else handle it. More than anything, education is a duty of the government. Charter expansion amounts to nothing more than denying this responsibility. Education is the future, and we cannot afford to outsource it to someone else.