Saturday, May 16, 2015

Fiscal scare tactics re: charter schools - part 2

From TN Edu-Independent - In part 1, I shared some thoughts regarding the  scare tactics used in relation to charter schools in Nashville.

Part 2 will deal with some larger issues related to affording a mix of school types within the same district, and give a few more reasons as to why school closings are unnecessary and don't have to occur.

Think and Wonder, Wonder and Think!
If we had to start Nashville's public education system from scratch, how would we organize it so that it is the most efficiently organized system, economically speaking? A zero-based organizational structure to educate 83,000 kids for the 21st century - what would it look like?

One extreme would be to take us back to the old days - the one room school house approach. We could have something like 3,320 schools scattered throughout the district, with 25 kids in each school, with one teacher per school/class.

Another extreme would be to have all schools be district managed schools, where the school you attend is based on a zone that is assigned to you, and that all schools are controlled by one central office (no schools of choice, no magnet schools, etc).

Given this thought exploration, there was a really good report from the TN Comptroller's Office that looked at current and actual school district administrative spending throughout Tennessee, with all sorts of geographies (rural, town, urban) and different district sizes (by student enrollment).

The data seems to indicate that size of the district matters, for things like getting as many dollars as possible to the school and classroom level, where those dollars have the greatest impact for students.

With districts up to an enrollment of 6,000 students, per pupil spending on administrative costs declined as the district got larger, like we'd expect.

With districts greater than 6,000 students, per pupil spending on administrative costs actually increases as the enrollment size of the district increases. This is not good!

There are actually diseconomies of scale with having our public education systems organized into such large structures, like we find in Tennessee's large four urban centers:

Back to the thinking about "the ideal" school district structure to foster the best student outcomes, and some of this data on administrative spending, it would seem like we don't have the ideal structure now.

In fact, the size and structure of the district very well may be hurting us, both in terms of being economically inefficient, and much more importantly, serving as a barrier to having the most effective student academic outcomes. The ones who suffer most from this ineffective system structure are the students, who aren't likely getting the outcomes that are possible if they were educated within a more manageable system or a set of systems.

The thing with putting all your eggs into one basket - having all schools, or nearly all schools under one central umbrella - is that the risks for "unsuccess" as I'll call it, are greater. Take one piece of this that everyone is currently talking about. There is a lot riding on the current MNPS Superintendent decision. People have made it out to be a superhero search process and hire, "if we just hire THE right person for the job...then..." Well, actually, the average superintendent is only on the job 3.2 years, and the first 6-9 months the new hire is learning the city and school system, and some research on Supes questions how important the effect is as it relates to student achievement.

While I personally think the Superintendent decision is absolutely important to get right and hire a qualified leader, I'm also quite skeptical of the "silver bullet solution" aura that people are putting on the decision in Nashville.

So how do charters play into this?

In the larger story, charters are helping the large, ineffectively sized district become more manageable. I want to be clear that this critique is nothing against individuals in district leadership (well, maybe just one or two), but this is a big critique of the idea promulgated in the 1920s that said it was a good idea to organize public schools like factories and make them large bureaucratic systems.

Single site charters schools allow the adults who operate a charter to focus more on the 300 or 400 kids they serve at that school. The networks consisting of 3-4 charter schools that are growing in Nashville that will have 1,500 or 2,000 students, the same thing is at play. Contrast this to if you are 1 in 75,000 kids in a large central system, you can still have a lot of caring adults in the system that is meant to educate you (and there are), but the size of the system and how it is structured is still going to affect you.

Organizationally speaking, smaller sizes and structures greater personalization for students and follow through to ensure students achieve the outcomes they should be achieving. This isn't just an education thing. Do you like Comcast? How do you feel about their level of customer service?

When we try to organize a way to educate 83,000 students into a large urban system, that is centrally administered and operated, where the vast majority of kids are organized into a school by a school of zone is assigned to you by virtue of where you live, we're asking for all sorts of negative fiscal impact.

Does MNPS have to shut down district schools to accommodate more charter schools?


One way to be more efficient with assets the district has is to develop smart strategies around building and campus co-locations. The district actually already practices co-location arrangements in a number of ways. Past thinking and planning has led the district to build large 800 student middle schools in an effort to be cost effective. Designing and structuring a school this way is not always ideal for student academic outcomes, and back to the above graph, is questionable if there are actually net economies of scale occurring when all costs are factored in.

One of the big pushes behind the “Academies of Nashville” was the idea to have a school within a school -- smaller learning environments that could help personalize student learning and where students would be better known by adults vs. being just some number lost number in a large comprehensive high school. In the district’s comprehensive high schools, the Academy model often yields 4-6 schools within one building. This is one example of co-location is already being done in the high schools with district schools.

Additionally, an elementary charter school run by the Martha O’Bryan Center shares a facility with a district school at the Dalewood building in East Nashville. The Cohn building in West Nashville has the adult education program, the Cohn Learning Center, a school for over age and under credited 9-12th graders, and some other programs that use the space. There are a number of other examples. One building can house multiple schools and/or programs. It is already happening.

MNPS also owns a great deal of acreage where there is open and undeveloped campus space that can be used or developed more effectively, where multiple schools can be sited on the same property and the schools can develop a co-campus agreement. There are all sorts of economic benefits to sharing a building or campus, as cafeterias, auditoriums, gyms or playing fields don’t need to be built twice. I mean, come on y'all, the sharing economy is in vogue these days, but it hasn't yet reached our public education system!

The district zoned school in particular neighborhoods across the city could always remain. If demand for the “zoned” school in a particular neighborhood dropped, the staffing configuration in that particular zoned school could drop in proportion to the students that still attend that zoned school. Other teachers and leaders who were formerly at the zoned school could teach in the same building, as part of a different school. If parents are choosing a charter school in the same building vs. the zoned district school, as that charter school grows, 5 teachers can leave the zoned school to go teach in the charter school. The charter school gets more funding from the students that continue to enroll, being able to pay for those 5 new hires, while the district has room to "cut" 5 teachers from the district budget that have now gone to teach at the charter school.

Does MNPS close district schools to accommodate other programs?


Recently in 2013, MNPS closed Ross and Bordeaux elementary schools to re-purpose them as Pre-K Centers. Low enrollment at these schools had more to do with the surrounding neighborhoods, and not to do with charter schools. It’s hard to argue with a straight face that charters will cause district schools to close when they have not caused any district school closures to date (there were hardly any charter elementary schools in existence at the time of the Bordeaux and Ross closings). Furthermore, the district has decided to voluntarily close these 2 district elementary schools in part to re-purpose them as Pre-K centers, and Pre-K has been a newly stated MNPS management priority.

The school closure fear that is being generated using a number of falsehoods in relation to charter schools is a red herring. Nashville parents desire a great education for their children, and less important to them is the governance type of the school their kid attends – charter, district or magnet.

The current fixed mindset of some MNPS board members is slowing down our ability as a city to develop a mix of public schools that serve all our learners well. We have a large system that is very diverse, given the diversity of our student body in Nashville. As we seek to improve our public system, we should be honest about the fact that we need to adjust what the system of public schools looks likes. There is way too much energy put into holding on to a system that was designed and built many moons ago, a system that is clearly not getting the outcomes it should for the kids it serves.

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