Thursday, May 7, 2015

Fiscal scare tactics re: charter schools - part 1

TN Edu-Independent, by Hunter - In this 2-part post, I’ll hopefully clear up some of the information regarding the falsehoods and false choices presented with the growing charter school student population in Nashville.

The Tennessean ran an op-ed a few days back with the
above message, as seen on their twitter feed
The message, developed by school board member Will Pinkston, is propaganda that is only meant to generate fear in Nashville. Much of the Nashville voting public still is unclear about charter schools and how they function as part of the public education landscape.

Poll after poll indicates that school closings, of any type, are not popular. School Board member Will Pinkston is tapping into this displeasure for school closings and taking advantage of many people who may not be familiar with how charter schools work and are funded. Sadly, he has to resort to outright falsehoods and scare tactics as the only way to try and stop increasing parental demand for public charter schools.

In spite of the bogeyman tactics, charter school enrollment is increasing at a fast pace as more Nashville parents enroll their children in public charter schools, parents that are voluntarily and consciously choosing to enroll their child in a charter school:

Parental demand is increasing for charter schools because charter schools have created safe and strong academic learning environments for students.

Why take that away?

According to the district’s own performance management framework where each school in the district is assigned a score on a 100 point scale of school quality and performance, the vast majority of MNPS charter schools (in orange) are among the district’s highest performing middle schools (most charter schools in Nashville are middle schools).

The two lowest performing charter schools shown here, Drexel Prep and Boys Prep, were closed by the district at the end of the 2013-14 school year and are no longer in operation (schools that were actually closed in the best interest of students). The charter school framework enables an important accountability structure for school quality: if a charter school is not providing their students with clear learning gains, it no longer has the privilege to remain open.

Mr. Pinkston instills fear about closing district schools and attempts to blame charters, but he has boasted about closing district schools in the past, wearing it as a badge of honor. These tweets were from the summer of 2013 when Mr. Pinkston led the charge to close Ross and Bordeaux elementary schools, two under-performing district schools.

Are charter schools “draining resources from Nashville’s traditional schools”?


MNPS Board member Pinkston has claimed “every dime of new revenue growth is going to charters, leaving little or nothing for traditional schools.”

This is a completely false statement.

In the most recent MNPS approved budget for the 2015-16 year, MNPS teachers in traditional schools will get a 2% salary increase, support employees will get a 2% increase, MNPS is adopting a new literacy program called Reading Recovery, more staff is being hired for the district’s English Language Learners, more staff is being hired for the Community Achieves program, and the district is expanding their PreK program.

What Mr. Pinkston has a hard time explaining is why for MNPS district run schools, student enrollment in these traditional district schools is expected to fall this next fiscal year, but the district is adding a total of 104 FTE (Full Time Equivalent) positions. This is an odd budgeting practice – the district is adding 104 FTE positions for the benefit of district run schools but will be serving fewer students overall. So clearly, there IS new revenue going to district schools to pay for 104 new positions and new programs, but it’s still fitting to gin up controversy over charter schools.

Charter schools receive less funding than traditional district schools, but focus on spending their limited educational dollars at the school level, closest to the needs of each school’s specific student population. Charter schools have also continued to show very strong academic outcomes for their students. Taken together, charter schools in Nashville offer a strong example of resources that are being spent productively for student outcomes.

What’s the yearly cost to Metro Schools if no students enroll in charter schools?

Almost $0.

There’s a very small cost to authorizing charter schools and maintaining the regulatory oversight office within the district’s central office, but charter schools are funded and receive money only when they enroll public students and keep them throughout a school year.

Therefore, MNPS could authorize 100 or 500 charter schools to open if they wanted to, and if none of those schools actually enrolled students, it’s of no operational cost to the district, other than the one time cost borne for authorizing charter schools.

This system of funding charter schools is transparent and makes sense – the money to fund a school follows the child when that student enrolls in a charter school. Charter schools only get paid if parents enroll their children and keep them in a charter throughout the year.

Why are we only talking about charter school costs?

Charter schools cost money, as do magnet schools and district-operated schools. Every school type and program in the MNPS budget "has a fiscal impact."

To call for a “recommitment to public education” and message that recommitting to public education means eliminating charter schools is a false choice. Charter schools are public schools that are a part of MNPS, here to serve the students and families of Nashville, and trying to stop parental demand for these schools does not make much sense. Charter schools are neighborhood schools too, and many of them are deeply tied into the Nashville neighborhoods and communities in which they are located.

Many of the same fights and scare tactics being directed at charter schools were present in years past with magnet schools – the creation of such and such magnet school is going to drain money from other schools, etc. etc. – so we should not have them. Charter schools are some of the highest performing schools we have in the MNPS district, and charter school performance counts as part of the district’s performance.

Charter schools by nature have greater accountability and are under more intense pressure to yield strong student learning outcomes. If they don’t perform well, they get shut down. That’s a good accountability system to have in place for taxpayers. The same cannot be said about district operated schools that may exist for decades and cost money each year but continue to yield very poor student learning outcomes. Charter schools are a good use of taxpayer funds as they’re yielding strong student learning outcomes.

Why aren’t we looking at the entire $1 billion plus that MNPS spends each year?

It would be nice if there were less adult politics at play, and we simply committed to putting the large amount of money we spend annually on public education in Nashville towards the type of schools and programs that are yielding the best student outcomes.

History is clear that spending as we’ve always done across the district is not yielding the type of results that we know are possible for our students. A 21st century public school system can’t continue to allocate funds via an antiquated school district funding model where educational spending decisions for 200 schools and a large diverse student population all rest within the central office and education is expected to be carried out only in zoned neighborhood schools.

Why would MNPS authorize more charter schools?

The simple answer is to provide parents with better and more educational options. More and more parents are making the conscious decision to send their children to a charter school. The cost risk to taxpayers is virtually zero to MNPS if students don’t actually enroll in a charter school.

Parents ARE choosing public school charters and enrollment has grown noticeably in recent years:

Nashville charter
Nashville district
charter enrollment share
A more nuanced answer to why MNPS could authorize more charter schools is that charter schools can help MNPS with district enrollment growth pressures, and provide higher quality school educational options.

Building a new school building or replacing one is expensive, with costs of $20-$25 million to the Nashville taxpayer if it’s an elementary or middle school, and the process takes 3-4 years. A charter school can be authorized and start within a 2 year time frame, and the cost to MNPS for a facility to house a charter school is often $0, since the majority of charter schools are forced to go and find private facility space.

MNPS is a growing district. In the past couple of years, charter enrollment has absorbed a share of the district’s overall new enrollment. This helps the district by lessening overcrowding pressure at schools in parts of the city that have population growth explosions, and charters can help the district save millions of dollars by not having to build as many new schools to accommodate growing student populations in certain parts of the city.
new district enrollment

new charter enrollment

new charter enrollment as % of district enrollment


Of course, city leaders and MNPS management could make dollars go further by partnering with charters on facility costs and projects, and working to create a system of public schools, rather than relying on one public school system.

I'll discuss more in part 2, but the takeaway is Nashville can certainly afford a mix of charter, magnet, and traditionally run district schools. The option presented by some - the drastic close a district run school option - is a scare tactic and false choice, only serving as a distraction that takes away from the important work of improving our city's system of public education.

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