Charter schools a challenge

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on September 26, 2013)

The Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) Board has begun discussions of potential cost-saving measures for next year, including the possibility of closing or combining underutilized schools, cutting staff or increasing class sizes. Looming in the background of these discussions are increased expenses for expanding and adding new charter schools.

Schools Director Jesse Register told the board’s budget committee to expect a shortfall of $23 million, an amount that coincides with the anticipated increase in charter school expenses.

MNPS also has been pursuing possible legal avenues toward changing its budget picture. The district recently hired an attorney, John Borkowski, to argue that Tennessee’s charter schools funding law is unconstitutional. State Attorney General Robert Cooper disagrees. It is unknown whether MNPS will press its case in court.

Nashville is not alone among cities grappling with the growing costs of charter schools. For perspective, I turned to my Peabody colleague, professor Ron Zimmer, who studies charter school effects and other reforms such as vouchers. Ron pointed out that cities with a large percentage of students in charters have been particularly affected, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Detroit.

Many of these larger districts already were losing enrollment due to migration to the suburbs or even to other regions. Declining per-student revenue due to loss of state or federal funds puts these systems in a double bind when faced with a need to divert funds to charter schools. While some charter school advocates have argued that having fewer students also should mean having lower educational costs, Zimmer points out that reducing expenses is not a smooth process. Laying off teachers or selling a school building can only happen after certain threshold numbers of students are lost. This makes cost reductions “lumpy,” as Zimmer says.

Of course, charter advocates have always argued that the point of school choice is to create competition, and competition can be painful. For those who hold this belief, Zimmer says, “Charter schools are inflicting some financial pain on school districts so they are motivated to improve performance.” His own research, however, suggests this logic may not hold. With a coauthor, Zimmer compared competitive effects on test scores between charter schools and public schools in California. They did not find any positive test score effects from competition.

In another study conducted in Michigan, Zimmer and two peers examined where students actually were coming from when a charter school opened. They found that about 20 percent of students in charters were formerly enrolled in private schools. “Therefore, charter schools may be adding additional costs to the public system as these students did not use public resources previously,” he said.

Nashville differs from other, larger districts in that our school-age population is expected to grow in the coming years. Tennessee’s complex funding formula for schools means that MNPS receives a smaller amount of per-student funding from the state than do other districts. If local charters also pull students from private schools, this has real implications.

Jesse Register and the MNPS board may have to get very creative, indeed.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.

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