Charter Schools are NOT the Problem

In a recent article, the Washington Post analyzed Backpack full of Cash, a new documentary narrated by Matt Damon (this is a key selling point in the eyes of the films creators). It has yet to be released, but it is essentially the left’s answer to Waiting for Superman. The focus is on how corporate charter schools are robbing our public schools of the resources necessary to provide high quality, equitable education.

There are, of course, many problems with this notion.

But first, let’s start with what the left does best: hypocrisy. It was recently reported by gossip sites that Matt Damon was unable to get his kids into St. Ann’s private school upon moving to New York. St. Ann’s charges roughly $40,000 a year in tuition. Surely, Matt Damon is the champion the public education system has been waiting for!

The problems with this documentary go far beyond Matt Damon, however.

First, the documentary describes the dreadful state of public education (especially in cities) and points the finger at charters. This is utter nonsense. Public schools aren’t failing because charters exist; charters exists because public schools are failing.

But let’s take a moment to understand this point. In the trailer for the film, Rhonda Brownstein of the Education Law Center had this to say: “The problem isn’t that we need some market based reform or answer, the problem is that we need to invest more in our public schools.” Honestly, I had hoped for something a bit more insightful than more money from an expert on education. But could it really be this simple?

Of course not. According to an analysis of Department of Education statistics by the CATO Institute, education spending in the US grew over 180 percent between 1970 and 2012 while reading and math scores haven’t changed at all. For reference, the charter school movement has only become popular relatively recently.

In terms of financing issues, the documentary focuses primarily on the School District of Philadelphia. However, Philadelphia’s per-pupil spending of $12,570 in 2015, while less than many other cities, was well above the national average of $10,700. Additionally, Philadelphia charter schools spend $1,500 less per student than the regular public schools in the city.

The fact is that painting Philadelphia’s fiscal and educational crisis on charter schools is shockingly disingenuous. As I outlined in an article a year ago for a different publication, the fiscal crisis occurring in the Philadelphia school system is almost entirely the result of a statewide pension crisis. According to analysis done by the Commonwealth Foundation, Philadelphia’s pension contribution costs skyrocketed from $40 million in 2008 to about $180 million in 2014. Thousands of teachers were laid off as a result of these increases.

Clearly, charter schools are the least of Philadelphia’s worries. So why is there any movement against them?

The answer, I suspect, has something to do with the country’s various teachers’ unions.

You see, one of the key benefits of charter schools is that they largely avoid allowing their teachers to unionize. This is because the operators of charters are fully aware of the damage that union contracts have done to traditional public schools.

Let’s begin by returning to the pension example. In most states, public school teachers are part of a defined payment pension system. This system is unlike private retirement systems which are used almost exclusively outside of government in that the recipient receives steady fixed payments upon retirement. In many cases, these pensions are so generous that payments to retirees are often well in excess of starting teacher salaries.

Another serious issue is the cost of teachers’ health insurance plans. As of 2012, the cost of an average teacher’s insurance plan was over $1,500 more than the cost of the average private sector professional’s.

These very generous plans can be financially oppressive for underprivileged districts, especially in the effect of a downturn. Yes, teachers do critical work, and they deserve quality pay and benefits, but we should not be robbing our society’s most needy children to do it.

With respect to charters, however, there are more important qualities of union contracts that are driving the charter movement. Chief among these is the way public school teachers are granted tenure after just a few years on the job. This means that it is almost impossible for public school administrators to fire ineffective or incompetent teachers who do a disservice to their students. In California for example, only about two teachers a year are dismissed for poor performance out of 277,000 teachers.

Upon receiving tenure, accountability virtually disappears and any incentive for improvement flutters away. Additionally, even teachers who commit serious indiscretions are hard to fire. Because of the lengthy and expensive legal battles, school districts often opt to simply ignore problems and pay the teachers. The situation has gotten so serious that it is more prudent for many districts to allow bad teachers to teach than it is to fire them.

An additional advantage of many charters is performance-based pay. When we talk about eliminating bad teachers, we must talk also of paying effective teachers more for their good work. Currently, in most public schools, a teacher’s pay increases are predetermined by a contract negotiated by the union. Regardless of how competent or incompetent the teacher, their pay remains independent of their job performance. I would venture to say from personal experience that the wellbeing of students is cause enough to do a good job for most teachers. However, we must also accept that there are many teachers who, by virtue of the current system, do the bare minimum (or less) because that is all they have to do to get a paycheck.

If we are to address these problems, we must be very wary of the teachers’ unions. These unions, by taking dues from the taxpayer-funded paychecks of teachers, have made themselves into an incredibly powerful obstacle against progress, especially in urban areas where their power can be tightly concentrated. In 2005 alone, the California Teachers Association raised $50 million to fight ballot measures including one that would increase the pre-tenure probationary period from two to five years. Imagine all the teachers that could have been hired or schools that could have been rebuilt with that money.

Some conservative states have had success in fighting to push through these reforms. More liberal states, home to the large cities where education systems are failing the most, have had difficulty passing these reforms. Since charters by and large already feature these reforms, they represent the best avenue to a quality education for underprivileged students.

But there are not enough. In New York, for example, there were over 170,000 students on waiting lists for charter schools as of 2014. It is unacceptable that despite sky-high per-pupil spending, our cities should produce heart-wrenching images of thousands of children and parents waiting desperately for their child’s number to be called at a charter school lottery. These children are entitled to the quality education that taxpayers are paying for. For the moment, mostly charters are offering those opportunities.

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