LATimes Editorial Oversimplifies Budgeting Realities, Underplays Impact of Charter Outmigration
The LATimes, an unabashed supporter of deregulated for profit charter schools, published an editorial yesterday by Marguerite Roza that grossly oversimplified the budgeting process in democratically operated public schools and, in doing so, misled readers into thinking that making budget cuts could be done algorithmically— in the same way spreadsheet calculations are done. The editorial’s title posed a question: “Do Charters Really “Drain” Money From Public Schools” and answered the question correctly at the very outset:
At first blush, the answer may seem obvious. Districts in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Newark are losing enrollment to charters. Since most school systems are funded based on the number of students served, when enrollment drops, so does total district revenue. A report circulated by the United Teachers of Los Angeles last week claims that the Los Angeles Unified School District loses about $500 million a year, thanks to charters.
But Ms. Roza asserts “…there is another way to do the math“:
…while LAUSD has lost revenue in recent years, those funds were for the students it no longer serves. And if a system educates fewer students, shouldn’t it operate on a smaller budget? Some will say that economies of scale work such that the district can’t be expected to operate with proportionately fewer dollars when it loses students. But that argument doesn’t hold water. There are 14,000 or so districts in this country that can and do operate at all different sizes. And most are much smaller than the urban districts perpetually in fiscal trouble.
What Ms. Roza overlooks is that those smaller district face the same dilemma as Los Angeles when they face enrollment declines… and if she doesn’t think that is the case she needs to come visit Vermont where the cost per pupil has increased and, in some cases, staffing has increased despite declining enrollment. Why? Because the problems associated with the “economies of scale” that Ms. Roza dismisses are a major obstacle. Ms. Roza offers these “insights” on budgeting:
They can start by restructuring their school budgets to automatically expand and contract with enrollment. Instead of apportioning a fixed number of staff to each school, allocations can be made in per-pupil terms. In dozens of districts including in San Francisco, Denver, Boston and Houston, district money is equitably distributed in per pupil increments across schools, weighting for factors like poverty, homelessness or English-learner status.
Districts must also reconsider long-term spending commitments, such as retiree healthcare benefits, that are unsustainable when the financial landscape changes. Full financial transparency of legacy costs per pupil can help create a public appetite for tweaking these arrangements when they are no longer financially viable. State policymakers can also help by making new funds contingent on phasing out these kinds of commitments. After all, it is often the states that get tapped for a bailout when the district financials fall apart.
Clearly, downsizing can be challenging and painful, regardless of the cause. If districts proactively adapt, these shifts don’t have to mess with the system’s fiscal or instructional priorities, compel panic or force massive (and massively unpopular) budget overhauls.
Ms. Roza’s world of spreadsheets and algorithms overlooks the toughest problems: staff cuts invariably lead to debates on school closures, multi-aged grouping, the sustaining of high pupil-teacher ratios, and the continued deferral of maintenance costs. Corporations have addressed these problems by unilaterally closing obsolete factories and installing robots. But schools cannot relocate and teaching cannot be automated the same way as assembly lines. Schools are not factories and school boards are not corporate boards. Schools are a human enterprise and school boards are democratically operated… and therein lies the problem. Sorry, Ms. Roza, there may be “another way to do the math” but there is no other way to make decisions that affect the lives of students and children unless all the schools are privatized charters… but maybe that’s what you and the LATimes want to see.