Bruce Baker’s Thorough Analysis Overlooks One Major Issue: Public Schools Interface with Public Agencies
Economic Policy Institute writer Bruce Baker recently issued a lengthy white paper on the consequences of charter school expansion in the United States that offered dozens of charts and graphs supporting his overarching assertion that school choice in and of itself will not lead to the outcome of “great schools” for all children. In order for schools to achieve both equity and excellence, Mr. Baker suggests centralization and regulation are required as outlined in the concluding section of the report’s Executive Summary:
If the broad, long-term policy objective is to move toward the provision of a “system of great schools” in each of America’s communities, then those systems must be responsibly, centrally managed to achieve an equitable distribution of excellent (or at the very least adequate) educational opportunities for all children, while protecting the interests and legal rights of children, parents, taxpayers, and employees. Achieving this lofty goal requires determining which functions of the system must be centrally and publicly regulated and governed. Systemwide public responsibilities include but are not limited to:
- The equitable management of enrollments and schooling access
- The equitable distribution of financial and other resources across the system, including allocation of resources to centralized functions that serve all schools
- The centralized management and equitable use/allocation, maintenance, and operations of the public’s capital stock of schools and related land and facilities
- The centralized management of systemwide debt obligations and long-term liabilities including employee retirement and health benefits
Numerous analyses have found chartering to lead to an imbalanced distribution of students by race, income, language proficiency, and disability status. So too does magnet schooling, or concentration of any specialized services across buildings within districts. The point is not that all such variations must necessarily be erased, or even could be, but that these variations must be acknowledged, and managed for the good of the system as a whole. To the extent that student needs continue to vary across school settings, resources must be targeted to accommodate those needs. This is a central function, and includes budget allocations, space allocations, and personnel allocations that draw on a substantial body of research on costs associated with providing equal educational opportunities (Duncombe and Yinger 2008).
Capital stock—publicly owned land and buildings—should not be sold off to private entities for lease to charter operators, but rather, centrally managed both to ensure flexibility (options to change course) and to protect the public’s assets (taxpayer interests). Increasingly, districts such as those discussed herein, have sold land and buildings to charter operators and related business entities, and now lack sufficient space to serve all children should the charter sector, or any significant portion of it, fail. Districts and state policymakers should not put themselves in a position where the costs of repurchasing land and buildings to serve all eligible children far exceed fiscal capacity and debt limits.
Finally, pension and health care costs are systemwide concerns that cannot be ignored by shifting students, and thus teachers and public dollars, across sectors.
Mr. Baker’s list of systemwide public responsibilities overlooks one important element: the need for public schools to interface seamlessly with other public agencies that support the well being of children, especially those children who are raised in poverty. Over 15 years ago I wrote an op ed article that was published in Education Week titled “A Homeland Security Bill for Public Education” that suggested that social agencies be able to communicate seamlessly in order to provide wraparound services to children struggling in schools. The article cited specific cases I encountered as a county Superintendent in Maryland where the lack of these formal interfaces resulted in uncoordinated efforts in dealing with children, a lack of coordination that arguably put schools at risk, had agencies working against each other in the case management of children, and clearly resulted in duplicative ends. As I read Bruce Baker’s analysis of the flaws of private charters, one issue he overlooked was whether a private charter would be obligated to report suspected child abuse; or whether a social worker or parole and probation officer would be allowed to discuss a child’s performance with them; or whether a privately funded health provider would be required to report cases of infectious disease to the public health department. These issues don’t cross the mind of for profit charter operators because their interest in earning money means that their first and only obligation is to their shareholders— not to the public at large and certainly not to the school district.
So my suggestion is that advocates for equity keep in mind that publicly funded wraparound services might not be available for privately operated charter schools— a factor that will contribute to more inequity and a greater disparity in opportunity.