Apparently, the NH Department of Education has issued a report claiming to show that accepting a grant of $46 million from the federal government, to be used to create and expand charter schools, will end up saving taxpayers $178 million over time. That sounds exciting, so I thought I’d take a look.
Turns out, there’s so much hand-waving in the report that I was able to dry off after a shower just by standing next to it… beginning with the idea that there is any meaning to the ‘per-student cost’ at a regular public school, and continuing with the idea that somehow, if a kid leaves a cohort, the district will be able to reduce any of its costs, whether immediately, or after a few years.
There seems to be a widespread assumption that the way a regular public school is funded is that you have some per-student cost, then you multiply that by the number of students, and that’s your school budget, as if you’re buying widgets.
But that’s not how it works. The budget comes first — there are fixed costs, maintenance costs, transportation costs, teacher and other staff costs, and so on. When a student leaves, which of those costs change in the first year? None of them. Which change in the second, or third, or any subsequent year? None of them.
A first-grader could move out of town, or go to a charter school, and twelve years later, there would be no difference in what the district schools did, or spent, as a result.
That is, the district pays to operate the school, and the kids attend the school that is being operated. Add a few kids, take away a few kids, and the fictional ‘per-student cost’ changes, but the actual cost does not.
Think of it like planning a wedding. You rent the hall, send out the invitations, hire the band, and pay for 100 meals. If only 96 people show up, do your costs go down? They don’t. Does your fictional ‘cost per guest’ go up? Yes it does. Does it matter? It does not.
(For schools, what does change — but only in towns that are SWEPT-deficient — is revenue. In those towns, when you add a few kids, the district gets extra adequacy funds from the state for those kids; when you take away a few kids, the district loses those funds. But changing revenue doesn’t change cost.)
I’m not surprised when the average person makes this assumption, given the rhetoric to which we’re all exposed on a more or less daily basis. But I’m appalled that the Department of Education is making it.
Any ‘model’ that uses a per-student cost at a regular public school as an input to any calculation is engaging in GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) modeling. The question it raises is whether that’s being done intentionally, or unintentionally.
Will school districts have to reduce costs over time to cope with the fact that the number of school-aged children is steadily declining? Yes. But that would be the case even if there were no charter schools at all, let alone whether a small number of new ones are opened.
So to imply that these reductions will somehow be ‘savings’ that can be attributed to charter schools is disingenuous. Opening 20 new charter schools will have as much effect on those eventual reductions as they will on the tides. If we’re going to credit charter schools with things they can’t possibly be responsible for, why not go big? Why not argue that more charter schools will help reverse global warming? That should make the Democrats squirm a little.
What I find most disappointing in the ongoing discussion over this grant is that although there are some great reasons to have more charter schools, none of them really have anything to do with saving money, because they don’t save money — at least, not until there are enough of them to start replacing a bunch of regular public schools, which isn’t part of anyone’s plan.
What they do is spend a little extra money on something that we need, but are not going to be able to get in any other way — a chance to experiment with what works, and doesn’t work, when trying to educate children in schools. That is, the money spent on charters is essentially research funding.
We blow it when we focus on charter schools as helping some particular children learn, when we should instead be emphasizing their role in helping the whole public school system learn… which is quite a different thing altogether.
Every company or institution that is seriously preparing for the future sets aside some of its resources for research, i.e., for trying things it hasn’t tried before, some of which can be expected to fail, but some of which can be expected to provide returns far beyond what was invested.
It would be short-sighted to think of these funds (which are often quite small compared to other expenses) as being ‘stolen from’ or ‘drained away’ from other parts of the enterprise.
Similarly, if our public school system is to seriously prepare for the future, it needs to do the same. And that is exactly what charter schools are for — to try things that haven’t been tried before, some of which can be expected to fail, but some of which can be expected to change our understanding of education in a way that ends up benefitting all students everywhere.
And similarly, it would be short-sighted to think of these funds (which are quite small compared to other public school expenses) as being stolen from or drained away from other parts of the system.
That’s the wrong way to look at it. The right way to look at it is: Each of those dollars is a seed, some of which will grow into knowledge that will change our understanding of education in a way that ends up benefitting all students everywhere.
But only if we’re smart enough to plant them.