OPINION | Charter school fly in conservative soup

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Tuesday evening, September 14, the Saint Paul school board voted to end its sponsorship of six charter schools. This is not a triumphant moment for anyone. 


Cost was the overwhelming factor behind the decision. With its traditional schools reeling from decreased state funding, 14% in cuts since 2003, schools are forced into difficult program and curricular decisions. Class sizes have increased, classroom resources are shrinking, fewer staff are available to teach children, and even fewer administrators are available to keep the whole operation moving forward.


With legislation increasing charter school sponsorship responsibilities, it’s no surprise that public institutional sponsors are taking a hard, long, critical look at their budgets. In short, Saint Paul schools can’t afford the rising oversight costs of a separate charter school operation.


Conservative educational policy advocates have long hailed charter schools as the solution for every problem challenging traditional public schools, citing the clear need for educational innovation. Innovation tends to require more rather than less money. Charter schools, despite their innovative claims, are still publicly funded schools. Reduced public school funding compromises every school’s ability to educate and graduate a well-prepared citizenry and workforce but charter schools, by their nature, are especially vulnerable to diminishing funding.


Persistent charter school organizational unaccountability, the subject of Minnesota 2020 research reports, undermines public confidence in the charter school movement. When a charter school executive director absconds with a million dollars, it’s easy to marginalize that situation as exceptional. It was one guy at one school at one particular moment, defenders declare; it’s not a systemic problem.


The truth is thornier because, in 2008, 31% of Minnesota charter schools were cited by their own auditors for inadequate segregation of duties. In other words, nearly a third of charter schools lacked the financial oversight to prevent insider theft. Repeatedly failing to curb financial risk exposure undermines public support and diminishes public support for educational innovation promised by charter schools.


Recognizing the larger accountability challenge, Minnesota state policymakers tightened charter school sponsor requirements. Sponsors must now assume a greater oversight role. It’s an overdue reform, one that charter school movement leaders should have demanded a decade ago, rather than resisting. These changes, along with increasing other oversight requirements, such as enforcing financial management practices, will undergird the public case for charter schools.


The stickiest wicket is, however, the most basic. As the Saint Paul School Board’s decision reveals, charter schools are, in effect, overwhelmingly dependent on “tuition.” Families don’t directly pay for charter schooling as they would at a private school. Rather, charter schools receive an average of $10,500 in state per-pupil funding. Enrollment swings, particularly downward, carry a risk that extends beyond staffing adjustments. If families begin fleeing a particular charter school, cascading financial collapse can cause school closure. This circumstance might be bad for the charter school movement but it’s devastating for the school’s kids.


Educational innovation isn’t easy or cheap. If there were an easy answer, we would’ve found it already. Educational research data, accumulated over decades, strongly suggests that students learn differently. Effective teaching has to account for varied learning styles. The goal, however maddeningly simple, is to create small pockets of students, grouped around learning style and, to a lesser extent, ability. Hence, the charter school movement.


On the grandest scale, charter school proponents hoped to create flexible, responsive schools that would supplant traditional school models. They’ve learned what educators have repeatedly learned over decades: teaching kids is harder than it looks. Charter schools may be part of the answer but they aren’t the entire solution. They’re also not nearly as cost-effective as they like to believe.


Clustering children by learning styles and abilities creates more opportunities for realizing economies of scale. Teaching 100 kids wired to learn in the same fashion is going to be cheaper than teaching 100 kids with five different learning styles. Externalities -transactional spillover- complicate cost accountability because Minnesota’s constitution requires educating all children not just the most easily instructed. Innovational based on exclusion doesn’t create a sustainable, prosperous future. Instead, it expands division and increases barriers facing Minnesota families.


The Saint Paul School Board is dropping its charter school sponsorship next year because of cost. Rising expenses and shrinking state financial allocations compromise educational capacity and outcomes. Innovation, essential to Saint Paul’s and Minnesota’s future, is suddenly an unaffordable luxury at exactly the moment we need it most.  Charter schools, as publicly funded schools, are especially susceptible to the conservative assault on public education. It may be an unintended consequence but it shouldn’t surprise anyone.