A Memo to Whitney and Charter School Advocates About School Funding Arguments

April 16, 2007

Whitney: Your latest on Newark schools wasting so much money has got me thinking. I share your outrage at the wasted lives, and your belief that if this were happening to anybody other than low-income and minority students, society would not stand for it. I also agree that rules making it impossible to fire incompetent people have to go, as do the insane contractual rules you point out.

But I think your emphasis on us spending too much money is, in the long-term, a losing approach for charter school advocates, and public education generally. Sure, you can cherry-pick Newark, or Abbot districts in New Jersey, or Kansas City, and say it is an outrage that they spend so much for such limited results. But as the Education Trust points out in report after report, low-income kids on average still attend schools in districts that spend less.

According to Ed Trust, this works in 3 ways:
–rich states get more federal money than poor states,
–within states, most states shortchange their high-poverty and high-minority school districts,
–within school districts themselves, districts spend less money in schools serving the most disadvantaged students.

I know you know all of this, because you write about it. But I would suggest that in light of this research, as an empirical matter, singling out Newark, or the Abbott districts is not a fair use of the facts. It would be as if an anti-charter group found a network of failing charter schools and argued that this proves charters don’t measure up.

But even more than that, in the long-term, charters are going to end up asking that more money be spent on education. I guarantee this will happen. In ten years, if not sooner, every successful charter advocate with vision will be saying that they can run a better school if there is more public funding for education.

This will happen because over time costs are going to go up, as successful charter schools try to retain their good teachers, principals, and other leaders, and salaries (which are the biggest driver of any school’s costs) have to rise. As I’ve said before, a few charter operators with great brands may be able to consistently recruit superb young teachers and have them turn over every 3-4 years, but the overall talent pool is such that many charter schools will have to do with decent to pretty good (but not great) teachers, and work to develop and retain them. This will cost money, because like every other human being, as teachers get older they need and want raises.

Taking this one step further, I predict that smart charter school operators will also soon begin arguing for greater public investments in early childhood education and health care (among other things). This will not be about making excuses for poor performance. This will be the simple fact that no matter how great KIPP’s outcomes (I’m choosing KIPP here simply because of their excellent reputation and name-recognition), they would be yet better if the kids arrived knowing more words, with fewer vision problems, less missed classes because of undiagnosed tooth-aches, etc. And once KIPP, and Achievement First, and Green Dot, and all the rest start saying this, it will be clear that it is not being offered up as an excuse, given the source.

I think you basically agree with all of the above. Perhaps then it is a question of emphasis. I would suggest that we should use the success of individual charter schools, as well as successful district schools, to argue that all schools should do what these schools do. And here’s the key: if that means more money needs to be spent, so be it. And here’s where we may disagree, I’m not sure. You, like much of the charter school movement, tend to conclude with the claim that “more money without reform will do nothing.” That’s true, but it is the wrong emphasis. I think we are better off with a positive message which says, “more money plus reform is the answer.” That claim is both more honest, and more strategic in the long term.



One Response to “A Memo to Whitney and Charter School Advocates About School Funding Arguments”

  1. Bridget Newman Says:

    As a teacher in Camden, NJ, I agree that framing the debate as “more money plus reform” is the way we need to go. The way I see it, my students now have one part of what they need to succeed. They have the funding (at least on paper). But we owe it to them to follow up the funding with real reform. I think that the Abbot districts also show that even though equal funding only came after a tough battle, the real struggle is for meaningful reform. Unfortunately, we seem to be caught in a cycle in which without reform, we will likely lose state funds. Without state funds, there is no hope of reform.

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