Friday, March 2, 2012

"Study": Charter progress suffered for lack of state funding

Two of South Carolina's charter school advocates who left our borders for opportunities elsewhere have reached back to deliver a new report on the stresses and strains suffered by the charter movement in South Carolina since former Governor David Beasley signed the first charter law in 1996.

One of their conclusions is half-comical: That charter schools struggle in their early years because they rely on the state's base student cost -- the per-pupil expenditure appropriated by the legislature annually -- and the base student cost is just too low.

Sshh: If you listen closely, you can hear tens of thousands of public school educators and administrators across South Carolina playing tiny violins in sympathy.

The authors of the "study" include the former state charter school district's "director of accountability" and the former director of the charter school office at the state department of education. One left to take over North Carolina's Office of Charter Schools; the other left to become "education director" for the Goldwater Institute. Google "Goldwater Institute" and you'll find it's a think-tank that "studies public policy with an emphasis on privitization." (That's the institute's spelling of the word, not mine. I know it's spelled "privatization." I'm shaking my head just like you.)

When they show all of their cards up front like that, it makes the game much less interesting to play.

The real benefit of their article is its encapsulated history of the charter movement, and since they were participants in it, it offers a delightful insider's view of the situation.

[C]harters and their authorizers still spend their first several years in a fight for survival. Nowhere is this more true than in South Carolina, which was among the first states to adopt a charter statute.

Founders of charter schools sign contracts (or “charters”) with an authorizer, such as a school district or higher-education institution, that stipulate the rules and regulations from which charters are exempted in exchange for accountability for results. In other words, a charter school can be closed if it does not meet certain reporting requirements and student achievement goals.

For years, South Carolina charters struggled mightily after their launch. Far fewer charters are now in operation in South Carolina than in some of the other states that were early adopters... and charter students make up only 2 percent of the state’s public-school enrollment.

Isn't that interesting? In one breath, they allow that charters can be closed for not meeting requirements and goals; in the next breath, they lament that South Carolina has fewer charter schools today than in other states. Yet it is true that many, many organizations and groups have filed applications to open a charter school in South Carolina. One must conclude that too few entities are capable or willing to take on the monumental responsibility of educating children -- of even offering them a (dare I say it?) "minimally adequate" education.

O, South Carolina.

The authors attribute the state's heel-dragging on charters to a "recurring set of obstacles."

In 1996, then governor David Beasley signed South Carolina’s charter law, but few schools had opened by the turn of the century. This is surprising, considering the state’s record of low student achievement.

Is it surprising, really? Or might parents understand intuitively that public schools are dramatically under-funded, and that our state's charters were designed to drain more public dollars out of the public system?

According to commonly accepted performance indicators, South Carolina’s public schools are among the nation’s worst.

Strange that Education Week magazine, issuing its own annual report on state rankings according to "commonly accepted performance indicators," gives South Carolina's educators substantial credit for accomplishing what they do with meager resources.

And isn't it easy to throw stones at the system after leaving the state, rather than to stay and help build, strengthen and improve it, as millions of others do?

Persistently low graduation rates, dismal SAT results, and low NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores, especially in reading, have long been the norm. In a historically red state with low-performing schools, a free-market education reform such as charters should be in demand and find strong support from lawmakers. What happened?

Well, Buttercup, that's easy to explain. The same lawmakers who wanted a charter school system to help starve the annual appropriations to traditional public education were loathe to appropriate just as much funding to an alternative system.

But, as this is a "study" produced in part by a "think tank," the authors answer their own question.

When the first decade of South Carolina’s charter history concluded in 2006, there was little to show. Twenty-nine charter schools were operating, and few of these had a track record of success. Some 14 others had opened and closed. The average life span of the closed schools was 2.7 years, with most not even completing a second year. As is the case nationally, many of the closures were the result of financial problems or poor planning at the outset.

There you have it: Lack of real interest in opening charters, and incompetence on the parts of many who did open them.

But the authors don't accept this as the answer. They offer a far grander conspiracy theory: It was the local school boards!

While the state board of education addressed the planning concerns through regulation, other policy issues emerged, as certain districts developed a reputation for stonewalling reform efforts. For example, Greenville and Charleston, home districts for two early charter success stories, Greenville Tech and James Island, respectively, are the two largest districts in South Carolina, and each developed an adversarial stance toward charters.

Blast it: People who held responsibility for educating all of a district's public schoolchildren took their responsibilities seriously! They were united in supporting their local traditional public schools, and didn't want to see their precious few dollars skimmed off for some boutique charter academies.

So, the authors say, charter advocates tried a different strategy with help from their dismantler-in-chief, Mark Sanford:

The prolonged period of fits and starts forced charter advocates and their allies in the statehouse to seek a separate peace with their opponents in well-entrenched teacher, superintendent, and school-board associations. In responding, legislators created an alternative authorizer, the South Carolina Public Charter School District (SCPCSD, here CSD), with a plan to commence operations in 2008 under the leadership of an appointed board representing the governor’s office, House and Senate leadership, and various state associations. The new authorizing district proposed to relieve pressure on local districts as the only avenue for a charter. This, plus the authorizing district’s spartan funding provision, helped quell opposition—for a time.

This is a soft-light way of saying that charter advocates won approval for a dodge bill: A plan that allowed charter groups to get around local school districts and win charters with low standards and little accountability from a statewide authority.

Notice, though, that they mentioned their new authority's "spartan funding provision." That's going to come back in a second.

Even this twisty scheme failed, the authors report.

The CSD opened in 2008 with five schools... By the end of the 2008–09 school year, though, one school’s charter had been revoked, two others had asked for loans to make payroll, the district office was operating with barely enough on the balance sheet to make it month to month, and the hybrid administrative concept had been abandoned in favor of a more traditional district model. Further complicating matters, leadership changed, as the inaugural superintendent, Tim Daniels, and board chair, Terrye Seckinger, were replaced at the end of the year. What began as a hopeful new charter authorizer for South Carolina teetered on the brink of oblivion after only one year.

Twenty percent of the schools lost charter authority, forty percent couldn't cover payroll without loans, the adminstrative model radically changed and leadership changed hands, all in the course of one year.

If this were a private business, the same conservatives who advocated for the charter dodge in the first place would have been satisfied to see it fail. That's called free-market capitalism. But this wasn't private business, this was ideological politics.

But isn't that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps and do-it-yourself-for-less mentality the core of the charter movement?

Nationally, charters embrace this challenge by vowing to do more with less, but there is a distinct difference between whether a school can stock an additional computer lab or barely pay the electric bill.

Ah, so it's not so much do-it-yourself. Charters are, in fact, just another mouth for the General Fund to feed.

I guess that came as a shock to the ideologues who saw charters as a cheap way to dismantle traditional public schools. When the charter advocates come begging for more money, the whole charter idea loses its flavor.

From the beginning, the South Carolina Charter School Act provided CSD schools with little more than the Base Student Cost (BSE), which varies from year to year depending on the state budget.

Uh-oh, I see what's coming.

The most significant source of funds for South Carolina’s traditional public schools -- as well as for charters authorized by a local district -- is the municipality in which the school is located. CSD schools do not have a local tax base and thus must operate without these funds.

So, are you saying that charters needed more money to educate children than the state was willing to appropriate? I hope that's not what you're saying, because that's what traditional public schools have been trumpeting from the mountaintops for years. I thought charters were supposed to be different.

“It [the charter school allotment] was certainly inadequate,” says current CSD board chair Don McLaurin, an entrepreneur whose private-sector experience enabled him to recognize immediately the CSD’s precarious financial situation. McLaurin joined the board halfway through the 2008–09 school year and has already been voted chairman twice. “It just wasn’t enough money to run a school. I think we can do things at a more reasonable price than traditional public schools, but the mechanism that was in place in the beginning didn’t allow for the realities of the world.”

"The realities of the world." I suspect the realities of the world find that educating children costs money, educating them well costs more money, and that ideologues in the legislature are stingy with funding, which yields sub-standard results.

So -- wait, don't tell me -- the charter advocates begged for more money AND GOT IT.

Understanding the policy shortcomings in CSD’s creation, legislators added a $700 per-student proviso to the 2009–10 state budget to aid the district. But the proviso, Title I funding, and federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) funding failed to offset worsening financial conditions in 2009–10. The $700 proviso survived reauthorization in spring 2010 and was available to the district for the 2010–11 school year, but its benefit evaporated when BSE was cut to $1,757 per pupil.

Wowsa. Charters begged for special treatment and got it, to the tune of $700 per child above the base student cost, and still couldn't make the grade.

This time, it was the recession's fault.

Statewide, general-fund revenue collections—for all state services, including education—dropped by nearly 25 percent between 2007 and 2010. The state faced a budget shortfall of $560.9 million in 2010–11, projected to reach $1.4 billion in 2012–13 unless spending was cut. In July 2010, midyear cuts slashed the BSE even further, to $1,630.

And the state's charter school chief admits he always intended to go back and ask for more money, once the legislature had demonstrated its willingness to declare a separate base student cost for charter students.

Superintendent Brazell knew the proviso could only be considered a short-term solution. “My thoughts were that this was done just to get our foot in the door and other funding would become available later,” he says.

The old foot-in-the-door.

How funny it is that charter advocates have moved from a message of "We can do it ourselves, cheaper and better," to "If we can get our foot in the door, we can get more public funding down the road."

So what happened? "...CSD schools struggled to survive, and the threat of closure loomed."

Sounds grim. Still, charters had the steadfast support of parents, right?

Compounding the problem, CSD schools experienced significant student turnover in their first two years, making enrollment unstable.

Gee, even parents abandoned the untried, untested, unaffordable, unstable experiment that charters represented.

What the authors describe next is stunning.

In an effort to save newly opened charter schools, the CSD extended loans to two of its five schools in 2008, but only one of the loans was repaid. This caused consternation among the authorizing district’s board members, especially as new requests for loans came in, and led to a swift reversal of district policy. “We violated what many of us thought we should have been doing as an authorizer, but we had to either help the schools or watch them all close,” says Brazell. With the damage done, the district and its schools were convinced that a funding scheme relying on BSE and Title I funding was untenable. For the next fiscal year (2009–10) the CSD aggressively cut costs, trimming office accounting fees and downgrading budget lines set aside for a legal retainer. As the district rebuilt its depleted reserves, schools again asked for short-term loans. Having learned a hard lesson, the district helped schools make payroll by advancing funds equal in amount to dollars due from the state. When the state funds arrived (typically at the end of the month), the district simply deducted monies already provided to the schools.

This became a shell game. In other quarters of the world, it's called "creative accounting."

The authors unintentionally describe other areas of incompetence.

Simple operational procedures, which existing traditional schools had mastered, were an enigma to CSD charters. How do they order textbooks? How can they order diplomas?

To cover for these inadequacies, they say, the state's charter school administrators had to become shepherds, helping new charter schools set up their operations -- in essence, to become like another traditional public school district, facing the same issues that under-funded traditional public schools face: "The financial circus kept school budgets in flux, making it difficult to prepare for additional student services, hire teachers, and develop strategic plans," they complain.

To make matters worse, the S. C. Charter School Act requires board elections at each charter school annually, resulting in the loss of institutional knowledge every year.

That sounds an awful lot like what happens when traditional public school teachers are laid off, and their veteran teachers are forced into retirement.

But the authors see a happy ending. Despite what they characterize as "hasty, temporary measures to help resolve problems" and "a haphazard set of practices, inconsistently applied, with plenty of doubt to go around," they see the charter movement as a roaring success in South Carolina.

Today, the CSD oversees 13 schools that serve more than 10,000 students. In 2010–11, Superintendent Brazell finished his second school year with the district and has filled key staff positions with knowledgeable personnel, many with a history at the South Carolina Department of Education. CSD staff experience has proved invaluable to the new charter operators.

Isn't that great? Folks who built their careers at the state department of education -- and who may have lost them in the recent purges of the administration -- now provide a knowledgeable support network for the charter movement that once despised them as education bureaucrats. It's nice that everything comes together in the end.

"Only one charter has been revoked," the authors report.

There are still financial issues, and the legislature continues to be stingy with funding, they lament.

In addition, the 2011–12 state budget included a funding increase for CSD schools. Virtual schools received an additional $1,750 per student, while brick-and-mortar charters received an additional $3,250.

But isn't that a good thing? After all, it honors the charter movement's guiding principles, that they can provide equal and better education at dramatically lower costs, which saves the state's taxpayers a lot of money.

In August 2011, the CSD approved seven charter-school applicants to open in the 2012–13 school year. Perhaps the strong leadership in the state and district superintendents’ offices, along with more experience among district and school staff, will result in more effective operations and better student outcomes in the future.

And who knows? Pretty soon, maybe these charters will complete their conversion to private schools and leave public funding behind altogether. That would, after all, be the ultimate expression of saving South Carolina's taxpayers more money, right?

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