Here’s what L.G. Candidate Loretta Weinberg told NJN during a visit to a Teaneck charter school on Tuesday (link here, about 1:30): “Part of our public school system, and part of what both the Governor Corzine and I believe in, and that is the expansion of charter schools in New Jersey. They are the laboratory for new innovative educational techniques.”
Interesting turn of phrase: “the laboratory for new innovative educational techniques.” Weinberg’s terminology carefully echoes UFT President Albert Shanker’s then-new conception of a public charter school. During a seminal speech in 1988 he proposed that charters act as teacher-led laboratories for new instructional practices that, if successful, would be integrated into traditional public schools. And Shanker’s boxed-in, teacher-controlled, twenty-year-old articulation is what union officials cling to today.
Here’s current NEA President Dennis Van Roekel on charter schools:
There is much to learn from charter school success stories as well as charter school failures. Charter schools have the potential to be incubators of promising educational practices that can be replicated in mainstream schools. The key is to identify what is working that can be sustained and reproduced on a broad scale so that as many students as possible can benefit. We need to create more supportive learning environments for educators and students alike in all of our public schools. This is an essential part of fulfilling NEA’s vision of a great public school for every student.
Weinberg’s echo of union code is an astute move by Corzine because it enables him to both pacify education reformists by appearing to support charter school expansion (and mitigate a principle difference between his educational agenda and Christie’s) and wink at union officials who are hell-bent on limiting charter school growth. Not to worry, says Weinberg/Corzine. We’re keeping charters in that dusty box.
Of course, this obsolete definition conveniently ignores the fact that charter schools no longer define themselves as short-term petri dishes, but as long-term educational models: think KIPP, Green Dot, Harlem Children’s Zone.
Along the same lines, read this piece by Tom Vander Ark in The Huffington Post that explores the public education sector opposition to private investment. (Some of the most interesting charter models are financed privately, at least in part.) He says that “most of this is just disguised job protection, the rest is historical bias,” and calculates that,
If the US Department of Education was able to invest half of i3 in private ventures, it would be multiplied several times over by private investment (10x in some cases), it would fund scalable enterprises with the potential for national impact, and the innovation would be sustained by a business model.
Weinberg’s statement to NJN may sound like a capitulation on Race To The Top priorities and a bold move by Corzine to resist NJEA’s opposition to charter school expansion. Read more closely and it’s merely a validation of decades-old union resistance to educational reform.
Charters are often partially privately financed for a number of reasons. We found that around 2004, DC charters raised about 14% of their revenue from private contributions. That's one heck of a lot to try to maintain over time.
Why do charters rely so heavily on private contributions?
First, charters often get the short end of the stick in state school finance formulas, being funded per pupil on average at a lower rate than they would otherwise as a traditional public school district. This creates additional pressure to make up the difference. This should be fixed… but there are other issues…
Second, charter school state funding is entirely enrollment sensitive, whereas for traditional public school districts, only the state aid formula share of funding is enrollment sensitive. A district that receives 60% of its funding through the pupil driven aid formula and most of the remainder from local property tax will have fluctuations in the 60% of a pupil allotment when a student comes or goes, but the revenue generated from local property tax will not fluctuate on a per student basis (Yes, I'm ignoring some other pieces here, but trying to keep it simple). This creates a need for charters to find some mechanism for buffering, much like private schools or colleges which will use private fund raising and endowment returns as buffers to offset tuition increases that would otherwise have to occur. If you have 10 kids in a class, and then have 9, you typically can't just cut that teacher's salary by 10% and you wouldn't want to instantly raise tuition by more than 10% on the other 9 families.
Third, and this one is really important, Charter schools often operate at inefficient scale. That is, during several years of start up, charters operate as elementary schools with fewer than 300 to 500 kids or high schools with fewer than 600 to 900 kids. Some never achieve this scale. Small schools simply cost more to operate – even to produce comparable outcomes. So, if you've got a school that's really costly to operate because it is so small, and it's being under-subsidized through the state aid formula, and the budget is highly sensitive to enrollment fluctuations (losing 1 out of 75 kids hurts a lot more than 1 out of 600), that school will be under immense pressure to raise additional funds.
This does raise some fun questions – like – why would we want to promote the creation of large numbers of new, inefficiently small schools while at the same time pushing for the consolidation of others?
Finally, there's that other not-so-small issue about charters having to find some place to operate, with negligible public financial support.