In 1961, communist East Germany faced a crisis. The West had stiffened its spine against communism. The East Germans (and their Russian handlers) faced a dire threat across the nation’s open borders. So they built a fence and, through the middle of the divided capitol in Berlin, a big wall, reinforced with barbed wire, mines, dogs and machine guns.
Not to keep western invaders out, of course; it was to keep East Germans, Czechs and Poles in. It wasn’t NATO tanks they were worried about; it was the immense efflux of the Eastern bloc’s most motivated, talented, useful people across the border to freedom.
Public schools, especially (but far from exclusively) in the major cities, are failing. Graduation rates in Saint Paul are under 50%; it’s far worse among black and hispanic students. And the parents of those students are responding by leaving the districts. Due to Minnesota’s school choice rules, parents can sent their kids to other public districts, to private schools, or to charter schools. Over an eighth of Saint Paul parents have decamped from the public system; it’s “worse” in Minneapolis.
And like the East Germans, the Minnesota education establishment knows that it needs to stanch the bleeding before it bleeds completely dry.
The left – especially the big institutional left, the DFL, and its handlers, the teachers union – hate charter schools. The schools are generally non-union, of course. Beyond that, due to the 1991 law that established the charter system, the state money that would go to the student at a public school follows the student to the charter school.
In the MN2020 hit piece on charter schools yesterday (subtitled “An Examination of Charter School Finances”, John Fitzgerald wrote:
Unlike private schools, charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars. While traditional public schools get roughly $9,500 per-student from the state, charter schools get $10,500 for each student from the state. State officials say charter schools deserve more taxpayer money because they can’t ask local taxpayers for additional taxes to operate their schools or for bonds to build school buildings the way traditional districts can.
Fitzgerald breezes past this like it’s immaterial – presumably (I’ll put words in his mouth) to leave the reader with the impression that charter schools are over-funded compared to the public schools.
But local bonding funding more than makes up the purported differences in spending:
Statewide – $9,063 per student
During the 2008-09 school year, Minnesota school districts will receive an average of $9,063 per student in general education revenue from state and local sources.
State funding per student will average of $8,182.
Referenda revenue per student will average $881.
Minneapolis (District 1.2) – $11,692 per student
During the 2008-09 school year, Minneapolis will receive $11,692 per student in general education revenue from state and local sources, compared with a statewide average of $9,063.
State funding is $10,797 per student, compared to a statewide average of $8,182.
Referenda revenue total $895 per student, compared to a state average of $881.
St. Paul (District 625) – $10,809 per student
During the 2008-09 school year, St. Paul will receive $10,809 per student in general education revenue from state and local sources, compared with a statewide average of $9,063.
State funding is $10,039 per student, compared to a statewide average of $8,182.
Referenda revenue totals $770 per student, compared to a state average of $881.
Remember to add 8% – the government inflation rate – to these numbers, which are from last year.
And then remember that charter schools need to pay for a whole lot of things – rent, for starters – out of their per-student allotment that the public schools largely don’t.Fitzgerald next moves on to “accountability”.
A major component of the 1991 charter school legislation allows the taxpayer dollars to follow the student: if a student leaves a traditional school and enrolls in a charter school, the per-student money leaves the public system and is allocated to the charter school.
Although charter schools receive taxpayer funds, they are not subject to the same checks and balances taxpayers have the right to expect. Traditional schools are governed by elected school boards. Taxpayers who disagree with the way their money is being spent need only go to the school board meeting and voice their concern. Ultimately, voters can exercise their rights and vote school board members off the body.
I’ve spent a solid day trying to figure out how to even address the myopia in this statement.
“They need only to go voice their concern?” To whom? To the very body that is causing the problem. Who, especially in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, were put into office by local party machines and the teachers unions whose entire goal is to maintain the status quo.
And it’s true; the taxpayer can “exercise their rights” to mount a big election campaign (at the appointed time in the election cycle), put their lives on hold, raise millions of dollars, and butt heads with the most entrenched establishment anywhere in Minnesota politics. And, pretty much inevitably, fail.
As, indeed, people who are revolted by the way taxpayers money is being spent in the Cities today are failing, and even falling behind; the one Republican member of the Saint Paul school board (indeed, the sole elected Republican anywhere in Saint Paul) is leaving.
So what’s the alternative?
Go to a private school (with its attendant costs). Or go to a school in another district (which is good if you can manage the transportation to and from the district; transportation funds do not follow the student, which is fine unless you are the one of the families most affected by the attempt to gut charter schoos, the working poor in the city. And which, let’s not forget, is a function of the “Open Enrollment” law that will be the Educational-Industrial Complex’ next target when they kill off charter schools)…
…or go to a charter school. Where, if you don’t like how things are being run, you can express your dissatisfaction by leaving. By depriving the school of your kid’s share of the state money.
You can’t get more accountable than that – if by “accountable” you mean “to parents”.
Oh, and there’s one other way:
There is no such remedy for taxpayers concerned about the financial dealings fo charter schools. Their boards are not publically elected and taxpayers have no say in how their money is spent.
This is, of course, balderdash. Many charter schools have boards, elected from among the school’s sponsors, staff and, lest we forget, parents. These boards are immediately responsible to the school’s parents about everything, immediately.
And for those that don’t? As Fitzgerald’s report itself notes, the Minnesota Department of Education itself administers the financial affairs of charter schools!
I mentioned this to a couple of different supporters of the current public school system. “But taxpayers as a whole don’t get a say in how their tax money is spent at a charter school!”
I reeled with responses:
Your input as a voter ends at your district! If you’re a voter in Marshall, your disgust with how your tax money is being spent in Minneapolis will fall on deaf electoral ears, except…via the Minnesota Department of Education. Same as with charter schools!
Charter schools aren’t the only bodies that accept public money without publicly-elected boards; every non-profit that accept tax dollars has a board that is privately elected. Do I get a say in how, say, Minnesota Public Radio spends my tax dollars? Do I get a vote on their board, just because they’re spending my money? Hell, I don’t even get a vote for pledging to them! No, my only say on MPR’s funding – or the funding of any non-profit that accepts tax dollars – is the same as the Marshall voters’ say over Minneapolis’ school spending, or over John Fitzgerald’s say over my kids’ charter school’s spending; via the legislature, which controls the Department of Education. Which is frustratingly indirect, although not nearly so indirect as, say, being a conservative trying to change the composition of the Saint Paul School Board.
“But MPR isn’t a school!” True. But Fitzgerald’s article wasn’t about “education”, per se; you’ll find only the most oblique references to the actual business schools conduct, “educating” kids, anywhere in the article. It’s about financial governance, compliance and accountability with taxpayer money. And none of those differs in any but the most picayune details between charter schools and, say, a social service non-profit with a state contract (which also have spotty records), or an HMO (which are non-profits in Minnesota, and have even dicier records). And if you want to bring the fact that a charter is a school into the mix, then it’s patently misleading to compare charters’ performance at financial management with public schools (not that any of them can manage money; they don’t have to follow the same rules), to say nothing of the differences in educational service and achievement that are the justification for charter schools in the first place.
There’s a reason for that, naturally.
But while Fitzgerald’s piece didn’t touch on education, it did talk a lot about financial management.
More on that on Monday.
UPDATE: I had to re-do this post; MN2020′s code interacts badly with a “feature” in WordPress that made it basically impossible to fix it without copying the whole thing into Notepad to scrub the invisible formatting and re-pasteing it into WordPress.
So the comments are lost. Sorry about that.
(Part I, Part III and Part IV of this series)