Scoppe: What’s the difference between building charter schools, growing government?

Associate EditorJanuary 2, 2014 

— I’M NOT ONE of those people who lump charter schools in with tax-credit and voucher schemes designed to funnel tax dollars into private schools. To the contrary, I’m a fan of the idea behind charter schools: that by allowing parents to create public schools and operate them free of some of the normal red tape, we can encourage greater parental involvement and encourage innovation that too often is stifled in the regular public schools.

Although they are given a good deal of flexibility, charter schools still have to abide by public rules and still are accountable to the state. That’s what makes them different from private schools. And in fact, it is because of that public accountability — in this case, the requirement that they administer the very same tests as regular public schools — that we know that they have not been wildly successful.

Too few actually innovate, and with a few notable exceptions, they do at best no better job than regular public schools at educating children. In that way, they’re sort of like regular public schools, a few of which do an outstanding job, a few of which do an awful job and most of which do an average job.

This probably wouldn’t be a big problem, particularly if they do increase parental engagement, if they were content to operate the way we were promised they would operate, under a compromise that attempted to balance the potential benefits of charter schools against the costs.

Unless they’re coordinating with school districts — which they should be and they would be if the charter school and local school officials had their heads in the right place — charter schools are inherently duplicative. They create themselves sua sponte, opening up where there already are enough schools with enough capacity to serve all the students. Charter-school supporters implicitly acknowledged this duplication when they promised they could deliver innovation and parental buy-in on a shoestring budget.

That duplication is the reason the state never has provided funds to help buy or build or rent facilities for charter schools.

But in much the same way that charter-school backers have been seeking more money, and relief from more state requirements, from the start, now they’re asking for help building or buying or renting their facilities.

Their argument is that having to pay these costs steals money they otherwise could spend in the classroom. And that is indisputably true. Just as it’s indisputably true that having to pay a principal or a janitor or to meet in a public building rather than someone’s house takes away money they otherwise could be spending in the classroom.

The question isn’t whether charter schools have facilities costs. The question is whether taxpayers, who already have paid to provide sufficient physical capacity for the student population in their district, should have to pay for duplicative capacity. That’s the sort of thing one might reasonably call growing government.

Even the people who want to replace our public schools with unaccountable private schools aren’t asking that the taxpayers pay to build them new buildings. Well, at least not yet. The fact is that there’s a lot of overlap between those who support charter schools and those who support throwing tax money at unaccountable private schools. Let the latter gain enough of a foothold in our state, and they’ll probably start demanding that we pay them to cover building costs as well. Which is something those legislators and parents and others who increasingly are tempted by the siren’s song of the private-choice movement ought to keep in mind.

There might be circumstances under which it would make sense for taxpayers to pay for charter-school facilities, but those circumstances would have to involve an actual need for capacity. The best way for this to happen would be for the administrators of regular public schools and charter schools to work together, to determine when and where additional facilities are needed.

If what they got in return was the money they needed, charter-school officials easily could be encouraged to work with local officials — although some of them are just as territorial and distrustful of the school districts as the school districts are of them. Indeed, one of the priorities for the charter schools, access to vacant or underutilized school district space, is quite reasonable.

Encouraging local school districts to cooperate with charter schools likely would take the same sort of aggressive state intervention that our Legislature and Education Department have refused to provide when some districts fail their students.

But a Legislature that writes the laws under which school districts must operate and provides the bulk of the funding for those districts certainly has the leverage to make school districts work together with charter schools. It’s a question of whether it wants to do that.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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