Search results: charter
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The Obvious Conclusion of a Charter Charade

Checking in on the progress of Tiverton’s charter review on Tiverton Fact Check, I find the Town Council coming to the conclusion it intended all along:

… it is clear that the Charter does not intend for the Town Council simply to brush aside the work of the Charter Review Commission.  Why would we hold an election for the positions if that were the intent?  It would save the town money and be more efficient simply to have the council appoint the commission members.  That is why no council has ever blocked a CRC proposal before, to the knowledge of people who’ve watched these matters closely.

The strong impression of the last year of charter review politics is that the Town Council called for a review because its members were hoping to claim authority over casino revenue for themselves and to drain the financial town referendum (FTR) of its ability to protect taxpayers. Voters did not elect a single commissioner who wanted to do those things, so the council spent the next year doing its best to ignore the commission. Now, the council members are simply going to pretend the CRC never happened and put forward their own recommendations to voters.

It’s discouraging whenever personal interests (and personalities) corrupt a representative democracy, especially when it happens at the local level.  One can only hope that voters are keeping close enough track and will impose a reckoning.

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Stunning Data Points from New York City Charters

Eva Moskowitz offers a good starting point for discussion of school choice in a Wall Street Journal op-ed describing experience in New York City:

The highest performing charter schools, like Success Academy, have actually reversed the achievement gap. Black and Hispanic students from Central Harlem’s seven Success Academy schools outperform white students across the city by 33 points in math and 21 points in reading; low-income students outperform the city’s affluent students by 38 and 24 points in math and reading respectively.

Of course, those numbers would have to be adjusted somewhat.  Picking students from one group in the best schools and comparing them with students from another group across all schools is obviously unfair.  But still, Success Academy results explode any argument that students from that area of the city just can’t learn, for whatever reason.

Now note this part:

To justify their arguments, Ms. Weingarten and others propagate the myth that charter-school successes have come at the expense of traditional district schools. But this claim has been disproved again and again. In New York City, for example, a comprehensive study found improved academic performance, safety, and student engagement at district schools with charter schools, particularly high-performing ones, located nearby or in the same building.

This is a winning formula: competition plus the ability of schools to concentrate on the shared challenges specific to the students whose families choose particular environments.  We shouldn’t limit our application of that formula to just charter schools, and we certainly shouldn’t keep delaying reform in reaction to the spooky smokescreens self-dealing advocates like union kingpin Randy Weingarten keep throwing up.

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UPDATED: Taxpayer Group Sweeps Tiverton Charter Review Commission

In the balance of elections, Tiverton’s charter review commission is relatively obscure, but its importance this year is evidenced by the facts that 24 candidates ran for the nine available seats and the election brought around 150 more people to the polls than voted in Newport’s simultaneous Democrat primary for the state Senate seat vacated by former Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.

The conclusion of Tiverton’s campaign, yesterday, saw the candidates endorsed by the Tiverton Taxpayers Association PAC sweep all nine available offices.  The commission will spend a year reviewing the town’s Home Rule Charter (essentially the local constitution) and gathering feedback from residents and town officials, ultimately recommending changes that the Town Council should (and typically will) put on the November 2018 ballot.  The election outcome has huge significance on the policy side and the political side.

On the policy side, the TTA candidates ran with a promise not to substantially modify the financial town referendum (FTR) method of setting a budget, which has produced tax increases under 1% for the last four years.  The candidates also pledged to ensure that millions of dollars in revenue expected from the new Twin River casino currently under construction in town will be put through the regular budgeting process, rather than sectioned off beyond the reach of taxpayers’ annual vote.

On the politics side, the election marks a translation of TTA’s budget-election success into a more-traditional campaign for office, with an outcome more decisive than the group’s partial victory securing a large minority of Budget Committee seats in November (including one currently occupied by this writer).

The next challenge for the taxpayer group will be similar achievements during the regular election cycle, rather than special elections and spring referenda.  The prospects are brightened by the fact that five of the nine winning candidates have not held public office in Tiverton before, and at least two of the five have shown an interest in political activity beyond the commission, with Richard Rom and Justin LaCroix having run for state senate and representative seats last year, ultimately unsuccessfully.  In yesterday’s election, LaCroix was the highest vote-getter, with nearly 50% of the vote in the 24-person race.

Addendum (2:42 p.m., 7/19/17):

RI Future’s Steve Ahlquist makes the reasonable point that this post should mention my involvement with the Tiverton Taxpayers Association, with which I hold and have held various “official” positions, although the simpler truth of the matter is that I’m one of a handful of “core” members.  The omission was in no way intended to mislead, but was premised on the expectation that most readers would know of my deep involvement with the group or, at the very least, that I’m sympathetic with it, whatever my involvement.

In that regard, such a “disclosure” would be similar to requiring Providence Journal reporters to mention their union affiliation any time they report on related labor unions.  Of course, I’ve faulted them from time to time for not doing so, so given the specific nature of this post, I should have mentioned the affiliation.

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Charter School Demand Isn’t Surprising; Narrow Vision Is

It just isn’t surprising that demand for charter schools far outstrips available seats in Rhode Island, but I’m not sure the Providence Journal editorial board draws the right lessons.  After all, charter schools are — or at least people’s perception of them is that they are — tantamount to free-to-the-family private schools, and parents don’t have to be but so motivated as advocates for their children to seek free private schooling for their children.

The peculiarity is that the Projo editors won’t consider the possibility of modestly helping families afford actual private schools, even just a little.  Given the editors’ advocacy for charter schools, they can’t really turn around and argue that real school choice would take money away from schools, because charter schools do that even more.

One plausible argument, I guess, would be that the public maintains some level of control over charter schools, because they’re still public schools, but then it isn’t obvious why the editors would see legislation giving local taxpayers some leverage when it comes to charter schools as an unjust attack on them.

Now throw this into the mix:

The combined hit [of budget and leverage reforms] “would force the majority of Rhode Island’s highly successful independent and district charter schools to shut their doors in a matter of years,” [Timothy Groves, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools,] warned.

So, these free-to-the-parents, private-like public schools can’t survive without total subsidization arguably beyond the very-high level of public schools.

One wonders what the demand for charters would be if parents were required to pay some nominal fee to make up the difference.  The Projo complains about Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s intention to reduce district funding of charters by about $700 per student, but $700 per year would be a very low tuition for parents, compared with existing private options.

Frankly, the underlying logic spins the head.  We need “public school choice” so the public has some control, but we can’t let the public make decisions about the schools.  We’re impressed by the demand, but we can’t let parents pay some small tuition.

One gets the impression that, proclamations aside, the advocacy places more emphasis on whatever it is that makes the word “public” magic rather than on whatever it is that makes school choice beneficial for children.  Either that, or it’s more of a statement of “we like these schools and the people who run them, and we think everybody should have to pay for them without much by way of accountability.”

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Mike Stenhouse: Empowerment Schools Cannot Replace Charter Schools or School Choice

In today’s Providence Journal, R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse expresses concern about proposed “empowerment schools” and calls for an all of the above approach to education in Rhode Island.

Only an all-of-the-above approach can meet this demand. So, if the empowerment school program is added to the existing school choice menu, then it’s a positive step.

However, if empowerment schools are being positioned as alternative charter schools, it would actually dis-empower parents, reducing their options, and would be yet another deceptive ploy by our government to advance a hidden, special-interest agenda.

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Charters as a Step to True Government Monopoly

For a year or more, my fellow conservatives have looked at me a bit funny when I’ve suggested that maybe we shouldn’t see charter schools as part of our school choice movement.  If you look past intentions and the first-order effects of charter school proliferation and take into account other forces in public education, observing what’s actually happening, you can easily foresee a future in which we discover that charter schools were simply a stepping stone to a total government monopoly of education, rather than just the near-monopoly that we have now.

First, we find it is impossible to break the insider-labor-union grip that’s preventing public schools from fulfilling their mission.  Second, charter schools act as a school choice opportunity with full public school–level funding (which is much higher than most private school options in the state).  Third, non-elite private schools go out of business because they can’t compete with charters’ free-to-parents price point.  Fourth, once charters have killed the private school market in the state, the insider-labor-union forces flex their muscles and absorb the charters back into the education blob.

A Linda Borg article in today’s Providence Journal suggests that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence — the state’s single largest operator of private schools, most of them in the affordable range — sees the threat of step 3 and isn’t interested in playing along.  The diocese has opted not to extend a lease with Blackstone Valley Prep, the largest network of charter schools.

Charter supporters claim there’s no evidence that they’re poaching students from private schools, despite the striking parallel of the numbers, but they ignore the complexity of human decisions.  As contrary evidence, Blackstone Valley director of external affairs Jennifer LoPiccolo notes that “the vast majority of their students are enrolled in kindergarten, not the later grades” (in Borg’s paraphrase), so kids leaving Catholic schools can’t be transferring.  But take a bunch of kindergarten kids out of a private school, and its tuition has to go up, pushing parents out.  Some of their children will win the charter-school lottery, but most will simply lose their choice and return to district public schools.  When the Catholic school ultimately closes its doors, that scenario plays out across its entire student body.

From a small-government, free-market perspective, one would have difficulty coming up with a better example of government’s using its ability to regulate, legislate, and direct near-limitless public resources to its preferred providers (mainly its own) than charter schools.  Still, somehow, I’ve already had heated arguments about, for example, H7067, which would remove the unfunded mandate that local property taxpayers must provide big funding to charter schools.  In my assessment, that would be a good, positive change consistent with conservative principles.  Local taxpayers have next to zero input when it comes to charter schools, so they should have some say about whether or to what extent they want to fund them.

Whatever one’s political persuasion, Rhode Islanders need to give some fresh consideration to charters.

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Officials Should Come up with the Number That Districts Can Save Through Charters

As the school year drew closer, the school department of Providence, Rhode Island announced its intention to charge local charter schools around $800 per season for each of their students who participate in an in-district athletics program. District spokeswoman Christina O’Reilly told Dan McGowan of WPRI that the fees would help cover “transportation, coaches’ salaries, referees, equipment, [and] league fees” for teams, on which 50 to 60 Providence charter students play.

The city backed away from the plan within a few days, but the brief episode once again raised the controversial issue of charter school funding.

Under Rhode Island law, charter schools receive the total per-student funding that would be allocated for their students in their home districts.  The district divides its local property tax collection for schools, minus capital expenses and debt service, by the number of students and sends the proportionate amount to the charters.

The state calculates its aid on a per-student basis and sends the money to the charter instead of the district.  Then the state gives the district an additional five percent of its per-student total to cover the “indirect costs” of each charter student.

By the reckoning of The Center for Education Reform, this makes Rhode Island’s funding “equity” the most generous in New England, and among the most generous in the country.

Continue reading on Watchdog.org.

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Charters in Public-Private Limbo

I’m in the minority among my ideological peers, on this, but my thinking on charter schools has changed quite a bit in recent years.

Many conservatives, I believe, see them as a sly way to insert wedges into public education’s cracks in order to bring about wider-scale reform of the system.  If we create this alternate system of schools, literally entered with the luck of the draw, that is free of the restrictions that (for some reason) we continue to tolerate in district schools, then parents will demand that district schools be made free of the restrictions, too.

To advance this stratagem, we’ve been willing to overlook basic descriptive facts about charters that would normally concern us a great deal.  In order to work around the damage that the democratic nature of our government has wrought in education (thanks, largely, to the self-interested activism of teacher unions), we’re creating institutions over which the public has less control.  On the one hand, charter advocates insist that they are “public schools of choice,” so they should fall within the range of inside-government benefits, but on the other hand, they are demanding that the people paying the bills should not have immediate, democratic control over them.

In any other context, conservatives would recoil against that just as surely as they ought to recoil against crony capitalist deals giving connected insiders taxpayer cash for their private business dealings.  Principle should not be something to be weighed against practicality.  Rather, we should hold to our principles because they produce the outcome that we desire; it is in determining our goals that we should weigh morality and practicality.

My concern, in treading off our principled path, is that we’re more likely to get lost than to return to our firm ground.  Instead of breaking the rigid grip of special interests on public schools, charters will kill off private schools — at least all of them that are accessible to anybody who’s less than rich.  Then special interests will successfully tighten the vice, making government education a true monopoly rather than the near-monopoly that it currently is.

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Education’s Future Resting on Charters in the Crossfire in Rhode Island

Advocates for charter schools in Rhode Island have begun emphasizing that they are “public schools of choice.”  The careful balancing act in that phrase proves that such schools are treading across difficult terrain.

On one side, traditional public school districts are complaining that charter schools take much more money per student than the district schools save by handing the children off. Charter schools also have fewer of the burdens that apply pressure to school budgets, like state mandates and pension costs, they say.

On the other side, private schools and affiliated organizations are pointing out that charters can skim their clientele. Families that would have gone straight to the private route try their luck with the charter school lottery, first, and with every new “public school of choice” that opens, a private school of choice finds it more difficult to stay open.

The immediate question for Ocean State charter schools is whether they can survive the crossfire over the next few years.  In the longer term, the question for residents of the state is whether a charters-only approach to school choice will actually reduce choice while draining funds.

Continue reading on WatchDog.org.

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Charter Schools, Education Savings Accounts, and Sensible School Choice

Even advocates for school choice have to admit that Rhode Island’s public school districts have a point when they complain about the financing of charter schools.

Charters are new public schools funded largely with taxpayer dollars, and not only do they take all of the state aid allocated for each student, but his or her home district has to send along a large chunk of local money. That money goes, as charter opponents put it, to build a duplicate education system.

If we take a step back from the politics of education and teacher unions, it’s difficult to see the sense of making this large investment. A report that the Rhode Island Department of Education published a couple of years ago estimated that it would cost almost $2 billion to bring all of the state’s public school buildings up to a “good condition.”

At the same time, the report’s authors calculated that those buildings currently have 19 percent excess capacity — meaning that they have a lot of empty space — and projected a continuing reduction in the number of students. From 2011 to 2021, the study projected a 4 percent drop in enrollment overall, reaching 13 percent in the suburbs.

In that light, does the state really need to increase its number of public schools?

Continue reading in the Providence Journal.

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Non-Union Charters Do Better in Math and Science

With Education Commissioner Deborah Gist recommending that the charter expire for one of Rhode Island’s charter school specifically on the grounds of its math scores, the question arises whether private-sector methods and non-union teachers might underperform their public-school peers. Comparing several charter high schools in RI shows that the lesson may be the opposite.

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Massachusetts’s Education Warning Signs

I’ve been pointing out that Massachusetts took a turn away from the success of its education reform in the mid-2000s.  As in Rhode Island, reforms that sought to fix the education system in cooperation with the interests that had helped to undermine it produced political pressure to end the reforms, even though they were working.  This creates an educational ceiling.  Massachusetts started earlier and hit its ceiling in 2007, while Rhode Island’s slower and less-enthusiastic move hit its ceiling in 2011, as aggregated scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test show:

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People in Massachusetts are starting to notice, too, as evidenced by Thomas Birmingham and William Weld’s op-ed in the Boston Globe:

In 2010, the Commonwealth replaced its best-in-the-nation English and math standards with national versions that cut the amount of classic literature and poetry that students learn by more than half and extends the time it takes to reach Algebra I, which is the key to higher math study.

Today Massachusetts has essentially the same English and math standards as Arkansas and Louisiana. Students in those states can’t possibly match Massachusetts’ performance, so the political reality is that the bar gets lowered so more can clear it.

The results of this change in education policy have been swift. After years of improvement, our progress has come to a halt. Massachusetts is among a minority of states whose NAEP scores have fallen since 2011 and others are catching up.

Backsliding isn’t the result of any one policy change, but a change in attitude that leads to multiple, related changes:  Accountability measures, charter schools, broader school choice, and higher standards all interact.  More importantly, all of them have opposing incentives for families/students and the entrenched interests like teachers unions.

As in this morning’s post on patriotism, the solutions all build on each other.  Reforming union policy to reduce the power of special interests will make accountability measures more plausible, while giving families high standards and alternatives will increase the resilience of the reform in the face of political pressure.

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Picking and Choosing What Voters Get to Consider

Last night, Tiverton’s Board of Canvassers decided that it had the authority to pick and choose what voters could vote on based on their feelings about it.  The Town Council is hostile to the resolutions, and the town solicitor, who serves in his $98,000-a-year position at the pleasure of the Town Council, told the canvassers that they might face a complaint if voters passed the resolutions.

Never mind that the board was nearly certain to face complaints for blocking the resolutions and the solicitor couldn’t say which lawsuits would be more likely to win.  The canvassers chose to disenfranchise electors rather than do something that the Town Council didn’t want.

As I write on Tiverton Fact Check:

This is the Board of Canvassers.  They’re supposed to be completely neutral referees making sure that all sides in a political dispute have equal access to the ballot.  In this case, the Town Solicitor — who has $98,000-plus reasons to do whatever the Town Council wants him to do — said people might file complaints against the town if voters agreed with the resolutions, and the Board of Canvassers decided to take the vote away from them.

It would be hard to overstate how shocking that is.  Tiverton’s Home Rule Charter states that “All… Elector Resolutions shall be included on the ballot for the Financial Town Referendum and presented at the Financial Town Hearing provided that they are accompanied by 50 qualified elector signatures.”  There is absolutely no dispute that the resolutions the Board of Canvassers blocked had 50 signatures and followed the process in every way, because they followed the same process and had almost identical signatures as other resolutions that were not blocked.

Once again, government officials in Rhode Island show their belief that the law is whatever they say it is at any given moment.  Hopefully, a judge will conclude differently.

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Fancy Funding Deals That Skirt the Law Should Be Avoided

On Tiverton Fact Check, I’ve detailed an example of how the town government appropriates money in a way that (let’s say) conflicts with the clear language of the town’s Home Rule Charter:

The complicating factor is that the vote [to create a restricted revenue source for pay-as-you-throw trash bag revenue] was taken as a resolution in the FTM docket, which should have made it valid for the duration of that year’s budget only. Resolutions have to be renewed each year, and the PAYT restricted account has not been renewed. In other words, the town has been putting that money into a restricted account illegally for six years. To avoid an annual vote, the council would have to present voters with an opportunity to write the account into the charter or provide some other vote akin to a bond approval, making clear to voters that the restricted account will go on forever, or end at some future date.

To some extent, these sorts of things should be expected.  Local government generally consists of people who aren’t government experts and who often see themselves as engaged in a sort of volunteer service; process rules can therefore seem frustrating and unreasonable.  Additionally, in a council-based system, they’re often overseeing a rolling series of town managers and solicitors who lack a long-term institutional knowledge (which is just objective fact) and have financial incentive to tell the council that it can do what its members want to do (which can be corrupt).

In my view, that’s a reason to keep government limited.  If a transaction is too technically or politically complex for a council and well-paid staff to make it under the clear rules of the law, then it shouldn’t be done.  In this case, the council created a new rubbish fee without taking additional steps that would have required additional votes of the public, which sounds quite a bit like the proposed PawSox stadium deal, specifically, and moral obligation bonds, in general.

I often wonder how many similar examples could be found throughout Rhode Island if residents were to make a dedicated practice of combing through their municipal governments’ audits.

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The Danger to the Status Quo of Thwarting Democracy

I have no doubt this dynamic plays itself out across Rhode Island, but as another instance, it seems the Tiverton Town Council thinks democracy is mostly legitimate to the extent that it empowers them to make decisions for everybody else, with minimal accountability:

Beware this trio’s “looking.” Take away the political spin, and the objection of [Town Council Member John Edwards, the Fifith,] and his posse is clearly to limit the ability of voters to have control over town government more often than every two years at a heated election with state and national races on the ballot. Because their political friends have an advantage during regular November elections, that’s when they want the key decisions made.

Every budget for the past six years of the [financial town referendum] has received a majority vote, and usually, it isn’t even close. Members of the Budget Committee who put forward last year’s low, 0.5%-increase budget were all elected. Members of the Charter Review Commission were also all elected. Edwards just doesn’t like that his friends didn’t win.

The responsibility for the rest of us is to make sure that the insiders learn one lesson good and hard:  At some point, we’re going to stop dabbling around the edges and take over the governing bodies, and when we do so, we’re going to change a whole lot more than the year-to-year tax increases.

Grover Norquist put his finger on something true when he said, at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s banquette on Friday, that progressives are motivated by the possibility of taking things from other people and making them do things, while conservatives are motivated by the desire to be left alone.

Too often, being left alone includes being able to avoid getting involved in the day to day operation of government, but there’s bound to be a breaking point.  People will put up with quite a bit of abuse if it means they get to keep their Monday nights more or less to themselves, but if the abuse becomes too substantial, they’ll give up those Monday nights to meetings… and then work to reduce the amount of time they have to spend telling other people what to do.

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Teachers’ Chronic Absenteeism: Another Area of Bad Performance for RI

Summarizing research for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute by David Griffith, Jacob Grandstaff writes:

Griffith defines “chronic absence” as when a teacher misses more than ten school days for “sick” or “personal” leave. When he compares public school teachers with charter school teachers in this area, the difference is quite glaring. Public school teachers are almost three times as likely to be chronically absent as charter school teachers, 28 percent to 10 percent. This is true in 34 of the 35 states that have a large percentage of charter schools. In eight states and the District of Columbia, public school teachers are at least four times as likely as charter school teachers to be absent.

The study finds the gap is the widest in areas that require public school teachers, but not charter school teachers, to bargain collectively. It also shows that it is not an issue of public schools, but of unionization. Unionized charter school teachers are twice as likely to be chronically absent from work as non-unionized charter school teachers.

According to the study, of the 35 states plus Washington, D.C., Rhode Island is the 4th worst for chronic public school absenteeism.  Add this to the mountain of evidence that the Ocean State’s public school system is not designed primarily for the benefit of our children.

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