Charters: Innovative Hybrid or Offshoot from the Giant Blob?


Stephen Beale takes a look at the status of charter schools as partly-public, partly-private schools.  The section on the zoning troubles of the RISE Prep Mayoral Academy in Woonsocket indicates that charters are a good illustration of the problem of trying to everything through government — competition not the least.

Government agencies will inevitably structure the rules to serve themselves.  When the people look for ways around the entrenched interests that take over government, it becomes a battle of agencies.  It’s not surprising that traditional public schools, especially the labor unions, don’t like the idea of charters’ getting the government thumb on the scale and freedom from the monopolist’s guidebook.

But it’s a problem not just for inside interests.  As I say in Beale’s article, having government advantages (especially taxpayer backing) makes it relatively easy for charters to put private schools out of business.

On the details, several statements in the article justify some sort of response, such as this from mayoral academy spokeswoman Katelyn Silva:

“[T]he Woonsocket School District will not lose any money. It is not ‘their’ money to lose. RISE Prep students are not even going to enter the traditional district system to ‘lose’ them. You can’t lose funding you never had. And, you can’t lose funding that belongs to the student—if that student takes their money to another school, there is one less student to educate in the district building,” Silva wrote in an e-mail.

This is a talking point.  The people of Woonsocket, who fund the school district, have no say in the establishment of a charter school, and they have no control over that school except to the limited extent that a mayor (who was elected for a wide variety of reasons having nothing to do with education) sits on the board.  In that sense, the state is entitling the charter to local tax money as a private organization.

Moreover, the money can’t really be said to “belong to the student,” because the family has no real options.  Parents can pick school A or school B as services that the government offers; at no point do they have any control over a penny.

On the opposite side, this from state Senator and union teacher James Sheehan is spin to the point of dishonesty:

Sheehan offers an example closer to home: he says his son attended kindergarten last year in North Kingstown, where it was only available for half a day. But two of the charters attended by local students have full-day kindergarten: Kingston Hill Academy and The Compass School. Sheehan said that if the district was not paying tuition to outside charters, it would have been able to provide full-day kindergarten to all students in the district.

North Kingstown has not been offering full-day kindergarten for longer than it has had to fund charter schools.  Ipso facto, it has always found something better to do with the money than supply full services to kindergarten services.  (Prominent among those other expenditures, naturally, is inflating the pay and benefits of Sheehan’s union brothers and sisters.)  If anything, this is an excellent example of the importance of competition, because now full-day kindergarten is something that parents might demand, because as Sheehan goes on to say, the disparity isn’t “fair.”

Sheehan later offers another special interest talking point:

… Sheehan says the students who need the most help are those who are struggling academically. Charters, on the other hand, tend to draw students who want to succeed academically, have a strong work ethic, and supportive families.

“That’s how they’re playing the sleight of hand. They’re still cherry picking the students most prone to success,” Sheehan said.

“The students who are left behind are very often the students who need the most help,” he said. At the same time, the school districts now have fewer resources to help those students, Sheehan noted.

This is one of the hoary old myths about school choice.  Students who are doing well in their public schools don’t tend to leave.  It’s the students who need something different who leave.

Unfortunately, the future I see unfolding is a race between the special interests and the collapse of private schools.  Will the district schools manage to squash the competition from charter schools before charter schools put all but the most elite private schools out of business?  If not, public education could behave like a giant alien blob that shoots out an offshoot to suffocate its competition and then absorbs it fully again.

In that scenario, charters would corner the market on students who need or want something different than public schools, which they can do because they’re (1) free of tuition and (2) free of the worst of the governments restrictions on schools.  Then those restrictions will be extended to charters because the districts won’t be able to stand the competition and, while taxpayers have no real control over charters, government special interests definitely do.

  • Mike678

    Sheehan, on his best day, is a union captured tool and a fool.