The Cost of Charters (and Lacking Them) in Providence and the Government Plantation

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One’s first impulse upon reading the claim of the Providence internal auditor that expanding Achievement First charter schools would lose the city’s public schools $31-32 million is to argue the numbers.  Of course, the most important impulse should be to tell government functionaries that our children are more important than their employees, but let’s look at the numbers first, because they certainly are arguable.

As a quick review of the calculations shows, what is being called the “cost” is, more precisely, the sum of the first-year costs of each stage of phasing in 3,112 more students for the charter school over a decade. That is, it isn’t really cumulative.  Precision is important, here, because it forces us to consider how things will really play out over the decade.

For example, auditor Matt Clarkin assumes an annual increase in the money per student that the school department would be losing, growing from $16,604 to $19,612.  (We should note in passing that this calculation appears to assume that the district will mainly offload its its poorer students, because funding for better-off students is lower.)  Similarly, the calculation assumes a two-percent annual increase in teacher compensation.  If these increases were handled cumulatively, the high end of the estimate would increase to a little over $34 million.

However, opening the door to cumulative analysis would invite additional considerations.  For example, each teacher gets a bigger raise than 2% each year.  Judging from the chart on page 45 of the 2011-2014 teachers contract (courtesy WatchDogRI), a 2% increase in the steps would mean each teacher below the top step actually sees a 7-9% increase in compensation, and the step 6 teacher let go one year would have been a step 7 teacher the next year, and so on.  Adding the step increases to the savings column shaves more than $1 million off the net effect of increasing charter enrollment.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. According to this 2011 presentation by Clarkin, 77% of teachers were at step 10 that year, which was the highest at the time, bringing the average cost per teacher to $102,497 in 2011, not the $77,713 given for 2018.  For his analysis, Clarkin assumes all teachers are at step 6 when they are let go, but Providence now has 12 steps.  That means the city is building into its estimate a refusal to adapt to a changing environment.  It means the school department’s top priority is continuing to accept demands from the teachers union that it always let go of its younger, less-expensive teachers first, no matter how much better or more-motivated they may be.

The notion of adapting and innovating arises again with Clarkin’s assumption that the district could only eliminate one teaching position every time two full classrooms worth of students leave the system.  That’s the maximum of his range; the minimum is set with a 1.5 classroom assumption.  If labor laws and contracts allowed school districts to put the needs of students first, then the district could reduce its faculty by much more, starting with those who are least effective and most costly.

And that raises the most important point:  putting the needs of students first, which is something that Rhode Island public schools haven’t done for a long, long time.  Clarkin’s estimate of revenue growth adds $2,187 per student over 10 years, but even his high-end estimate of the revenue decrease from lost charter students would only reduce per-student funding by around $1,500 for those who remain in regular district schools.  That is, Providence is complaining about reducing the rate of increase of its budget, not a “loss.”

Moreover, the 2011 presentation puts the total cost of salaries and benefits for teachers at $201.1 million.  Assuming 2% increases every year, that means the Providence school department would expect to see this total increase almost $50 million over the 10-year span of phasing in the larger charter school.   If the district were to hold its assumed 2% increase for all of the teachers down to 1.3%, it would cover all of the expected loss from the expanding charters and then some.  Rhode Islanders working in the private sector might wonder why they’re supposed to be outraged that giving students better options isn’t worth that little bit of restraint on employees’ extremely generous pay packages.

Tragically, the whole system — and even the way we talk about it — is concerned above all with the well-being of government employees.  We’re looking at the school system as if its purpose is to maintain jobs, not to educate students.  We’re looking at students as if they are the produce of the government plantation, not as young Rhode Islanders deserving of a shot at prosperity and promising a brighter future for our state.  Even within this specific controversy, the only options mentioned are district public schools and charter public schools.

School choice options that gave students increased access to private schools would take less money out of the regular district schools, but government officials shudder at the prospect of allowing that degree of freedom.  From the perspective of the state and city governments, it is better for our children to be trapped in a failing education system and a stagnant economy — to be plentiful and poor.

Representative democracy is supposed to be a check on that incentive, allowing us to put the needs of our families and our communities above the desires of the people we’ve hired to serve us.  Expanding school choice would be an excellent way to begin proving that point.



  • Mike678

    I expect the auditor to focus on money, though as you state, a less politicized response would be appreciated.

    Our leadership, however, should view this report as a small part of the overall picture. After all, what is the objective of public education? Given the title, one assumes it is education. And the high cost of the current system–one that that has clearly failed many of the poor that want better for their children (and many do not care, which is another problem)–is too high for what they produce. By the way, many studies show that Teachers hit their stride and change little (teaching style/competence) after 3-4 years on the job–and a masters does little or nothing to help. So why Step 12? Why do we have increased compensation for higher degrees for grammar/middle school teachers? Unions!

    The root cause are public sector unions–they need to go away as yet another failed experiment. But one political party won’t let them–guess which? Follow the money….

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