Category Archives: Charter schools

Ignoring educational productivity is immoral

I. The Morality of Productivity 

What if we knew a way to increase educational opportunity at no additional cost?

The benefits would be enormous. We could give more children the education they deserve.

And, by not having to increase educational spending, we could spend these saved tax dollars on families in need, or paying off government debt, or keeping money in the hands of working families.

Increasing educational productivity is one of the great moral issues of our time.

Unfortunately, increasing educational productivity in our country has been enormously difficult to accomplish.

II. Inequity in the City

Researchers at the University of Arkansas just published Charter School Funding: Inequity in the City.

The report finds that across 14 cities, public charter schools receive an average of $5,721 less per-pupil than traditional public schools, which equates to a 29% funding gap.

The data table below provides more detail.

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The authors do note that charters serve less special education students than traditional schools.

When controlled for special education, the results change a bit. Calculating the true costs of special education is notoriously difficult to estimate, so I view these figures as likely directionally correct but not 100% precise.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 3.04.58 PMOnce special education is accounted for, two regions, Shelby Country and Houston spend more on charters than traditional schools (this is in part because philanthropy picks up some of the charter school tab).

But 10 other cities still have a +$500 or greater funding gap per student.

Glancing at these cities, it looks like the special education differential accounts for about 20-25% of the spending discrepancy.

So that original 29% funding gap is a bit high.

Let’s be generous to the traditional system and say the the true gap is closer to 20%.

III. Charter School Performance in the City

To gauge charter school performance in these cities, I looked at CREDO’s urban charter school study.

See below for a table that I crated that adds in the CREDO math and ELA effects in the last two columns.

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What do you notice?

In every city except for San Antonio, charters outperform the traditional system.

Sometimes it’s by small amounts (Atlanta), and sometimes it’s by large amounts (Boston), but in nearly every case charters outperform their traditional peers.

And while the above analysis only looks at ten or so cities, the results mirror other national studies that consistently find urban charter schools outperform traditional public schools while spending around 20% less per-pupil.

IV. What Could You do With a the Gains from Productivity?

Research indicates that charter schools can probably get better, or at least equal, results in low-income areas for 20% less cost. In New Orleans, these achievement gains held steady even when the charter sector grew to serve 95% of the students in the city, which provides some hope that these findings will stick at scale.

In a field where productivity gains are hard to come by, urban charter schools are a source of very significant productivity gains.

What, as a society, could we do with this 20% extra funding that urban charter schools could save us?

Well, we spend about $10,000 per student on public education in this country.

With a 20% savings, we could turn around and give a basic income grant of $4,000 to every family with two children.

Alternatively, we could spend money on additional social services.

Or we could put more money in the hands of taxpayers, which could help grow the economy and provide more jobs.

Any of these options, especially cash grants back to poor families, could do a lot for those in need.

This is why ignoring educational productivity is immoral.

It may not feel good to consider the educational system through a productivity lens, but to fail to do so is to hurt those who are most in need of our support.

Can you throw money at the problem of charter school growth? We might find out.

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President Trump’s federal budget calls for over $150 million in increased spending on charter schools.

Florida’s House of Representatives just passed a “Schools of Hope” bill that would provide $200 million to non-profit charters that opened schools in neighborhoods with high concentrations of “D” and “F” schools (the Senate has note yet voted).

Given that the rate of new school openings has dropped over the past few years, these new funds, if approved, could stimulate the pace of growth of charter schools.

Some reflections:

Will Florida funds increase growth or shift growth?

It’s unclear whether the Florida funds would increase charter growth or simply shift growth away from other states towards Florida.

My guess is that it will increase growth for two reasons: (1) it’s hard to grow across state lines so I doubt out of state operators could absorb the full $200 million and (2) if the for-profit world is any indication, other states will follow Florida’s lead to compete for great charter schools, which ultimately will create a greater pool of growth funds across the country, which should stimulate new entrepreneurs as well as provide funds for operators to grow in their home states.

How much does money incentive growth in the non-profit sector?

For management teams, growth is much less lucrative in the non-profit sector than it is in the for-profit sector. Salaries go up a bit, but not 50-100X, and there is no cashing out of equity.

There may be some status associated with winning big grants and growing, but the lack of financial incentives to individuals is probably a big barrier to successfully throwing money at the problem.

How much does money change the emotional incentives of charter entrepreneurship?

Perhaps money will have a positive causal effect through non-financial channels by changing the emotional incentives of charter entrepreneurship.

It takes a special kind of person to open a charter school when the local district, the local teacher’s union, and half your friends are telling you charter schools are destroying public education.

But what if the federal government and (eventually) dozens of states were offering large amounts of public dollars for you to open a charter school?

When the President, the Governor, and the Mayor are all asking you to grow – and putting their money up – perhaps this changes your emotional inclinations?

How much does money lower the headaches of growth?

Perhaps incentives should be thought less in terms of accusing gains and instead in avoiding pain.

Ask a charter operator what the biggest headache is for growth and facilities will inevitably be near the top of the list.

To the extent additional funds can be used (or allow other money to be used) for down payments on facilities, these funds might help stimulate growth.

My Guess

I think a state package of (1) multiple state authorized charters and (2) money for buildings would have a positive impact on growth.

Local school board authorization and lack of facility funds are huge headaches for even the most sophisticated charter organizations.

Removing these barriers would be a positive step forward.

However, I do worry that the process of lowering barriers, increasing funds, and scaling great operators will not meet the demands of the political cycle.

As this Politico piece notes, it’s unlikely that the nation’s best operators are going to immediately scale in Florida.

My recommendation to Florida would be to mimic the growth of the federal charter school program: start small, spend the funds prudently, and the increase the amount of funding available as operator capacity to growth increases.

In other words, fight for 25 years of 10% growth, not a 2-3 year moonshot.

Charters growing in your city? You have 5 options.

Charters schools continue to scale in urban areas. In many cities, charters serve over 30% of students.

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In 44 cities charters serve over 20% of students.

These 44 cities, as well as many others in the future, will have to evolve their educational systems to govern a mixed portfolio of school types.

What options are available to these cities? Here’s five, some of which will be much better for children than others.

1. Implode (Detroit) 

In Detroit, the school district responded to charter growth by bankrupting itself. It lost enrollment, took on debt, and continued its academic and operational dysfunction.

In failing to respond productively to charter growth, the district hurt students and cost taxpayers nearly a billion dollars.

2. Compete (Washington D.C.)

In Washington D.C., charters now serve nearly 50% of the students. During the past decade of charter growth, the district responded by becoming perhaps the highest performing urban school district in the nation.

The district lost nearly half its students and radically increased its performance.

The district didn’t really partner with charters, it just stepped up its game.

3. Coordinate and Collaborate (Denver)

Denver Public Schools responded to charter growth by coordinating with the charter sector.

For much of the past decade, it gave charters facilities to grow in neighborhoods where more good schools were needed. The district also set-up a unified enrollment system that made it easy for families to choose easily between district and charter schools.

While there have been some bumps along the way, for the most part the district has supported the best charters to expand and has closed the worst charters.

4. Blur the Lines (Indianapolis, Camden) 

A few years ago, the Indiana legislature passed a law that allows for Innovation Schools, which are authorized by the district, have many of the autonomies of charters, are governed by non-profit boards, but still sit within the district’s enrollment and accountability reporting.

With its Renaissance Schools, Camden has done something similar: Renaissance Schools are more tightly managed by the district, but still retain most of the autonomies of charters schools.

In both Indianapolis and Camden, the district has co-opted the best of the charter model while still maintaining a tighter form of local oversight and control.

5. Govern (New Orleans)

In New Orleans, the district responded to increasing charter growth by relinquishing its operational duties and transforming into a regulator.

Rather than operate schools, the district sets performance targets, monitors for equity, and annually opens great schools and orchestrates the transformation of failing schools.

This has led to unprecedented student achievement gains.

Which Way to Go? 

While I think the last option (govern) is the best way to go, cities have also seen academic growth by competing, coordinating, and blurring the lines.

These cities are the reason I’m skeptical of people who argue that charter growth will hurt traditional public schools.

There’s an emerging group of cities who are proving this clearly doesn’t need to be the case.

I’m hopeful that their successes will be replicated much more often than not.

What will be the stable charter school and teacher union equilibrium?

It appears Kentucky may pass a charter school law.

News recently broke that Noble charter schools may become unionized.

Where is this all heading?

The Forces at Work: Charter Market Share will Continue to Rise 

Charter market share will continue to rise because (a) 40+ states allow charters and this number is increasing and (b) once a charter school is open it is difficult to close.

Yes, policies like charter school caps and moratoriums may slow charter growth down, but it will be incredibly difficult for union leaders to fully stop charters from growing in a world where charters are legal in 90% of states. Rolling back laws in this many states is unlikely.

Charter market share will continue to grow.

The Forces at Work: Unions Organize Where the Teachers Are 

A simple consequence of rising charter market share is a rise in the number of teachers who work at charter schools.

Unions received dues (and power) from having as many teachers as possible enrolled as members.

The more charter schools there are, the more it will be be worthwhile for unions to attempt to organize these teachers, for both financial and political purposes.

The Future of Union Incentives 

So we’re basically going to be in multi-round unionization game between unions and charter schools.

Most importantly, this new game (unionizing a lot of charters) will have very different incentives than the old game (unionizing a local monopoly).

Under the old game, the unions paid a relatively small price for being obstructionist: with only one school operator in town (the district), they didn’t have to worry too much about how their actions affected the performance or reputation of that school operator.

In the new game, the union has a new incentive structure: if they are overly obstructionist, they will reduce their ability  to unionize more charters in the future; however, if they are not obstructionist enough, unionizing a charter won’t slow down the growth of that operator (which is in the unions interest, as they want the district to last as long as possible, as it’s the easiest entity to unionize).

The unions thus want to add value to unionized teachers and at the same time hobble charter school growth.

The ideal play for unions is to: (a) unionize charter schools  (b) demonstrate value to their unionized charter teachers so they can unionize future schools (c) slow down the enrollment growth of unionized charter schools  (d) avoid having unionized charter schools go down in flames so they can unionize future schools.

My Guess

The conditions for charter school unionization are favorable compared to other sectors of the economy: you have a long history of unionization, strong and well-financed existing unions, an inability to outsource to other states or countries, and weak accountability for performance (compared to the financial market).

All of this bodes well for unionization.

But unionizing charters will require unions to moderate their behavior and become less antagonist with management, as they will be working in a market of providers rather than a district monopoly. This will require significant change in their leadership and culture. This is hard to do.

So where are we heading?

One interesting comparison group is nurses, which generally operate in a non-profit, physically anchored, and heavily regulated environment.

Overall, about 20% of nurses belong to a union.

And while most industries have seen declining union membership, nursing union membership has risen over the past 15 years.

nurse-union-fever

I think we will see the same thing happen in the charter sector.

That being said, given that unions have to independently organize each charter organization (which is very expensive), and that their success will be predicated on cultural change, I don’t think we’ll quickly move into a world of 100% charter unionization.

But will we see 20% of charter school teachers (compared to ~7% right now) organized in unions over the next decade or so?

I think so.

School supply or regulatory change – what should the Trump administration incentivize?

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Andy Smarick has a good short paper out where he gives advice to the new Trump administration.

He proposes a $250 million program that would fund “high-quality, high demand, highly accountable programs.”

In short, Andy proposes a federal fun to increase the supply of things like course choice, education savings accounts providers, voucher-based private schools – as well as the creation of innovative regulatory regimes that can monitor the performance of these entities.

I really like Andy’s suggestion that the federal government continue to invest in the creation of great providers for the following reasons:

Launching new schools and courses costs money, and given that most providers are non-profit organizations, they need funding in advance of receiving regular per-pupil revenue.

The federal government lacks knowledge of what local communities need; by funding entrepreneurs, the feds are backing those who can only succeed if they meet local demand, thereby reducing the risk that funds will work against local needs.

Innovation has positive externalities: it’s well known that, in the private sector, entrepreneurs rarely capture the full value of their innovations. The same holds true in the public sector: great non-profits do not capture all of the social good they create; rather, it leaks into the full  system over time (i.e., Teach Like a Champion).

I’m a little more skeptical that the government should incentivize the creation of new accountability policies. Whatever you think of Common Core or teacher evaluations, it’s unclear that the federal governments involvement has been a long-term net benefit for the sustainability or effectiveness of these policies.

Yes, Andy’s suggestion is much less heavy-handed. He’s only arguing that the federal government should fund accountability pilots.

But I worry that this is simply reinforcing a bad habit.

My current thinking is that the federal government should focus solely on research, information transparency, supply, and civil rights.

Of these four, supply is currently the most under-appreciated and underfunded, and Andy is right to call for an increase in funding here.

Post election reflections

On this blog, I’m going to keep my post-election reflections focused on education, save for one thought: continued progress in the realization of the American dream is extremely important for our nation and the world as a whole, and I look forward to continuing to play a bit part in this vitally important endeavor. I hope you do too.

On to education.

#1: MA and GA Drive Home that Traditional Public School Support is Boosted by Populism 

In Massachusetts, a populist blue state, the charter school cap was not lifted because unions effectively portrayed this expansion as something that would harm traditional public schools.

In Georgia, a populist red state, a state takeover entity was rejected because opponents effectively portrayed the intervention as something that would hurt local public schools.

In populist politics, communications messages that focus on preserving local, traditional public schools appear to be very effective.

Interestingly enough, it’s not clear to me that these results demonstrate a significant antipathy toward charter schools; rather, they seem to indicate a deep protectionist instinct for traditional public schools.

For charters to be successful, we may need to communicate in a fashion that reduces fears that existing traditional schools will be harmed.

#2: In Cities Where Charters are Normalized, Elections are Producing Pro-Reform Results

In New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Oakland – all cities with 25%+ high-performing charter sectors – reforms either held or expanded majorities.

Generally, reformers prefer top-down quick wins like ballot initiatives; however, we have emerging evidence that, in cities with higher charter market share, elected school boards can tip into modestly sustainable pro-reform majorities.

This is more evidence that market share drives everything.

#3 What Will Ideological but Not Constituent Support Deliver? 

The federal government is now fully controlled by Republicans, a party that is highly ideologically aligned with choice and charters.

However, many Republicans represent states without large charter sectors. As such, there is not uniform constituent demand for more charters.

An open question to me is how much Republicans will use this moment to expand thoughtful, sustainable choice reforms.

#4 The Status of Within District Reform will Rise 

Given the populist rise of traditional school protection, reforms that disrupt within districts – such as technology – will likely see in increase in philanthropic support.

In Sum

There is much to be learned by listening to how people express themselves through voting.

It’s a noisy signal, but in a world of communication bubbles, it’s a signal nonetheless.

Black Oakland Moms vs. Black Lives Matter

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I. Black Lives Matter 

I have immense respect for Black Lives Matter.

In a previous post, I reflected on how the movement has affected me.

But it will come to no surprise to anyone that I disagree with their call for a moratorium on charter schools.

II. Black Mothers in Oakland 

Recently, Black mothers in Oakland published an op-ed where they detailed why they disagree with Black Lives Matter’s call – as well as the NAACP’s call – for a moratorium on charter schools.

You should read their entire piece. It is powerful.

Here is an excerpt:

Like everyone else in our group, Mama recognizes that not all charters are great or even good. We know that while many charters play by rules that require them to accept and educate all children who come to them, some break the rules — and no one should stand for that.

But in this case, she saw a path to interrupt the intergenerational struggle of her family, and like a responsible parent, she took it.

Her choice was a personal one, not a condemnation of district schools. And for our group, exercising this choice requires personal sacrifice, while also dedicating our time working toward solutions that will strengthen the quality of education in community district schools.

We love our communities and know a quality school down the street is the sign of a community’s progress.

As our communities change, so will our choices. But it’s a choice we get to make. And our group is unanimous in asking that no one take that option away while claiming to speak in our name.

III. Segregation in Oakland 

Another piece, via KQED, also recently came out about education in Oakland. This piece detailed how segregated Oakland’s educational system remains, despite the fact that many people in Oakland profess a deep value for diversity.

The headlines says it all:

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IV. The False Liberalism of Charter Moratoriums and Neighborhood Schools  

So what happens when Black Lives Matter calls for a moratorium on charter schools and liberals cling to segregation via neighborhood schools?

You get a system where minority children are forced to attend bad schools because wealthy white people protect their schools via property values and Black Lives Matter abolishes the primary policy vehicle that might allow for better schools to be created in poor neighborhoods.

Black families are squeezed from both sides: they can’t access existing wealthy neighborhood schools and they can’t access new schools in their own neighborhoods.

Or to put it another way: the seemingly innocent desire to maintain neighborhood schools and protect school districts ends up having devastating consequences for black children.

V. Black Diversity

The conflict between Black moms in Oakland and Black Lives Matter should make it clear that black thought is not monolithic.

Black people disagree about a lot of things. Conversations with my African-American father made this clear to me at a young age. He often disagreed with various black thought leaders and would describe various tensions across black thinkers.

Often (as with white people), black disagreements occur along class lines.

Upper class, middle class, and lower class black people disagree about a lot of things – and classicism is rampant in the black community just as it is in most racial communities (my mother is Indian and the caste system epitomizes awful within race classism).

So I was not surprised at all that Black moms in Oakland disagreed with Black Lives Matter and the NAACP.

VI. Black Children Matter

Every child deserves an amazing school.

Given our nation’s history, black children deserve especially amazing schools.

We should support policies that give black children access to amazing schools (policies such as unified enrollment), and we should also support policies that allow educators to open amazing schools for black children (policies such as charter schools).

Supporting these policies will require some sacrifice. White people will have to give up their chokehold on exclusive neighborhood schools. And black people will have to pressure an institution (school districts) that have been a source of historical pride and employment.

None of this is easy, but it’s all worth fighting for.