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Photo: Mark Henle, Mark Henle/The Republic
Photo: Mark Henle, Mark Henle/The Republic

Robb: Charter school report is a flawed attack on school choice

Posted On: 2017-09-29 01:08 PM
From AZCentral.com...


Robert Robb: The Grand Canyon Institute thinks some charter operators are making too much money. So what?

The Grand Canyon Institute report on charter schools can be summarized in one sentence: Some charter operators are making more money than the authors believe they should.

Really, despite all the attention, there's nothing more to the report than that.

It is common for charter schools to do business with entities that have common ownership. GCI claims that virtually none of these transactions saves money or benefits students. But you have to take its word for that. There is nothing in the 90-page report that explains or documents the basis for that conclusion.

GCI also takes offense at some charter administrators making a lot more than those at district schools.

So, GCI recommends that charters be required to use the same procurement processes as districts and that charter administrative salaries be limited based on what districts pay.

Profit is an incentive, not a scandal

This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the economic transaction that occurs between the state and charter school operators.

In essence, the state is contracting with charter operators to provide educational services, at an average cost that is $730 less per pupil than for districts.

The interest of the state isn't in the internal finances of the charter operators. It's in the product they provide.

And if the opportunity to make a buck expands the number of charter schools that parents and students prefer, is that a scandal or a productive incentive?

The report claims that excessive profiteering is shortchanging students, making much of the fact that districts devote 51 percent of their money to the classroom while charters devote only 47 percent.

This charge, however, turns out to be pretty much a dud. The slim difference is mostly, and perhaps wholly, explained by relative pension costs. Charters mostly don't participate in the expensive Arizona State Retirement System.

Charters outperform their peers

The report claims not to be about academic achievement. But then proceeds to state that charters provide a lousy education.

To support that claim, GCI relies on two studies with stale data. The most recent result considered is five years old. Most of data is even older, some going back more than a decade.

Recent results are pointing in a different direction.

Matthew Ladner, senior fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, was the first to note that Arizona students led the country in gains on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, administered by the federal government.

Arizona district students outperformed the national average. And Arizona charter students outperformed Arizona district students.

In fact, according to Ladner's calculation, standing alone Arizona's charter students would have the second highest NAEP scores in the country, ranking behind only Massachusetts.

Similar evidence comes from the state's own 2017 AzMERIT test. District students improved. But according to the analysis of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, charter students did better pretty much across the board, in virtually every subject and every grade, including within demographic groups.

For example, charter Latino students outperformed district Latinos. And 37 percent of charter students are Latinos.

Misinformed parents are to blame?

Where charter schools have unquestionably succeeded in Arizona is in attracting students. Over the last decade, enrollment in district schools has been stagnant, while enrollment in charter schools has more than doubled. During this period, charter enrollment went from 8 percent of the total to 16 percent.

What explains this success? According to GCI, ill-informed parents. And after the error should be obvious, the parents are psychologically incapable of admitting a mistake.

I'm not making that up. It's on page 71 of the report.

The Occam's razor alternative — that charters are offering educational opportunities some parents and students prefer — is unimaginable to GCI.

District school advocates undoubtedly were cheered by the GCI report and the promised charter vivisections to come. But this is all an unproductive misdirection.

There is virtue in all the modes of K-12 education in Arizona: district, charter and private. There is plenty of room in the education marketplace for all to robustly succeed.

The missing educational opportunity in Arizona is a grand coalition of all the modes mdash; district, charter and private — working to secure greater resources for all.

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com.

Photos: Photo: Mark Henle, Mark Henle/The Republic