Doing the Right Thing Isn’t Complicated

When I read the recent Cronkite News Service article “20 Years in, Arizona charter schools on firm ground” I wanted to rename it “20 Years in, Arizona charter schools still serve only 15 percent of the state’s students.” That’s when I realized how pointless this debate is. You know, you tout charter school offerings and performance and I come back with “yeah, but charters cherry pick their students and don’t have to put up with the same level of transparency and accountability.” Enough already!

How about we try something different? First, we recognize that charter schools weren’t originally designed to compete with community district schools, but rather, “to allow teachers the opportunity to draw upon their expertise to create high-performing educational laboratories from which the traditional public schools could learn.” Except for the part of allowing “teachers the opportunity” some charter schools have mostly done that. Take BASIS schools for example. Known for their rigor and academic success, these schools have an in-depth enrollment process that includes a placement test, they push their students hard, and they require significant involvement by parents who are likely already more engaged with their child’s education than the average. These factors no doubt contributed to BASIS Scottsdale ranking #2 high school in the nation for 2015 by U.S. News & World Report. There are takeaways from the BASIS model that would likely improve academic success at some district schools, but their high attrition rate is proof enough that it won’t work for the vast majority of students.   District schools can’t “attrit” students – they must educate all.

Unfortunately, our system doesn’t encourage schools to learn from one another. Open enrollment and school choice force schools to compete for the students that bring the dollars they need to exist. This competition comes at a cost. Today’s schools must spend valuable education dollars branding themselves and marketing to attract students. Larger districts now have marketing and public relations people on staff, but there’s no new money to cover these costs. The reality is that in the existing climate of “no new taxes” there is only so much education money to go around and adding more schools to the mix can only dilute the quality for the majority of our students. Instead of focusing on what model can perform better given the right circumstances, we should be looking at what will work best for all the children in our public schools. We need to revise an antiquated school funding model that simply “counts noses” rather than considering student demographics, performance and other measures.

We also must find a way to give our schools more stability in their funding. Our school administrators are professionals and they can make wise adjustments when they know what’s coming. Problem is, education funding has been volatile and unpredictable and even that which is mandated by voters and adjudicated by the courts cannot be counted on. And although charters complain that they can’t go out for bonds and overrides, the $1,100 (in 2014) more per pupil funding they receive is much more stable than the locally controlled funding districts have the option to seek. An analysis from the AZ Republic showed that from 2002 to 2012 69 percent of school districts had not issued bonds (or were shot down by voters when they did) and 73 percent hadn’t gone out for capital overrides or couldn’t win voter’s approval. Of course, school choice also supports instability as when money flows from a district school to a charter; the costs do not go down proportionately at the district school. Rather, the district school cannot shift their costs fast enough as students and revenue leave and the fixed costs for the principal, utilities, building debt, etc. remain often resulting in larger class sizes and cuts to academic programming.

The Payson RoundUp was way on-point recently: “We’re dismayed that Arizona seems more intent on nurturing for-profit charter schools than in adequately supporting our existing public schools. It makes little sense for the state to spend public money supporting a privately operated school that will result in shutting down a school already paid for by those same taxpayers.” They also asked why if the Legislature believes that giving free rein to charters and paving the way for them to thrive is good for our kids, why didn’t they just do that for our district schools? Great question!

So instead of revisiting the 2008 initiative to combine 76 elementary and high school districts into 27 K-12 districts, maybe we should look at whether encouraging the establishment of 600-plus new charter schools (many of them run by for-profit companies) made Arizona’s public education system more cost-effective in general. Although Arizona Charter Schools Association CEO Eileen Sigmund claims that less than 5 percent of Arizona charters operate through for-profit companies, I was unable to verify her claim. In 2012, Arizona had 108 schools managed by for-profit EMOs, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported at least 30 percent of Arizona’s charter schools were run by for-profit EMOs in 2013 and in 2014, Arizona had close to 204 for-profit companies managing the state’s charter schools. In fact, the national trend is for charter schools to be increasingly managed by for-profit EMOs and it is estimated as much as 40 percent of all charter schools are operated by EMOs and account for close to 45 percent of all charter school enrollments. These statistics matter because when decisions are made by for-profit EMOs, they are often made at out-of-state corporate headquarters with profit, not students, in mind such as when they divert higher amounts of funding to administration. BASIS schools for example, directed close to $2,000 per pupil for administrators in 2014 while Peoria Unified School District only spent $732 per pupil for administration. Additionally, EMOs take advantage of the virtually non-existent requirements for accountability and transparency as well as favorable tax codes.

Ultimately, you can’t get the right result going after it for the wrong reason. I have to believe that if all we really cared about all our students receiving the best education possible, we could make it happen. In fact, if we only didn’t care who got the credit, we would be light years ahead. We know what we are doing now is more profit- and politics-based than truly pupil-based.  I know this is true, because we aren’t doing what we already know helps students thrive: high expectations, quality teachers who are respected as professionals, preschool, lower class sizes for at least the younger students, wrap-around services and community support for high poverty students, after school programs, remedial programs, home visitation programs and high quality child care. It won’t be easy, but it really isn’t that complicated. Of course, doing the right thing rarely is.

23 responses to “Doing the Right Thing Isn’t Complicated

  1. Charter schools are public schools. By making repeated false contrasts, you set up a straw man and so, while your points on different treatment and different operating realities are valid, they get lost in this fake dichotomy you create and you lose critics you might otherwise recruit.

    http://teaching-abc.blogspot.cl/2012/08/charter-schools-are-public-schools.html

    • Hi TH. I believe I was fairly clear that charters are public schools. But, by your own admission, they have been relieved by the Legislature of some of the “bureaucratic” requirements surrounding their management. It should be noted that The AZ DOE currently has an effort underway to look at the Title 15 (education) of the AZ Revised Statutes to see where changes can be made to streamline operations. Where charters really “make out” is when they are run by “for-profit companies” many of whom spend double on the cost of administration as their district counterparts. Yes, charters are public schools, but they are also by design, different entities than district schools. They may both be “fruit”, but they are apples and oranges.

  2. john Huppenthal

    The studies needed to determine the success of Arizonas charter experiment havent been done. The RAND corporation did a series of high quality studies in the 90s which separated school effects from from demographic effects thus ranking state school systems. Theses studies received no attention because of what i refer to as the two drunks in the bar problem. If you go to any two drunks in a bar they will voice strong opinions about what we need to do to improve education. If you go to the highest echelons of education policy, tbey will tell you the same thing as the two drunks in the bar. We are still the same people who believed in a flst earth and the sun rdvolving around the esrth. Things are more complicated than tgey appear on the surface.

    I have never encountered one policy maker who woul accept the RAND rankings much less make sense of them. The Superintendent of Massachusets was absolutely clueless that RAND ranked their schools 27th.

    The president of the President of thr Texas school board was absolutely clueless that RAND not only ranked them number one in all three studies but the gap between them and number two was the laegest gap between any two states in the nation.

    The RAND studies are now aged and their is a distinct posskbility that Arizona now has the highest school effects in the nation which would mean that we have the best schools in the nation. We ranked 21st in the last study and needed about 15 percent to close the gap. However, who would know and who would care?

    • “Cry Havoc! And let l+oose the Dogs of War!”

      John, by simply suggesting that Arizona schools might be performing near the top of the nation, you have unleashed a wolfpack of naysayers who consider it there personal lifequest to club it into the heads of everyone that ARIZONA IS AN EDUCATION FAILURE!!! It is important to them that Arizona have bad educacational system. I do believe at least some of them will be here to bring you to your knees. It would be dangerous if others started thinking as you do.

      • Actually, Arizona is not an education failure. We have examples of success all around such as our three high schools (one charter and two district) that ranked in the top 10 in the Nation according to U.S. News & World Report. But, we also have problems as evidenced by our #47th ranking for education performance. Think it is more important to ask “what are we doing to get better” as opposed to arguing about “how bad we are.”

        • One would never know we had some successes based on the usual rhetoric about Arizona Education. All I have read or heard was Arizona is BAD and getting worse. It has been full on pamic mode for years. I am glad to know that there some successes despite the doom and gloom of the vast majority of pundits.

          Linda, I like your positive outlook and your upbeat philosophy. It is a breath of fresh air in a debate that often degenerates into a kindergarten sand box fight. Thank you for your messages. I hope to see you post here more often.

    • Thanks for your comments John. You’ve prompted me to begin a new course of research. Think we have to be careful though about giving too much weight to any one source of research. Watch for more on this subject.

    • Lots of studies have been done on for profit charters, Johnny, and they all show for profit charter schools are just scams designed to move money from my bank account through force (taxes) and into the bank account of some CEO/hedge fund/out of state shareholder.

      The kindest words I could use to describe it would be wealth redistribution, I have much harsher terms I’ll keep to myself.

      If you want to make the case for non-profit charter schools go for it, but giving taxpayer money to for profit corporations perverts free enterprise.

      Not to mention there’s very little oversight of charter schools which has led to hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars being stolen and very few people held accountable.

      But don’t take my word for it, just google charter school scam and drill down.

      Capitalism isn’t magic, it’s not patriotic, it’s not beholden to Jesus, and it’s not concerned with the best interest of anyone but the shareholders.

      Capitalism is great for things like iPhones, not so great for things we all need, like an educated public.

  3. Frances Perkins

    Its funny how we can “throw money” at charters with little accountability and that’s OK. We can essentially “throw money” at private tuition “donation organizations” via tax credits and they then have laundered the money sufficiently to use public money for private schools and that’s OK. We throw money at the military and that’s OK. But when we need more money for public schools to educate EVERYONE, then its just throwing money without accountability. Public school districts are up to their bureaucratic best at “accountability” since half of administration is there to report on “accountability”, which we won’t get from BASIS telling the Arizona taxpayer how much tax money is siphoned off for profits, or how their teacher improvement fund is spent. Well I would say that’s not OK. See you in Marana, Linda, good response.

    • “…which we won’t get from BASIS telling the Arizona taxpayer how much tax money is siphoned off for profits, or how their teacher improvement fund is spent.”

      No one cares about their profitability or how their teacher improvement fund is spent because BASIS gets results. Their students are challenged and are successful in their studies. The teachers are motivated and seem happy with their circumstances. The teachers stay in close contact with the parents and the parents are actively involved with the school beyond simply dropping the kids off and picking them up. You worry about something stupid like profits or teachers improvement funds and forget entirely why schools exist. That is one of the afflictions of professional educators…you become so enamored with the bells and whistles of the process that you forget WHY you are there in the first place.

      • Frances Perkins

        Apparently to BASIS the key to success is pick highly affluent kids from dedicated families, as few special needs as we can eliminate, pressure parents for “donations” to unaccountable teacher improvement funds, and anyone not fitting that model, send them off to guvmint schools. Now if all public schools did this the model you tout would be wonderful. That funny that’s how the entire public school system developed in the 1800s. We needed schools for everyone, not just the landed elite.

        • I understand your convern about the big picture on education. In fact, I share many of your concerns. I want a good public school system for Arizona…I think we need a good education system for Arizona if we are to have any kind of future for our people or the State. I regularly lobby the Governor, the Legislators and Senators I know, the Senior Staff Members I know, and Party Leadership, urging them to bite the bullet and fund education properly. I am like a broken record and I allocate my political contributions accordingly. It is my single biggest issue. Sometimes I think I make a little progress, most times I don’t.

          But I cannot use my Grandchildren as pawns in this battle for education. I am certain that BASIS must do something unorthodox in order to provide the quality education they do. If you are hoping I will feel guilty about it, I am afraid I will have to disappoint you. I don’t feel guilty about providing my Grandchildren with a quality education. If BASIS weren’t there, we would put them in Private Schools because the Public School System just doesn’t provide a quality education right now.

  4. Thanks, Linda. Good essay. Will Arizonans wake up? I’m not really hopeful.

  5. “Instead of focusing on what model can perform better given the right circumstances, we should be looking at what will work best for all the children in our public schools.”

    This sounds very noble, but the result of efforts to accomplish this almost inevitably result in “dumbing down” the curriculum to the pace of the slowest students. That is one of the reasons why Charter Schools are so popular. They don’t have to cater to slow students. It is a sad thing to say that, but when the futures of your children are at stake, it is hard to feel guilty that other children might be left behind.

    “I know this is true, because we aren’t doing what we already know helps students thrive: high expectations, quality teachers who are respected as professionals, preschool, lower class sizes for at least the younger students, wrap-around services and community support for high poverty students, after school programs, remedial programs, home visitation programs and high quality child care.”

    Nearly all of your requirements for student success require one thing: more tax dollars. And there is no guarantee they will work because you left out perhaps the most important factor: Parental Involvement. You also don’t mention another important factor which, because it is politically incorrect, is ALWAYS ignored: the bell curve of intelligence. There is a statistically significant percentage of student lacking the intellectual capability of performing well in school, despite any amount of money being spent on them. However, instead of acknowledging this truth, enormous amounts of resources (i.e. – Money) are spent on them to the detriment of students who ARE capable of learning.

    One of the greatest problems faced by the Education Industry is simply being honest with itself. For example: (1) Not all teachers are good teachers and unless you can fire the bad ones, they drag down the rest; (2) Not all parents care about their children, and those who do often don’t really care about their children as much as they do about appearances; (3) The amount of money spent per student is NOT a refection of student success; (4) Not all students want to learn and keeping them in classrooms is disruptive to students who do want to learn; (5) “Administrative” positions are an anathema to taxpayers and will often kill much needed tax overrides; and, (6) Education/Teachers Unions usually hurt the cause of edcation far more than they help it. These are just a few things off the top of my head, but they are representative of the many things the Education Industry gets wrong. Oh! And the Education Industry doesn’t think it is an “industry”, but it is by any measure you care to use.

    • Jkavanagh@azleg.gov

      Well said and you would think that everyone would be grateful that we have one of the best high schools in the country as part of our public school system.

      State Senator John Kavanagh

      • Thanks very much Senator Kavanagh. Important to note that we have two other schools in the top 10 in the Nation, University High school (#8) in the Tolleson Union High School District and Gilbert Classical Academy (#10) in the Gilbert Unified School District. I am grateful for all three of these outstanding public schools (one charter and two district) and for all the other teachers, staff and school administrators who work hard every day for their students’ success. Thanks also for reading my blog posts. Obviously, you are interested in public education. Looking forward to your voting more in line with the Arizona School Boards Association’s (ASBA) positions in the second session of the 52nd Legislature. See you did better than several of your GOP colleagues, but you still only voted with ASBA three out of nine times. ASBA is the BEST advocate for public education in Arizona…and votes for their position are votes for our kids!

    • Well you revealed yourself on this one, Steve. The bell curve, really?
      Of all the wrong assessments in your comment, that is the most telling. However, the rest of your comment is so wrong on so many counts, it shows how little you know about schools and school systems. People with so little knowledge of an institution, should not open their mouths and reveal their true ignorance.

      • Instead of hyperventilating in your eagerness to attack me, why don’t you tell how I was wrong. Are you saying the Bell Curve does not exist when it comes to the range of student intellect? If so, what makes student intellect exempt from a measure that exists for every other facet of human endeavor? If not, then how can you ignore it as a factor in educating students?

        What specifically am I ignorant about that makes my comments unworthy of consideration? All your response as of now indicates is that you are very uncomfortable with what I stated. I suspect you are uncomfortable because there is more truth in my comments than you care to admit. Simply brushing them aside with dismissive comments is a weak way to respond. Be specific, tell us all where I am wrong and why.

    • Thanks for the read and your comments Steve. Here’s my response to your points:
      1) I agree that we need programs to challenge gifted students, but not at the expense of all students. Incidentally, Arizona mandates schools provide talented and gifted programs and demands data on such from the schools, but has provided no funding since at least 2011/2012. Just another thing our schools have to “take out of hide.”
      2) I don’t for a second believe any student in our public schools is incapable of learning. They have different capacities to learn, but that is far from the same thing. District schools must, (and charter schools are by-law supposed to), educate all and that’s one of the factors that makes their job so tough. I agree there is not enough parental involvement but no matter how you crack that nut, it IS NOT the child’s fault and our society should ensure the child gets what he or she needs. John Dewey said it best when he said: “what the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”
      3)
      a. I agree that not all teachers are good teachers but I believe the vast majority are. And, if we treated teachers with the respect they deserve for the role they play in preserving our way of life, we would undoubtedly have more great teachers.
      b. I am SO over the money doesn’t matter thing. Yes, there are places like DC where crazy amounts have been spent to no avail, but usually that’s because we are looking for the schools to solve societies most challenging problems such as poverty and drugs. Schools exist to educate, but it is more difficult for them to do that in unhealthy environments.
      c) Voters often think of “administrative” positions as just the Superintendent and Principal but they also include the governing board, business office, and support services such as IT support. In addition, sometimes all non-classroom dollars are thought of as “administrative” costs, but they include food service, transportation, plant operations, librarians, teacher training, counselors, nurses and others.
      In the end though, I’m left wondering what your solution is?

      • Thank you for taking the time to post a reasoned and well thought out response to my commentary. I was concerned you might have taken my response as inflammatory extremist rhetoric and not taken me seriously, when my intent was very serious and was presenting some deep concerns I have about education in Arizona.

        You ask what solution I have for the myriad problems with education we have here in Arizona and I freely confess I have idea what to do. I am a very conservative Republican, but I would gladly pay increased taxes for education if the bulk of the money would go into the classroom. I want to see teachers pay increased significantly; I want fewer students in the classroom so teachers can concentrate more on each student; I want more resources put into the classroom so teachers don’t have to spend their personal funds for it; I want better breakfasts and lunches made available for more students; and I want to see pay increases for support personnel like bus drivers, janitors, cafeteria workers, etc. In other words, I am happy to pay more taxes to education provided the funds are used wisely.

        But until that happens, my Grandchildren will continue to attend BASIS Charter Schools at all levels, and my Children and I will make certain they achieve excellence in their school experience. If the BASIS Schools went away tomorrow, I would gladly pay for my Grandchildren to attend some of the excellent private schools around the Valley. It is, perhaps, selfish of me to take that stance, but I cannot risk my Grandchildren’s future on the unlikely hope that Arizona will get it’s act together on creating a decent education system.