Cross-posted from RestoreReason.com.
The editor of the Scottsdale Independent, Terrance Thornton, recently wrote, “the idea of choice has created a competitive public school marketplace.” I agree with his premise that school choice created competition, but add that competition is, by definition, a zero-sum game. For a charter school to “win” a student a district school has to “lose” both a student and the funding associated with that student.
Counter to what those who advocate for backpack funding would have you believe, the loss of a student is not without consequences for a district. This, since fixed costs (utilities, food, and transportation), consume almost 19 percent of per pupil funding in Arizona. In fact, Moody’s, the bond rating agency, just issued a report stating that “charter school expansion poses the risk that schools will not be able to adjust to the loss of revenue, since even if the student population drops at a district school, schools still must pay for costs like transportation and infrastructure.” And, oh by the way, don’t even get me started on the whole concept of “the funding belongs to the student.” I disagree vehemently and quote fellow blogger Peter Greene who writes, “the funding belongs to the taxpayer.” Amen brother!
In this competitive environment, district schools are forced to doing everything they can to well…compete, despite a funding level per-pupil that makes Arizona 48th in the Nation. That includes ensuring the public knows about their achievements. Even with the availability of social media, this takes money, which of course; district leaders would prefer to spend in the classroom. Unfortunately, marketing is one of the necessary “evils” of the competition forced on districts.
Thornton alleges that school board members “know very little about how the system works.” Not true. As a school board member, I am very aware of “how the system works” and I am continually impressed with fellow board members I meet from around the state. We take our elected but unpaid “jobs” very seriously and regularly attend training to keep up-to-date and learn more. The vast majority of board members are reelected to multiple terms by their constituents because they believe in the leadership they are providing.
I must say that some of the words Thornton chose seem to have a bias against district schools. For example, he wrote “established spending thresholds…allow a district to allocate funds…free from public scrutiny.” There is no expenditure of taxpayer dollars a district can legally make that is free from public scrutiny. Although at times the public must make official requests to see the information, transparency and accountability of taxpayer dollars is just one of the attributes that sets district schools apart from the commercial schools. In the case he described, the law was written to provide some procurement efficiencies (like a business would use) to ensure only those purchases above a certain level go through a public bidding process. He seems to imply that the use of commercial vendors to provide services to districts is a problem. That is though, exactly how a business would operate since usually, outsourcing a service that is not your core product is less expensive and more efficient than maintaining all those capabilities in-house.
Interestingly, commercial schools are often touted as being much less bureaucratic than district schools. It should of course, be easy to be less bureaucratic when there are very few, if any requirements to be transparent and accountable to the taxpayers. But, at least in the case of Arizona’s charter schools, their administrative expenses are double that of district schools. You read that right…charter schools in our state spend twice as much on administrative costs as district schools. How’s that for less bureaucracy?
As for the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” both Scottsdale and Paradise Valley Unified School Districts “allocate to [their] communications department[s]”, I offer two questions. First, what is the average marketing expense for a business with an operating budget equal to that of these districts? Second, how much of this funding for these districts’ “communications departments” is actually for advertisement of teacher job openings, or to fund the maintenance of the district website (primarily for the use of district parents), or for the safety of students in the form of emergency notification services (as Thornton points out in his article?) And, while we are on the subject of funding allotted to “communications departments”, it might be worth noting the amount per student of that funding. At Paradise Valley Unified (PVUSD), the “communications” costs work out to be about $5.50 per student, while Scottsdale BASIS spent about $37 per student on marketing expenses, almost seven times as much as PVUSD. This despite the BASIS.ED CEO’s contention that “effective social media campaigns have gone a long way in promoting” their schools and that “the key is word of mouth.”
Finally, yes, BASIS enjoys a fair amount of academic success but so do many district schools around the state. In fact, in the 2016 U.S. News and World Report, half were charter schools (three of them BASIS) and half were district schools. As a news professional, I am sure Thornton is well aware there is always much more to any story. Too bad he didn’t feel the need to share all sides in this one.