Laura Waters

Even Critics Have to Acknowledge When Charter Schools Are Working

I am typically a fierce critic of Professor Bruce Baker but recently I found myself in the delightful position of praising his scholarship. Not all of it, mind you, and I’ll get to that. In his new analysis, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities published by the Economic Policy Institute, Baker arrives at several clear, data-driven conclusions about the impact of charter school growth on traditional districts with only the occasional nod to anti-choice agitprop. The report covers eight large and mid-size urban school districts and focuses on the “loss of enrollments and revenues to charter schools in host districts and the response of districts as seen through patterns of overhead expenditures.” One of those districts is Newark, the site of much sturm und drang among anti-choice folk because the charter sector in this north Jersey city now educates 35 percent of students with compelling results. While there’s been much written by the usual suspects (New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), Save Our Schools-New Jersey, Mark Weber aka Jersey Jazzman, Bob Braun) about charters desiccating district finances, Baker’s analysis contradicts this meme. Here’s Baker:
While total enrollment in district schools (the noncharter, traditional public schools) has dropped, districts have largely been able to achieve and maintain reasonable minimum school sizes, with only modest increases in the shares of children served in inefficiently small schools. While resources (total available revenues to district schools) have declined, districts have reduced overhead expenditures enough to avoid consuming disproportionate shares of operating spending and increasing pupil/teacher ratios.
Wait! What happened to those blood-sucking privatizing profiteers of pristine traditional schools? They don’t exist. It’s not happening. This from WHYY Newsworks on Baker’s report:
The study...failed to substantiate a central critique of the charter movement, namely that charter growth handcuffs traditional school districts because it saps them of resources and forces them to use remaining money inefficiently. For years, charter skeptics have claimed that charters harm traditional public schools by draining them of students and resources, ultimately creating a system of winners and losers. Curiously, however, Baker didn't find any evidence of this phenomenon in his latest study. In fact he uncovered some data that suggest the opposite. Baker's research found that traditional school districts manage to keep overhead, administrative costs, school size, and teacher-student ratios fairly constant — even as those districts lose thousands of students to new charters. 'I found for the most part,' says Baker, 'that the districts I was looking at on those particular issues adjusted reasonably.'
This is a brave and honest conclusion from an academic researcher closely associated with (and often funded by) teacher unions and allied groups. For charter supporters like me, Baker’s credibility has spiked.

Where Baker Falls Short

But then, of course, there’s more to the report than this one conclusion. (It’s a long report.) Baker appears to regard Newark's charter sector relatively highly, describing it as a “more modest and more regulated case of charter expansion.” But he errs mightily when charging that Newark’s charter sector spends far more on "administrative costs and overhead" than the traditional sector. He says his data comes from New Jersey’s annual Taxpayer Guide to Education Spending but there’s no category there for “overhead" and he neglects to point out that pesky detail that New Jersey’s charter school law leaves charter schools on their own when purchasing, building, or renovating facilities—an item that comes free to low-income urban districts where most charters cluster. (Also, the state data on administrative costs is questionable at best.) There's an offensive subtitle, "From Portfolios to Parasites," but maybe his editor put that in. Baker also mourns the loss of “a career-oriented, professionally trained teacher workforce” to “a temporary workforce,” an evolution he blames on charter schools. But either he doesn’t have teenage or young adult offspring or he’s not paying attention: the world is flat and millennials are mobile. They change jobs readily; the concept of the “company man” (or woman) who remains in one location or career for a lifetime is passe. Shift happens. Greg Richmond of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, interviewed for the WHYY article, is most bothered by a different presumption: "The whole report was written through the lens of how does this affect school districts, as if the whole purpose of education is the health of school district,” says Richmond, who adds, "you can't even have a conversation about financial efficiency unless it's in relation to academic outcomes.” And, in fact, Baker never mentions student outcomes or parent preference. It’s all about preservation of traditional districts, preservation of traditional lifelong educators, preservation of the good old days when men were men and teachers were teachers and schools were schools. Yet, formaldehyde aside, I'm struck by the comparatively fair and measured tone of this latest report. It's a welcome change from a respected professor who appears to be moving away from what Richmond calls a "political agenda in search of anecdotes" to meaningful analyses that can help old-timey districts make the inevitable shift to diverse educational landscapes.
An original version of this post appeared on NJ Left Behind as Newsflash: Bruce Baker Analyzes Charter School Expansion and I'm Impressed.
Photo courtesy of Englewood Montessori.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

Join the Movement