Happy Memorial Day. We graded papers today. Lots of papers. Piles of papers. Best grading EVER. Under Obama nobody could grade papers like us. That's why we are making America great again. Great grading AND SO MUCH MORE. Nice!
"Best I know, the existence of charter schools does not lead to a reduction in the amount of money per student spent in public schools. Am I mistaken?"
No, but drops in enrollment, even small ones create substantial problems for schools. I can only speak from experience in Michigan, where communities are limited in what they can contribute to their schools. About 90% of operating expenses have to come from the state's per pupil allotment (foundation grant). This is due to tax reform in 1994-1995 (Proposal A), which was intended to even out the funding between wealthy and poor communities. Because schools are largely dependent on the state's foundation grant to set their budgets, they have to closely estimate the number of students who will enroll in the next year to hire teachers and assign them to schools. A decrease in enrollment is difficult to compensate for because rarely does the student shortfall happen in convenient ways such 25 students in 4th grade so that you can cut a teacher.
Let's say a charter school opens up in my town with an enrollment of 80 in grades K-8. They take about $590,000 in state money with them. In order to save that money in the budget from the previous year, I, as the superintendent, will have to make cuts. I can't cut buildings, because I only have three buildings (elementary, middle school, high school). It's difficult to save money on utilities, as my rooms have to be heated to a safe temperature or lit whether there are 25 students in the room or 20. My high school enrollment hasn't changed, so all my savings will have to come at the other two buildings. An obvious way to save money is to cut staff. I may not want to cut at the high school, as the enrollment there hasn't changed there, so I'll have to cut at the other schools. If the students went evenly (9 students per grade), then I can cut my middle school classes from 4 teachers per 112 students (1:28) to 3 teachers per 103 (1:34.33). That ratio is too high for effective learning, though, especially at the youngest grades, so unfortunately I can't cut many teachers without a negative impact on educational outcomes (are my classrooms even designed to have 35 students in them?). I also can't cut special education staff because parents of children with high needs didn't switch their kids to the charter because it doesn't have a teacher certified to teach students with emotional impairments, autism or cognitive impairments.
What can I do? Cut bus service to some of the town (difficult, because there is almost no public transportation here). Charge fees for sports and music? Yes, but I'll have to charge only a token fee for families with low incomes, which is 45% of my student body, so I won't capture much there. I can privatize the service workers like maintenance workers, school bus drivers, cooks and lunch room workers, but that's unfortunate, since those jobs provide important funds to community members who are the parents and grandparents of our students. I can cut the school librarian, a technology worker (which means that one person is responsible for all of the technology in the district), a school nurse and a school counselor.* I can stop buying new textbooks, stop sending kids on field trips, stop sending teachers to professional development opportunities...
The problem with running schools like businesses are that they are not businesses.
If I make chocolate cupcakes and people stop buying so many chocolate cupcakes, I can try making better cupcakes to win back customers or market them in upscale shops where I can charge more. I can advertise. I can cut costs by buying less expensive ingredients. I can make my cupcakes smaller and charge nearly the same price. I can push my employees to be more efficient. I can cut wages to get more cupcake per payroll dollar. I can get a bank loan for a superduper cupcake maker that will allow me to make cupcakes faster and in larger batches, driving down the cost of production. I can sell my fancy new vans and buy used vans to distribute my cupcakes. I can...there are lots of things I can do because I control the cost of production and set the sales price. I hire my workers and can decide what skills are needed in my staff. I can decide what kinds of benefits, if any, to offer. I decide where to build my production and sales facilities. As a business owner, I have so much control.
School districts don't have that much control. We have the buildings our communities have consented (often 60 or 70 years ago) to build. We have funding that is given to us by the state. And sometimes the state says partway through the year, "Just kidding. Instead of $7,000 per student we are only going to give you $6,815." We have some additional funds if we can convince taxpayers to raise a millage, though we can only use that money for some things. We have to educate the students in our district, whether they are visually impaired, wheelchair bound, brilliant, homeless, living with drug addicted parents, living with single parents who strive to make opportunities available to their children, learning English, refugees from a war zone, the children of high school drop outs, the children of parents who want AP courses available to their children, parents who will spend hours at the school building sets for the play, or parents who care most about whether the school will allow their child to play two sports at the same time.
I do see a role for unions to protect the most vulnerable workers, but take a rather dim view of public-employee unions because the role I seem to notice them in most often is protecting bad apples among their membership, whether it be teachers or police officers.
I suppose those are the stories that make the newspaper or the evening news. You don't usually hear about the union who goes to bat for a teacher who is not being provided half an hour to eat their lunch. What they are given is 20 minutes, during which time they are supposed to go to the bathroom, eat, and travel from one building to another because they teach in two different schools, which thankfully are only 5 minutes apart because it's a small town with little traffic, but still.
Forget about the fact that I work evenings, weekends and on break. I'd like the union to get the school to pay me to chaperone a trip to Europe, which they seem to think I can do every other year during my vacation. I worked in business, and none of my employers would ever have asked me to do that without paying me for my time or my expenses. And it's not like I'm just going on my own. I'm chaperoning teenagers, some of them away from home for the first time, for goodness sakes.
We don't need much of a union to protect us when the administration is good, but it doesn't take much imagination to realize that in times of tight budgets schools try to squeeze teachers. At one of my schools I was switched from teaching German to English and was informed that all English teachers were supposed to have a classroom library for students to read during SSR. So, as a part-time teacher, I was expected to put together a library in a few weeks. Oh, did I forget to mention that they didn't give me any money for that?
And I have had the good fortune to teach at good schools, mostly, with good administrations. I can imagine what happens at the bad ones, though maybe most people can't.
(*This is why I laugh when politicians think that counselors or "school nurses" should do more to help identify children under stress who might carry out a school shooting. School nurses? Who has those anymore. And hopefully the middle schooler will either have the problem early on MWF or wait until high school, because there is no counselor at the middle school and the elementary counselor splits her time with the high school.)
Sorry for the long post. Norbert's innocent question obviously hit a nerve.