The Charter School Advantage:
Operating as a Deregulated Autonomous Public School
By Stephen Coffin
The proponents of charter schools (Newman, 1998) purport that charter schools are the answer to what ails our public school system. The rationale supporting how charter schools can provide an education that is superior in quality to that offered by conventional public schools is that they are deregulated autonomous public schools that are granted extreme freedom in how they choose to innovate, experiment, manage operations, “respond to their customers”, govern themselves and enroll as well as educate their students (Sugarman, 2002). “In return for this autonomy, charter schools usually are asked to demonstrate academic outcome results for their children, but that too is supposed to be measured without too much interference with the school’s independence” (Kemerer, 1999, cited in Sugarman, 2002). The core elements of a charter school’s success are its ability to function with autonomy and deregulation, both of which are regularly denied to conventional public schools. The solution to what ails our public school system, therefore, is to enable our traditional public schools to operate with the same degree of autonomy and deregulation as that granted to charter schools.
Charter schools are public schools that are funded primarily by local property taxes but are granted freedom from many state and federal mandates and restrictions so that they can provide innovative and cutting-edge teaching and learning. As a result, charter schools function independently from their host district’s board of education under a charter granted by the state (New Jersey Department of Education, 2001). According to the New Jersey Department of Education, as soon as the charter is approved by the Commissioner of Education, the school is governed by a board of trustees authorized by the State Board of Education and the charter school is thereby granted all the necessary powers to execute and implement its charter.
By agreeing to the contract with the state, a charter school receives public funding with significantly less regulation but it is also expected to provide a quality of education that exceeds that of a conventional public school. But despite their public school charter and property tax funding, charter schools operate independently of their local taxpayers’ input, feedback and control. “While charter schools emphasize that they are a new form of public schools, they are increasingly appearing and behaving like private schools” (Horn and Miron, 2000, cited in Bracey, 2002).
According to the New Jersey Department of Education, however, a charter school “must outline how the school will meet the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards” and “Cross-Content Workplace Readiness Skills” plus all “teachers, administrators, and professional staff must have New Jersey State certification” (New Jersey Department of Education, 2005, cited in Bredehoft, 2005). While charter schools operate independently, the local board of education “must also provide transportation for charter school students residing in its district under the same terms and conditions for district students attending public schools” (Bredehoft, 2005). Also, “a charter school may operate within a ‘region of residence’, comprised of a district or multiple districts identified in the charter school’s application, and must have a physical residence in one of those districts” (New Jersey Department of Education, 2005, cited in Bredehoft, 2005).
A charter school is funded based on its enrollment primarily by the revenues it receives through its local board of education. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, the host district’s board of education must pay the charter school ninety percent of its average per pupil share of the annual operating budget for the specific grade level of each student (Bredehoft, 2005). Although charter schools can not charge tuition, they are eligible to receive federal and state funds. As a result, it seems as if funding is siphoned from the host public school district to the charter school without the direct or indirect approval of local taxpayers.
Because local property taxes as well as state and federal financial aid abide by a zero-sum process, all funds transferred from a conventional public school to a charter school result in a cut in funding that can not be recouped. A conventional public school must cut non-mandate protected programs and services such as regular education in order to make up for the lost revenues. In addition, because state and federal governments either under fund or do not fund their mandates, conventional public schools are forced to pay for these shortfalls while charter schools are often not subject to the same regulations or to the same extent as their host district.
Charter schools enjoy many other advantages over their conventional counterparts. Charter schools can limit their enrollment which enables them to have lower student-teacher ratios and forces conventional public schools to educate the majority of students in comparatively larger class sizes. Charter schools do not have to enroll students after the beginning of the school year which enables them to have much more stable enrollments than conventional public schools. The scarcity of unions and tenure in charter schools also represents another set of cost advantages.
The extent to which charter schools can limit the number of students who qualify for special education, are from low-income or poverty level families, or are English language learners (Levay, 2009) would force traditional public schools to educate a disproportionate number of these needy and at-risk students who are much more expensive to educate. Such a practice would minimize costs for the charter school in the district while it would correspondingly increase the public school district’s expenses. In discussing his study of Michigan’s charter schools Bracey (2002) concludes “And, perhaps most significant, the student bodies look more and more like private schools: Fewer minority and special needs students are enrolled.”
Unlike charter schools that can cap or otherwise more effectively limit their enrollment and, thereby, limit the cost of their raw materials, traditional public schools have to enroll all of the students in the district who wish to attend and, therefore, can not control the cost of their raw materials. This cost advantage in favor of charter schools is highlighted below in the “blueberry epiphany” (Cuban, 2004) experienced by former CEO, Mr. Jamie Vollmer, because as the woman from the audience responds to Mr. Vollmer “… we can never send back our blueberries. We take them all!” and, thus, traditional public schools can not control the quality of their raw materials.
“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!” I stood before an audience filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of in-service training. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.
I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the 1980’s when People magazine chose its blueberry flavor as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”
I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the Industrial Age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society.” Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! Total quality management! Continuous improvement!
In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced—equal parts ignorance and arrogance. As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up … She began quietly. “We are told sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.” I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, ma’am.” “How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?” “Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed. “Premium ingredients?” she inquired. “Super premium! Nothing but triple-A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.
“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?” In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap. I knew I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie. “I send them back.”
“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with attention deficit disorder, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business, it’s a school!” In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aids, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”
And so began my long transformation. Since then, I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, completing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night” (pp. 3-4).
Charter schools enroll students who would otherwise attend the local public schools thereby forcing traditional public school districts to cut educational programs and services correspondingly. But if a traditional school district lost a disproportionate number of students and terminated a proportionate number of teachers and aids, it would not be able to make up many of the operating expenses associated with those students who left to attend the local charter school. Charter schools, therefore, may seem to provide a higher quality of education than conventional public schools but only as a result of the revenue and cost advantages built into their charters.
Because the majority of state and federal financial aid is in some way related to enrollment levels, a public school district would stand to lose aid in direct proportion to the reduction in its enrollment caused by charter schools. This would force cuts to non-mandate protected programs such as regular education. The double whammy of reduced state and federal financial aid as well as forced cuts to regular education would be especially distressful for public school districts. Therefore, having local property taxes finance charter schools siphons away crucial revenues from traditional public schools.
The proponents of charter schools espouse their competition with traditional public schools as helping to improve the quality of public education. But charter schools serve only a fraction of the school community while diverting scarce funds from their host local school districts that educate the overwhelming majority of students. This unequal playing field levels down the quality of public education.
To date, the general public largely seems to have not fully understood that charter schools are neither traditional public schools nor the extent to which charter schools are publicly funded but without local taxpayer control. While such a misunderstanding might have resulted from the lack of resonance of charter schools on the general public’s radar screen, surely it will evaporate rapidly as President Obama and U. S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, actively promote the development and expansion of charter schools nationwide (Maxwell, 2009). Once the public becomes more aware of the real definition of charter schools and the extent to which they are funded with local property taxes, there will most likely be many questions raised.
Bracey, G. W. (2002). The War Against America’s Public Schools: Privatizing Schools, Commercializing Education, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Bredehoft, J. M. (2005). New Jersey Charter Schools: History and Information, New Jersey Community Capital, 1(1), Retrieved from http://www.newjerseycommunitycapital.org.
Cuban, L. (2004). The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press.
Horn, J. and Miron, G. (2000). An Evaluation of the Michigan Charter School Initiative: Performance, Accountability, and Impact, Kalamazoo: The Evaluation Center, Western Michigan University.
Kemerer, F. R. (1999) School Choice Accountability in School Choice and Social Controversy, Sugarman, S. D. and Kemerer, F. R. (Editors), (174-211). Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.
Levay, W. J. (2009). Put the Public Back in “Public Charter School”, Edwise, Retrieved from http://www.edwize.org.
Maxwell, L. A. (2009). Obama’s Team Advocacy Boosts Charter Movement, Education Week, 28(35), 1, 24-25.
New Jersey Department of Education (2001). Charter School Evaluation Report, Retrieved from http://www.state.nj.us.
New Jersey Department of Education (2005). New Jersey Charter School Application 2005, Retrieved from http://www.nj.gov.
Newman, M. (1998). New Jersey Rejects Challenge to Charter School Program, The New York Times, April 2, 1998.
Sugarman, S. D. (2002). Charter School Funding Issues, Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(34). Retrieved from http://www.epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n34.