Moody's Investors Service recently released a report claiming the rise in enrollment in public charter schools could pose a dangerous financial risk for traditional public schools, especially in urban areas with weak economies. Yet blaming charter schools for financial woes in the school district is unfair, and it drives a poisonous wedge between administrators, educators and the broader community, who should be working together to provide kids with access to high-quality education.
Public charter schools have long been the scapegoat for traditional public schools' woes. Moody's report follows the usual line of reasoning: charter schools have seen increasing enrollment, which means students are leaving traditional public schools. Because the students are leaving, those schools are losing funding, and they are struggling to stay open.
It's easy to blame schools' problems on a lack of funding. But that twists the issue. Basic fairness dictates that public funds should follow the students to the schools that are best able to provide a quality education, whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools. (And in practice, charter schools are the ones getting the shorter end of the stick, on average receiving 70 percent of the per-pupil funding expended by district schools.)
The Moody's report highlights a couple of school districts with serious financial health issues predating charters that are struggling to adapt, but essentially ignores the many other urban districts where public charters and the district are able to grow together and thrive in fine financial health. The simple truth is that the schools that are failing are failing for other reasons, such as counterproductive policies, entrenched bureaucracy and a refusal by stakeholders to work together to find solutions that result in the best education for kids.
Outdated policies keep kids trapped in underperforming schools. For instance, hiring and firing policies in 11 states still adhere to Last In, First Out (LIFO), which rewards teacher tenure, not ability or success rates with student performance. Too many underperforming schools are allowed to remain open year after year, draining resources and using up space that could be allocated to schools that actually meet students' needs. It's problems like these that lead parents and students to look to charters for better educational opportunities in the first place. In Newark, N.J., support for public charter schools is overwhelming, with 71 percent of respondents supporting expansion of the sector.
These are very real challenges that face many urban school districts across the United States. Slowing the growth of charter schools won't solve the problems, though; it will only trap students in failing schools by taking away viable, affordable options for high-quality education. That's the main point Moody's report seems to miss. The true tragedy of failing public schools is that they're failing our children, who deserve better.
While resources and government relations can play an important role, they should never take precedence over the students themselves. It's important to remember that the funds raised through state and local taxpayers for education are dedicated to children, not districts, charters or any particular bureaucracy. Leaders in these struggling communities need to stop pointing fingers and start working together to expand access to high-quality education. Every legislator, bureaucrat, administrator, educator, reformer and parent should be asking how we can provide a system of great schools -- not a great school system -- to best serve our children.