The me-first approach to tax-subsidized education


Many parents’ interest in education doesn’t extend beyond the quality of their own children’s schools, a fact reinforced by an email I received recently from the parent of a student (or students) now attending a new BASIS charter school in San Antonio. In this parent’s viewpoint, BASIS represents what is right with education, and Texas public schools – at least the ones he or she has observed – represent what is wrong.

Perhaps unwittingly, though, this middle-class parent pretty well summarizes the problems that tax-subsidized, corporate-style charters such as BASIS pose for Texas’ public education system and thousands of low-income, struggling children who will never see the inside of a BASIS classroom. Remember, low-income, disadvantaged children – the face of Texas’ future — were supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of charter opportunities. At least, that is how charter advocates, such as Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, sold the idea of charter expansion.

BASIS was organized as a “non-profit” in Arizona but is operated by a separate, for-profit company organized by its founders. I have written a few, earlier blog posts about problems associated with this chain, and this parent responded in BASIS’ defense. Here are some significant points from the parent’s email and my responses:

# BASIS parent: Charters can operate on less funding than traditional public schools because they “tend to have parents who care about their kids’ education and who find ways to fill in via donations, volunteer work, etc.”

Response: Charter schools, on average, receive more state funding per student for operating expenses than traditional public schools in Texas do. Charters get $8,341 per student in average daily attendance, compared to $7,662 for traditional public schools, the Texas Education Agency reports. Regular public schools get more ADA overall – an average of $8,811 compared to $8,341 for charters – because the state assists some districts with capital expenditures. But a new state law soon will allow some charters to use the backing of the state’s Permanent School Fund to lower their borrowing costs. And, charters also tap into tax dollars in other ways, which will be discussed a little later in this post.

Meanwhile, low-income kids who are left in the public, neighborhood schools the charters raid have parents who also care about their children’s education. But many of those parents can’t afford to make donations and can’t get time off from work to volunteer at their schools. Many low-paid, hourly wage-earners who miss a day of work lose their jobs.

# Parent: Charter schools are not “encumbered” by bureaucracy and unions.

Response: In truth, administrative overhead represents a very small percentage of most school district budgets, and there are no union contracts in Texas public schools because Texas is a “right to work” state.

# Parent: BASIS doesn’t provide school buses. If charter parents can drop off and pick up their kids, why can’t most parents in public schools, except for “proven” hardship cases?

Response: Many low-income Texans don’t have cars and don’t live on public bus routes. Public schools are required to serve all children in their districts. They can’t cherry-pick, as BASIS has a reputation for doing. So they need school buses.

# Parent: BASIS’ lunch program is “run by parent volunteers and catered by local restaurants at higher prices.”

Response: Again, most poor people don’t have time to volunteer at school and certainly can’t afford the “higher” restaurant prices. A subsidized school lunch for low-income children is required by federal law for public schools and is often the only meal that many of these children get each day.

# Parent: “BASIS doesn’t have a library. There are tons of public libraries in the area. So why should they?”

Response: Who pays for these public libraries? The taxpayers, of course, the same taxpayers whose money is being used to feed the profits of BASIS’ operators.

# Parent: “Do they (neighborhood schools) really need so many fields and playgrounds?…BASIS has no real playground and only a minimal gym for grades 5-12. They rent space at local sports courts for sports as needed and sometimes go to a local park for PE.”

Response: Again, the same taxpayers who are subsidizing BASIS also are paying for those neighborhood parks. And, yes, public schools need playgrounds and other exercise areas. Physical education is an important part of the public schools curriculum, and not every public school is conveniently located near a park.

# Parent: “There has been significant effort in recent decades to mainstream special needs kids. Some of this has been beneficial, and some of it has been ridiculous. When the cost to mainstream a child who really would do better in a special education classroom becomes exorbitant, the schools need a way to push back without getting sued.”

Response: BASIS already has a record of pushing back against special needs kids. In August, the Washington Post reported, the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into a complaint that a BASIS school in Washington, D.C., discriminated against students with disabilities. The newspaper also reported that several students with disabilities had dropped out of BASIS only a few months after enrolling. They were pushed back into the same public schools that already had lost hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to the BASIS charter.

The BASIS parent complains of local public schools that are inadequate for above-average children, are stuck in “old paradigms” and could learn a thing or two from how charters “stretch” their budgets.

Some of those “old paradigms” are required by laws and regulations from which charters are exempt. And, we see how corporate-style charters stretch their budgets – by raiding neighborhood schools for tax dollars and using other public facilities. Meanwhile, the programs these parents find inadequate in the public schools are largely the result of years of under-funding and budget cuts by a governor and a legislative majority that prefer privatization. I wonder: who have the BASIS parents been voting for?




1 Comment

  • You are not addressing the main point. Public schools are not consistently meeting the needs of the above average child. Owing to the influx of students with greater challenges that you point to, education for the above average child is being undermined. Enrichment programs for these children are often the first to lose funds, hindering their ability to reach their potential. This will continue to happen and the parents of these kids are powerless to fix it. That ~$8k that is supposedly going to them is really being siphoned off to serve other students.

    I find it interesting that you insist it would be cherry picking to not provide bus service to those who can afford other arrangements but think it is o.k. to siphon off the monies provided for above average student’s education to fund programs for struggling students.

    My argument is that every parent should have choices even if they cannot pay private school tuition. (Making a few hundred to a few thousand dollar donation to a charter school is still WAY below private school tuition AND it is NOT a requirement. Those that can afford it pay it and those that can’t aren’t forced.) If parents can make the sacrifices needed to have their child attend BASIS they should have that option. If they need the services provided by a traditional public school, they should likewise have that option, but it’s a tradeoff. They should know that public schools tend to deprioritize high performing students in budget decisions.

    You yourself admit that BASIS is a lower overall cost burden on the taxpayers than a traditional public school. Whether that remains the case in the future or not is irrelevant to today’s debate. Consider, though, that if you really wanted lower income students to have the benefit of a BASIS education, you would not balk at BASIS receiving more money so that they could provide buses and lunch programs. You can’t have it both ways. You argue that BASIS is cherry picking because not all parents can make the required sacrifice, but you certainly wouldn’t have them receive the same amount of money as public schools so that they could even that playing field.

    The reality is that charter schools were originally proposed as an option for public school districts to provide a challenging curriculum for above average children. The public school districts did not take up this option so someone else did.

    Public schools have brought some of this situation on themselves. It started when they caved into the ACLU and eliminated in class ability groupings in the early 90’s. The increase in the achievement gap, No Child Left Behind and the rise of charters can be directly linked to the fact that schools could not meet the needs of children along the learning spectrum without segmenting the classroom in some form of ability grouping. When done well, ability groupings serve both the upper and lower end of the learning spectrum. No Child Left Behind forced some level of ability grouping back into the classroom but only for the lowest end and the requirements were so onerous that they caused the pulling of funds away from other programs – specifically those for the above average student.

    As of today, many schools have returned to ability grouping but some still have not – my assigned public school had not. This is why parents need choices without the hardship of moving to a better school district or paying private school tuition – not all schools use the most effective methods available to meeting the needs of the full learning spectrum. They are inefficient in the use of their resources causing some kids to suffer needlessly.

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