Policy makers continue to set forth choice and charters as the cure-all for what ails education. I can argue the fallacies behind that thinking until I’m blue in the face. However, in this blurb all I want to make clear are the simple economics of the thing. The economic argument alone, I believe, is enough to cause us to rethink the entire charter enterprise.
Imagine within a community it costs five dollars a year to educate each general education student. That would be an average. Some students would cost more, and some would cost less, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to identify the actual costs for a particular student.
Now imagine you are someone motivated by profiting from public school dollars and you open a charter to do that. Like the public school, you would be given five dollars for each student who comes to your school.
If all the kids who come to your school cost more than five dollars to educate, your business would fail—you would either spend what was necessary to educate those kids and lose money, or you would serve those kids poorly and make your profit, but the odds are in that case you would lose your charter pretty quickly. A charter full of kids who cost more than five bucks each is doomed.
It is also true that if you took kids such that they mirror the population, you would need an average of five dollars per student to do the work, which would suck up the profit you’d hoped to earn (presuming you were true to your word and properly served those students). Again, as a business with a profit motive that makes for a bad model.
The reality is that the best way to maximize profit and ensure your success is to find as many kids as possible who cost less than five dollars a year to educate. That way you have sufficient resources to do the work with some left over.
This is where the idea of choice is the perfect beard. While seemingly democratic, it is anything but. It confuses the invitation to participate in a democratic process with actual participation. The simple truth is that only some segments of the population have the capacity to actually choose, which tends to be parents whose children are the least expensive to educate. Parents with few resources, multiple low-wage jobs struggling to put food on the table, or who lack transportation, often have children who are more expensive to educate given their lack of opportunity outside school. This is not a criticism, but a fact, one public schools accept as part of their ethical responsibility of being a public school.
The idea of choice is the perfect vehicle for finding the least expensive students to educate and pulling them out of the public schools. This creates an economic disparity that furthers the gap between the haves and the have nots: the charter school will have more than sufficient resources to educate the children that attend it, while the public school will be left underfunded given the needs of the children who remain behind.
The only thing fair or equitable about this is nothing. Arguments about quality have to be pushed to the side: if you were running an over-funded school the odds of success would be relatively high, just as they would be relatively low in an under-funded school. The fact that much recent research suggests charters in general fail to outperform publics should be an even bigger economic argument against them: that means they are using their resources poorly while making a profit on the backs of our most vulnerable students.
On the surface, what appears to be happening is a simple exercise in democratic choice and market forces. What is actually happening is the undermining of our public schools at the expense of those who most need the benefits a quality education can afford.