I’ve been thinking about budgets lately. Mine, and the state of Montana’s. The Montana budget is a moral document. It clearly states the values of the Montana Republican Party. Or lack of values, I guess.
For discussion purposes, let's start with my household budget. No details, but we spend less than the average family on vehicles, and way more than the average family on books and magazines. We spend very little on standard entertainment, like going out and going to movies, but have minor league baseball tickets. We don’t take big vacations, but we have good bikes and hiking boots. We budget to support various causes and organizations (like the National Parks and the ACLU). We dedicate a decent amount to support Meals on Wheels and the Food Bank. If you looked at the balance sheet and tried to match the expenditures with values, it wouldn’t be that hard.
We can do the same thing with the Montana budget, HB 2. (Point of information: The Montana legislature is controlled by the Republicans. The House controls the budget, and is split is Democrats 41, Republicans 59.)
The first thing we might notice is that Montana gives away a lot of money to the oil and gas industry, and to the wealthy. Montana has what it calls an oil and gas tax holiday - new oil and gas wells operate tax free on the first 18 months of production. That cost the state $265 million dollars (2008-2014), or an average of $37 million a year in foregone revenue. Montana also has a capital gains tax credit. You read that right. A capital gains tax credit, meaning that if you get most of your income from investments, real estate, etc, you pay significantly less in taxes than you would in almost any other state, and stunningly less than an average Montanan pays on earned income. This costs the state tens of millions of dollars every year.
The next thing we’ll look at is the budget itself. Last week the Montana House tackled HB 2, the budget bill. HB 2 made it to the floor with enormous cuts to a long list of programs designed to help ordinary and low income Montanans. The House Democrats offered a number of amendments to try to increase revenues and to put some money back in to restore the programs the Montana Republican Party intended to dismantle. Here are some of them:
I know it’s trendy to say both parties are the same, and to claim that there is room to criticize both sides. I’m having a very hard time with that here. These were all party line votes. They all failed, 41-59. All the Democrats in favor, all the Republicans opposed. The tyranny of the majority, if you will. The Montana Republican Party owns this budget. Every line of it.
Read back through the above, and take a guess at the values of the Montana Republican Party.
The Montana budget is a moral document. It clearly states the values of the Montana Republican Party. Or lack of values, I guess.
Maybe you could think about that next time you are in the voting booth. Maybe you have always voted Republican, and you want to vote for people like Gerald Ford and Dwight Eisenhower. You know what? So do I. But that is not the choice we have. We have the Republican Party of today. This is the party of state representative Austin Knudsen. The party of state representative (and party chair) Jeff Essmann. The party of Senator Steve Daines. The party of Greg Gianforte.
You can see their values. Can you really vote for that?
If there is one thing we have heard a lot of since the Democratic Convention, and the election, and now our special election, it is lecturing about conflict within the party (and the near-party).
“We should be fighting Republicans – not each other!”
“We’re fighting actual neo nazis – we can’t waste our time and energy on infighting!”
“Millenials/BernieBros/POC need to quit whining, check their privilege and get onboard!”
Conflict is not bad. Conflict is good. Conflict is a tool. We need to keep disagreeing. Frankly, the lecturing to get onboard is annoying, condescending, and self-serving. It marginalizes people we need in our movements. It tells people they need to compromise because their core issues are less important than the mainstream core issues. It tells some people that the majority doesn’t really care about their issues, just their money and their votes. None of that is OK.
There are a lot of us, and we have legitimate differences. Only when people are expressing their differences are they really engaging. If you are blindly following, you are not engaged, and you are not a true participant. When you engage, when you express your differences, it means you care. And if you don't care, and you don't engage, you probably walk away.
Don’t take this as license to have a free-for-all. There are two parts to engaging in legitimate conflict around serious differences. The minority / side not in power has to be free to express their differences. And just as importantly, the majority / side in power has to actually engage and hear those differences.
Expressing differences is hard. You have to go out on a limb and say “I am not with the rest of you. Here is why.” You have to have some expectation that it is safe to express your differences. And you have the responsibility to present those differences as clearly as possible, to offer some possible solutions, and to know what you will, and will not, compromise on.
Hearing differences is also hard. We might have to hear that our big, inclusive movement is actually marginalizing some of the people who want to be included. We might have to hear that a bunch of new people have different ideas, and want to change the way things have always been done. We might feel ambushed or sidetracked. And that’s OK. Because if we feel that way, then we are actually hearing.
Hearing is not a promise to act. Hearing is a promise to listen to understand. Hearing is a promise to have some empathy. Hearing is a promise to actually consider the differences that are expressed.
We may not come to agreement, and that is ok. We need to capture and publish those minority opinions. We need to do that so that we can all continue to think about those opinions. We need to do that to show respect to the people who had the courage to express those differences, and get us all to think about them. Then we can find a way forward even if we never get to complete agreement.
Understanding and valuing other points of view is how we get stronger, and our movement gets more representative of all of us. Diversity is one of the things we say we are fighting for, right? We can approach issues from lots of perspectives – and when we do that, we connect with one another on a whole range of other issues.
This stuff is hard. Democracy is hard. Equality is hard. Lots of people, especially lots of NEW people, having voices and wanting to be heard is hard. But if we can learn to have good, healthy, respectful conflict, and if the majority and minority groups can have empathy and respect for one another, and work together toward shared goals without a requirement that differences have to be buried or ignored, then we’ll really have something.
CHARTER SCHOOLS, AGAIN
Let’s assume that you just want the best for your kid. One of the things you want is the best available education. Maybe you want that best education so much that you are willing to be OK with the way charter schools manipulate student selection, you don’t mind the lack of transparency / accountability / oversight, aren’t concerned that charter schools will harm the local public schools, and you’re even OK with some corporation making a profit from the tax money spent on education. You just want your kid to have the best available education. Let’s chat about that.
How do we know whether charter schools or public schools are better? What are we going to measure? Probably test scores, the holy grail of the US education system. Then let’s add in things like sports, art, and music, and have a look at the teachers.
STRAIGHT TO THE NUMBERS
We have years of data from nearly every public school in the country. To make this work we have to look at aggregate data, because any individual school can be an outlier in either direction. Here’s the deal - In public education, students from the highest socioeconomic bracket have the highest test scores, and the most disadvantaged (lowest socioeconomic bracket) attend the lowest performing schools and get the lowest test scores.
There is less data from charter schools. Most studies offer snapshots, not evaluations. There is a major study from CREDO/Stanford that does give us enough data to generate some useful findings. Charter schools follow similar socioeconomic vs performance patterns, but there are more outliers. Some charter schools are doing worse than similar public schools, but some of the ones serving kids from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are doing substantially better. How many? About a third. The gains among blacks, Latinos and kids whose first language is not English have been impressive. You may note that those demographics are not well represented in Montana. I think the closest approximation that we have here, in socioeconomic terms, is the concentrated Native populations.
However, even with those outliers, charter schools are NOT doing better overall! Some charters do better; the majority do the same or worse. In aggregate, the performance is about the same. Nerdy report here.
Your kid will probably not get a better education at a charter school. His/her test scores will probably not be better.
ARTS / EXTRACURRICULARS
I found one study regarding music programs and charter schools. At the elementary level, participation rates are roughly the same. Public schools averaged 1.3 hours of music instruction per week, charters 1.2 hours. That’s not bad. Digging into that a bit, it appears that when charter schools say they have a music program they mean choir, not band or orchestra. In charters, it was 60% choral plus 20% claiming private lessons as music programs. In the publics, it was 37% choral and 4% claiming private lessons as music programs. If your kid is in the band or orchestra, they probably won’t find one in a charter school.
Sports? Again, we’re talking about investment. Charter schools face substantial barriers to entry into sports conferences. Part of this is due to space, part is due to allocation of resources, and some is bureaucratic red tape in sports conferences. Article here. That said, there appears to be a growing “sports charter schools” movement to recruit high performing male athletes into charter schools that concentrate on sports (not academics). This is not unlike the elite private sports schools that recruit AAU athletes with scholarships and access to college recruiters. Article here.
The upshot here is that your kid will likely have better extracurricular activities at a public school.
Public school teachers are held to strict educational and licensing requirements. Most public school teachers have been teaching for quite some time, and they have to get continuing education and professional development. Laws pertaining to charter school licensing vary from state to state, and the Montana bill is not explicit in what the requirements have to be. Charter school teachers must be certified in 14 states and in Puerto Rico; certification is not required in Arizona or the District of Columbia while Louisiana requires only a baccalaureate degree; certification is required under specific conditions, with exceptions, or can be waived in 26 states. (Link)
Charter school teachers are also:
The take away here is that if your kid goes to a charter school, he/she is likely to get a very young, inexperienced teacher, who is not paid very well, and often does not have an education degree. That’s called an alternative pathway to licensure, which I think in general is a good thing, but I’m not sure most states require enough education in, well, education. As for the money, we can all agree that higher paid does not correlate to better teacher, but I think we can also agree that the teacher should not have another part time job or be hitting up the food bank on a regular basis.
Your kid is going to get the same test scores at a public school or a charter school. Not better. The same. If you want extracurricular activities, your kid will get more of those in the public schools. Your kid is going to get a less experienced, less prepared, and not as well paid teacher in a charter school. Remember also that charter schools have no public oversight. That means that if the profits are not high enough, staff and programs will be cut in order to hit the numbers, and you won’t get to see the numbers or have any input. Public schools may have budget issues as well, but they are public and you get to have input.
Combine all that, and there it is: If you want the best possible education for your kid, the public school is where you will get that.
ENDNOTE: Can we figure out WHY some charter schools are doing so well?
Turns out that’s not difficult.
First, the charter schools that are doing well are in very poor, very urban neighborhoods, often with large non-English-speaking populations. The students start from an extreme deficit - they have had no pre-school or early childhood education. The extreme gains really mean just pulling them up to near grade level.
Second, charter schools manage out poor performers, through strict discipline and attendance policies, high academic requirements, and/or high parent involvement expectations. Your kid may have to maintain a high GPA to stay. You may be required to volunteer four hours a month to keep your kid in the school. Charter schools manage out attendance and discipline problems, rather than figuring out the root cause and how to help and retain the student. When they manage a student out, they don’t backfill that seat. Only the strong performers remain. The kid that is managed out could be your kid, if he struggles in math, if you have trouble getting him to school on time, if she gets sick a lot, or if you get moved to the night shift.
Third, more and more charter schools have significantly longer school days and school years. It averages from three to 10 more weeks of school. That means your kid may have to get to school earlier than the public school kids, and stay later. School may start earlier in the fall and end later in the spring. Breaks and vacations may be shorter. Are you ready for that additional time commitment? Are you ready for a summer vacation that is only 6 weeks long? Is your kid?
The longer days and longer school year are designed for an urban educational experience. It’s a way to compensate for the lack of pre-school and early childhood education, and a way to keep the kids safe and off the street longer. Again, that’s solving for problems most of Montana doesn’t have.
A bill to authorize charter schools passed the Montana House. Here it is:
It's not long or complex, and you should read it.
This bill is being touted as win for Montana parents and students because now they will have choice. Slow down, shooter. What problem are we solving? When did choice become a solution? Let’s run down the reasons why charter schools are not an answer for Montana. I’ll bucket those as Student Selection; Transparency / Accountability / Oversight; Impact on Public Schools; and Profit Motive.
Let's deal with the Choice thing first: Families don’t really choose their charter schools. Charter schools choose their students.
Public schools have to take every student that shows up. Charters do not. Charter schools use a variety of ways to shape their enrollment to decrease the likelihood of resource-intensive students enrolling. Charter schools often don’t want students with special needs, those with low test scores, English learners, or students in poverty. One way to limit enrollment is to have open houses during the work day, to have a single open house / enrollment fair, and to hold the event offsite, again during the work day, at a location not served by public transportation. Parents in desirable demographics can take time off, get baby sitters for children, and drive to the event. Parents in less desirable demographics can’t. This article discusses these methods in more detail. Want something closer to home? Have a look at Billings Petra Academy. The application for admission states that if your child is special needs, they are not welcome at Petra Academy. (Article here, since the application has since been pulled off the Petra website.)
Before you get all excited that a charter school means your kid won't have to deal with special ed kids..... They may not want your kid. Enrollment shaping does not just exclude students with special needs, those with low test scores, English learners, or students in poverty. Charter schools classify students with even mild ADHD or a chronic health issue as resource-intensive and undesirable. Some charter schools even exclude gifted and talented students, because they too need more resources.
These enrollment shaping tactics concentrate students who need more resources in the public schools, causing even more of a money and staffing crunch for the public schools. Let’s use an example of a school district with 1,000 students. Fifteen percent (a national average) require additional resources (special needs, English learners, very low test scores). That would be 150 students. A 200 student charter school opens and does not accept any of these students. We now have 800 students in the public district. The 150 that require more resources remain in the public district, which now has almost 19% high resource need students, with a net decrease in funding and (and therefore staff).
Transparency / Accountability / Oversight
Charter schools say that have more accountability. They do not.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but have no public oversight. This language is directly in the Montana bill: Charters are not overseen by local school boards. They have a Board of Trustees but that is not the same as an elected, accountable school board. The Board of Trustees works for the charter school company. You can find out how much the principal of your child’s public school is paid, and get a copy of the school’s operating budget. The state Office of Public Instruction has reams of financial information online. If you don’t like what is going on in your child’s public school, you can attend a school board meeting, you have multiple channels to give input, and you are entitled to a response. A charter school has no such obligation. See above – if you rock the boat at a charter school, your child can be returned to the public schools.
A public charter school is also not subject to the general supervision of the board of public education or state accreditation standards. It can teach anything it wants, and does not have to hit the basic educational requirements set by the state. Don't like science? Fine. No science classes. Think that teaching foreign languages is un-American? No languages. Charter schools often do not have sports, music, drama, and other extra curricular activities.
It can also mean that teachers do not have to be accredited or licensed, and they are definitely not paid what teachers in the public schools are paid. This means that charter schools usually end up with the teachers with the least experience and preparation, which leads to high teacher turnover, so the teachers are always inexperienced. In some states, charter schools have even argued that they should not be held to the same fire code and accessibility requirements as public schools.
Impact on Public Schools
Charter schools can have a devastating financial impact on public schools.
Charter schools take funding from the public schools. There is one state pot of education funding, and it is divided up on a per-student basis. If a small district has 1000 students and a charter comes in and takes 200 students, the public school district loses 20% of its funding. When a students leave a public school classroom to attend a charter school, that public school classroom still has to keep the lights on, and pay the teacher and the heating bill. The math is not a simple transfer of dollars from one place to another. That means layoffs, program cuts, etc. What if it is a small rural district, with 200 students, and the charter takes 100? Or two charters take a total of 150? The public school can't operate for 50 students, so it CLOSES.
Many school districts now find themselves in a situation where they have to fight against charter schools for the funding necessary to keep the lights on and to serve their enrollments. Districts say charters steal their money, leaving them unable to properly educate the students who remain at their schools—very often those who are the most expensive to educate, like children with disabilities. (Article here.) Charter schools in some cities have even succeeded in getting new charter schools opened while traditional public schools have closed. Article discussing that here.
Consider that these articles discuss the impacts of charter schools in very large urban districts, which may have hundreds of school buildings, and many times more students than in the entire state of Montana. There are no school districts in Montana that meet that description. Some of our districts are very small already – Montana has 410 school districts, with 821 schools, and a total of about 145,000 students. (From Facts About Montana Education.) Charter schools are gutting public education in districts with 500,00 students. Montana school districts can’t support charter schools.
Charter schools are for-profit cash cows feeding at the public trough.
Montana education funding is a around $11,000 per pupil (a little less in large districts, a little more in small districts). The public schools spend all of that. We can certainly argue about how well that is spent, but we do know it is spent. A charter school is for profit. It will get that same $11,000 but it will only spend part of it, because it has to return profit to the corporation running it. Less is spent on educating each student, AND the profit is likely leaving the state.
Wall Street thinks charter schools are a hot investment opportunity because they take advantage of guaranteed public funding and receive lucrative tax breaks (and loopholes). Many charter school companies are owned by hedge funds. These hedge funds are high rolling political donors, thus assuring themselves of continued funding and favorable tax and legislative treatment. (Article here).
Charter schools are a solution in search of a problem.
Charter schools manipulate student selection, which skews district demographics and concentrates higher need students in the public schools. Charter schools are not transparent, they are not accountable to parents or tax payers, and they are exempt from the oversight required of other publicly funded entities. Charter schools have significant negative financial impact on public schools. Charter schools are really investment mechanisms to wring profit from taxpayers, and the investors manipulate laws and the tax system.
Charter schools’ real mission is to maximize profit, not maximize education. Charter schools are the wrong choice for Montana.