national newsletter

What happens to school districts when charters expand?

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! Sarah Darville, Matt Barnum, and Camille Respess here, working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education across the country. Sign up for any of Chalkbeat’s newsletters here

The big story

Are charter schools “draining,” “siphoning,” or “funnelling” resources away from school districts? The question cuts to the heart of debates taking place in cities and states across the country about whether to cut off charter school growth. Presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have recently raised the issue, too.

The politics of the issue are so charged that it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. So we decided to look closely at the research on how charters affect school districts. (We don’t touch on how effective charters themselves are — an important question, but one for another day.)

Here’s the short of it: Charter schools really do divert money from school districts, and it’s not easy for districts to immediately reduce spending to make up for it. “Typically, at least in the short and even the medium term, public schools can’t cut costs commensurate with the amount of revenue that they’re losing” as students exit for charters, said Bob Bifulco, a researcher.

But over time, districts with a lot of charter schools can adjust. The process of doing so is difficult and often contentious, though, because the most straightforward way to do that is to close schools.

Read the full explainer here.

More from the national desk 

The Achievement First charter network, which runs 36 schools in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, says it is joining a growing number of organizations saying no to donations from members of the Sackler family, which has been accused of fueling the nation’s opioid epidemic. Jonathan Sackler was a long-time board member and donor to the network.

Local stories to watch

  • Illinois may be about to scrap its basic skills test for prospective teachers. A bill, currently awaiting the governor’s signature, would eliminate the math and reading test teachers must now pass to earn a teaching license. In Chicago and nationally, those tests have been coming under fire for keeping black and Latinx teachers from reaching the classroom even though they’re not strongly correlated with teachers’ future effectiveness.
  • A barrier for refugee students: having the wrong birthdate on official documents. In Aurora, Colorado, a teacher is pressing officials to allow schools to accept students’ baptismal records. Immigration documents sometimes overstate children’s ages, and since students’ access to school services ends at age 21, more accurate figures can allow students to complete their education.
  • A “symbolic” vote is delaying $47 million in grants to charter schools in Michigan. Democrats who now control the state board voted against distributing funds from the federal charter school program, which has recently faced scrutiny. But board members thought the vote was symbolic and that the grants would still move forward. Now, officials are trying to understand whether the vote put them in a legal bind.   
  • Indiana’s pre-K expansion still isn’t working for low-income families. Five years after the state began trying to make early childhood education more accessible, just under 3,000 of an estimated 27,000 4-year-olds from low-income families are being served by its voucher program, and 1,000 seats are sitting empty.
  • A consulting company is now running an entire Colorado school district. Officials in the struggling Adams 14 district in Commerce City have turned decision-making power over to MGT Consulting for four years. The turnaround effort will be overseen by Colorado’s 2017 superintendent of the year.

Research roundup

  • There’s still a lot to learn about restorative justice, according to a recent review of research on the topic. Case studies have pointed to the promise of restorative justice, but there’s been very little causal research on its effects. One exception is this study on Pittsburgh, which we wrote about in January. Another is a new study of an anonymous district that found that after implementing restorative justice, suspensions fell for white and Hispanic students — but not for black students. That meant racial disparities actually increased.
  • Be wary when you read about “days of learning.” Researchers always face a challenge when describing how much of an effect a policy had on students. A recent study looking at different ways to turn those “effect sizes” into understandable units criticized the practice of converting results to additional days or years of learning, in part because it is imprecise and because there is no widely agreed-upon way to do the conversion. “We recommend avoiding this translation in all cases,” the researchers write.

DeVos watch

2020 vision

Names to note

  • Cory Booker’s older brother, Cary Booker, was named assistant education commissioner in New Jersey.
  • Diamonte Brown won the election for president of the Baltimore Teachers Union last month. But her opponent, eight-term president Marietta English, is demanding a re-vote. Now, the American Federation of Teachers is stepping in.  
  • The founder of KIPP San Antonio, Mark Larson, is leaving his position as the charter school network’s chief external officer in Texas for a new role at City Education Partners, a San Antonio group supported by the City Fund.

What we’re reading

  • “Our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans.” The Atlantic
  • “The town is a series of hills and small houses. In the middle sits an old-West saloon and Crown King Elementary, one of the state’s last one-room schoolhouses.” Arizona Republic
  • “Since 2017, Utah, Arizona and Alabama have lifted LGBTQ curricular restrictions.” The 74
  • “McManus and Schrock and their subordinates opened 19 virtual charter schools across the state — vehicles that the pair used to funnel state funds into their own pockets, prosecutors said.” San Diego Union-Tribune