I’ve always been in favor of charter schools, and so has the editorial board at The State. (Some would think those two points are redundant, and some of my former colleagues would say the same, but I continue to insist that the board under my leadership operated by consensus and was not an autocracy. So my opinion and the board’s during that period were not the same thing. And that’s the way it was, because I say so, speaking ex cathedra. None may say me nay.)
Today’s editorial explaining why local districts shouldn’t fund state-chartered schools made me go “huh?” for a second, because I hadn’t really thought about that aspect of it (and I guess I missed when the issue came up).
But only for a second. Once I thought about whether such funding should come from DISTRICTS, I could think of all sorts of reasons why that was a bad approach to an otherwise good idea.
And many of those reasons were set out ably in the editorial. An excerpt:
What’s not reasonable is the plan before the House to force school districts to take local property tax money away from the schools they are responsible for and give it to charter schools that are completely independent of the districts. Unlike district-sponsored charter schools, many state-sponsored schools were set up over the objections of the local districts, and they do not receive local property tax funding.
The idea of forcing local schools to subsidize the state charters is particularly unreasonable today, when we are calling on districts to make difficult choices to reduce their costs. Consider what happened last week: The day after Lexington 2 Superintendent Venus Holland recommended closing one of the district’s 10 elementary schools to save money, the House Education Committee voted to make her district — and the rest of the state’s districts — spend money to keep the doors opened at a dozen schools over which it has no control. Although the timing isn’t so dramatic, the situation is even more absurd in Abbeville, where the legislation would force the district to pay for a school that opened in a high school that the district had shut down to save money.
In addition to the districts’ need to make these sorts of difficult decisions, there’s this very practical problem: Property taxes are set based on the number of students the districts expect to have in the schools they operate — not in the schools over which they have no say and whose enrollment they have no way of guessing.
In defending the plan to make local districts fund state-chartered schools, House Education Chairman Phil Owens claimed it “creates parity and equality.” But it does no such thing: To the contrary, it highlights the “parity and equality” problem we have throughout our public schools, because it requires each district to contribute whatever amount of money it spends per student for each local student who attends one of these schools. That varies widely from district to district, based on how wealthy each is and how much the people who live there value public education…
But the one main, critical, essential, fundamental reason why it was a bad idea was left out, or only implied, and it is this: As stewards of taxpayers’ money, districts shouldn’t have to fund something that they can’t hold accountable.
The districts run the schools under their jurisdiction, holding them accountable — with varying degrees of success — for the appropriations provided. That’s the essence of responsible government: You elect people to make decisions about raising and spending tax money (as well as other essentials of government). Taxes are levied on the local level specifically for the purpose of running those schools.
The whole idea behind charter schools is that they are free from being held accountable by that local district structure. There’s no way that local districts should be allocating any portion of the finite, limited funds (a demagogue would throw in, “taxpayers’ hard-earned money”) to any entity that is not answerable to that body for what it does.
The state charters these schools, and should be responsible for any funding that comes from public sources.
To elaborate… the editorial also made the very important point that ultimately, school funding is a state responsibility. And it is. And eventually, we need to get to the point where schools are not dependent on taxes raised locally — a practice that only exacerbates the gross inequities in quality of education available statewide.
This issue — the local funding and governance of schools — is one on which my opinion has changed over time. As one who believes in the principle of subsidiarity, my general tendency is toward pushing governmental responsibilities down to the smallest, most local level (the federal government should do far less than it does, and states should leave more up to local governments — in South Carolina, that means the Legislature getting off the necks of local governments and letting them serve their citizens unhampered).
That’s in general. But subsidiarity holds that functions should be performed by the smallest possible entity competent to perform them. And increasingly, I’ve started to think in recent years that the state (or at the very least, the county) is about as small an entity that can both fund and administer schools competently. Mind you, I think the SCHOOLS should enjoy more autonomy than they do, in terms of principals being more free to run them — particularly in terms of freedom to hire and fire. But to the extent that there has to be administration above the school level, that doesn’t have to be nearly as local as it is, and there are a number of reasons why it shouldn’t be (including the fact that while school boards are elected, the overwhelming majority of voters don’t have the slightest idea who’s running for school board, or which would do a better job, and you often get the kind of governance you would expect from that — and there is NO WAY these little-known entities should be levying taxes, as they do in some districts). A good start in making that less local is what I’ve advocated strenuously for 20 years: Consolidate school districts. But the ultimate goal, perhaps (I’m not 100 percent on this yet), should be statewide administration.
But I’m getting off the subject. Bottom line: Charter schools are a state creation (and it’s a good thing the state has created them, I continue to think). The state should pay for them, to the extent that they should be publicly funded. Legislators should deal with that, rather than trying to dump the problem on the overstressed districts.