Losing the charter school debate? Just invent some numbers

October 30, 2012

There’s a joke among policy researchers that if you can’t find the numbers to support your conclusion just make some up.  642 sounds nice.  432,396 looks impressive in many cases.  How about 100 million?  Now that’s a nice round number. 

But it’s distressing when the invent-a-number game goes beyond humor and is used in the public debate over serious issues, like whether Initiative 1240 to allow charter schools would help struggling school children. 

Last week in The Seattle Times, Mari Taylor, an official with the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA), said Initiative 1240 would cost $100 million. This $100 million figure is totally false, pulled out of thin air.  

The Office of Financial Management in Olympia estimates Initiative 1240’s plan to create 40 charters schools over five years would cost about $3 million.  All other funding would come from existing education spending, money that students are already receiving.  Still, Ms. Taylor’s $100 million figure is being cited in mailers that charter school opponents are sending to thousands of households in Seattle.

In any case, whether or not Initiative 1240 passes, education spending is still going up. 

Officials have increased education funding by over $3 billion in the last 10 years, from $7.01 billion in 2002 to $10.24 billion today.

As a result, they have increased per-student spending by $2,900, from $7,330 in 2002 to over $10,200 today. 

The legislature enacted a $653 million increase in education spending in the current budget compared to the last one, rising from $12.99 billion in 2009-11 to $13.64 billion in 2011-13. 

This is an effort to scare people into thinking Initiative 1240 will cut public education.  Actually the Initiative would create a limited school program that would operate entirely within the public education system. 

For more on charter public schools see our “Citizen’s Guide to Initiative 1240,” our “Guide to Major Charter Studies,” and our “An Option for Learning: An Assessment of Student Achievement in Charter Public Schools.” 

Reasonable people can debate the merits of charters schools and whether we should allow them in Washington, but let’s at least use real numbers.


Reasonable people

In 2008, when Seattle Public Schools supposedly had excess capacity and there were some schools that were only 2/3s full, lots of folks went on about how this was a waste of money. Yet there is little mention of how the creation of a charter school will draw students out of the neighboring public schools, create schools that are only 2/3s full, and create waste in exactly the same way.

As the WPC has pointed out time and time again, only 59% of the funding for each student actually appears in the classroom. If the funding leaves the school with the student, only the classroom expenses go away. The cost of lighting, heating, cleaning, and maintaining the building remain. The cost of the principal, secretary, nurse, and librarian remain. And, of course, the cost of the burdensome bureaucracy remains the same.

There is a difference between fixed costs and variable costs that every capitalist understands. I thought you would understand it also. When a student leaves a school all of the funding for the student goes away, but only the variable costs also go away. The fixed costs remain.

This is how the creation of charter schools will cost the public schools much more than the $3 million in certain expenses referenced in the report. If you read the report at all, you will see all of the other costs that are referenced but cannot be quantified. The $100 million estimate is as good as any and better than most. It is for certain better than the $3 million mentioned here.