Our Focus Now Should Not Be On the Problem of Money Being Siphoned Away From Schools, But From Kids!

Good day, CharterFolk.

Wow! 52% of you (and counting) opened Sunday’s post. Thank you. It was also great hearing kind comments about the post from several of you.

I guess it was worth hauling my carcass out of bed early Sunday to get it done after all.

As I said in that post, work is a lot right now. So I’m having to get this one done quick.

Let’s turn to it now.

Our Focus Now Should Not Be on the Problem of Money Being Siphoned Away From Schools, But from Kids!

CharterFolk, let me be plain.

Read this blog post:

It’s the same Substack I mentioned on Sunday. This time the writer, Paul Gardiner, has drilled down deeply into how San Francisco Unified is clearly bucking federal law and state regulation by refusing to disclose how much it spends at each of its school sites. By the author’s calculation, the district is only disclosing where it spends one-half of its funds. His compelling evidence, complete with extensive regression analysis by school level, shows that that the district is moving significant money intended for high school students and middle school students to keep elementary schools afloat. His supposition is that the district does this because there are more staff employed at elementary schools, and those staff hold the political power in the district. So the district ends up concealing the fact that it subsidizes the circumstances of those empowered staff by siphoning resources aways from students in other schools, many of whom are high needs kids.

An interesting take.

What is refreshing about the analysis, whether we agree with all its particulars or not, is its clear demonstration that the school district is not financially transparent, nor is it accountable, and it is siphoning money away from kids that, were other entities doing it, the general public would be outraged.

The missing part of the story, of course, is the fact that no one is pointing out that the only schools in the San Francisco landscape that do not behave in this way are charter schools, which must budget and must be audited down to the school level so that everyone can see where the money goes.

Ours are the schools, CharterFolk, that follow the law and ensure that funding gets to the kids for whom it is intended.

But because we go silent on how school districts conduct their own affairs and how our practices contrast with theirs, this crucial distinction is never made in the public realm. So we leave ourselves vulnerable to the inevitable topic-switching attacks that claim that we are somehow the ones that are not fiscally transparent or accountable, and that our schools are somehow the ones “siphoning” funding away from where it is supposed to get.

It reminds me of an article I saw on the breakfast table this weekend. I was in Denver visiting my folks and, believe it or not, they actually still get the newspaper delivered. A full front page spread …

… examined the decades-long trends and policy-making that have led the Denver school district into its current predicament of supposedly “having too many schools.”

Almost two years ago, the DPS board came up with an equity agenda …

… which aimed to eliminate all schools serving fewer than 300 students …

… because, in the board’s opinion, such schools are not able to provide students …

… “robust and equitable learning opportunities.”

But when the chips were on the table a year and a half later and the board actually had to vote to close schools …

… it waffled.

Perhaps if they had been shown some regression analysis in advance, they might have been a little less rash with their small school virtue signalling.

For me, the whole situation is framed by a lack of transparency, fiscal accountability, and school choice. And by a school board empowered to make decisions for others that are often completely unhinged from reality. We end up with a situation where the Denver Post and vast swaths of the public actually believe things about small schools that are fundamentally just not true, like the notion that schools are by definition fiscally unsound if they serve fewer than 300 students.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Look at private schools.

What’s the average enrollment of a private elementary school in Colorado?

According to Private School Review, it’s 190 students.

Of the 246 private elementary schools in Colorado, 197, or 80%, are smaller than 300-student schools.

And it’s not that private schools are just swimming in per pupil cash above and beyond what is available to DPS such that they can afford things that are simply out of the reach of public schools.

Indeed, Private School Review reports that the average tuition for a private elementary school in Colorado …

… is $11,545/student.

Meanwhile, DPS according to it’s own latest projections

… expects to receive $1.25 billion in 2022-23 …

… while serving 89,200 students.

That equates to a total expenditure of just over $14,000 per student.

Such a funding level would allow the district to afford to send its students to over 70% of the private elementary schools in Colorado, the vast majority of which are far smaller than 300-student schools.

And Colorado is by no means a national outlier. The average size of a private elementary school in California is 214 students.

Think of that.

Of the 2,324 private elementary schools in California, 1889 of them, or 79.8%, are a size that the Denver Public Schools Board of Education believes unable to provide a “robust and equitable education” to students.

Those poor dears.

My point here is not to advocate for any one school size or staffing or program model. It’s to point out the real problems happening here.

The primary one is recognizing that the fundamental inequity at play in many small school situations is not that the schools don’t have all the resources needed to provide essential services. It is that, to subsidize the well-being of adults in the system who tend to gravitate to those schools, school districts siphon money away from kids in other schools.

And the need of many of those kids from whom money is siphoned is often very high such that overall equity across all schools is badly compromised.

What we need is for school districts to allocate money to school sites consistent with the revenues that are generated by the kids who attend those schools, and to allocate all the site costs to the schools as well.

Like the law requires.

And like charter schools already do.

And then to empower parents to choose where their kids go to school.

Like charter schools already do.

And then we will see what parents really value.

What they actually think to be “robust and equitable education.”

Do they agree with the DPS board that their kids’ schools need a librarian, and a nurse, and school psychologist, and separate teachers for art, music and PE, and a prohibition on multi-grade classrooms in order to be “robust and equitable?”

And does their definition of “robust and equitable” require their kids’ schools have a whole, big, vastly under-utilized campus?

Make the school pay for those things, and we will see.

Make the school make the necessary trade-offs between program and staffing and facility, and we will see where parents choose to go.

Some, of course, will make choices showing them to value many of the same things that the DPS board identified to be important basics for a school.

Others, though, will prefer the intimacy that comes from smallness and will be willing to accept the trade-offs.

Because they love the intimacy, the close-knit culture, and knowing that their child is well-known, even if it means their kids’ school won’t have a full-time PE teacher or librarian.

What we wouldn’t have in such a circumstance is a school board moving money around at its sole discretion in a completely non transparent, unaccountable way that inevitably foists the most adverse impact upon those who need better public education most and who invariably have the most resources siphoned away from them.

It’s why our focus must always be on the most important funding equity challenge of all, which is not knowing whether funding is being siphoned away from schools.

But knowing whether it’s being siphoned away from kids!

This isn’t rocket science, CharterFolk.

It’s third grade math. Basic addition and subtraction.

The fact that it takes regression analysis to determine whether kids are simply getting a fair shake shows just how broken our system of funding public education really is.