School Talk

No Matter What Anyone Says, the Money Ought to Follow the Kid Regardless of What Kind of Public School They Choose

By Zachary Wright 

I am punching above my weight.

I am no education policy wonk, nor am I a mover or shaker in America’s larger educational conversation. But a recent blog post by the well-known edu-legends Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch on The Washington Post’s website made me so confused, angry and frustrated that I had to respond.

I am a former high school English teacher who spent more than 10 years in Philadelphia’s schools, including private, traditional public and public charter. Now I have a job teaching future teachers.

I am also the father of two young boys, one of whom attends the traditional public school in our suburban neighborhood.

I presume Ravitch and Burris want what’s best for kids. But well-meaning as they may be, they are out of touch, biased and at times flat-out wrong in their vitriolic hatred of charter schools, which they argue are the ever-creeping cancerous cells seeking to privatize our nation’s education system.

Harping on a well-worn anti-charter trope, Ravitch and Burris argue that charter schools “drain finances” from the traditional public school system for which they were intended.

There’s a problem with this theory, however.

The money doesn’t belong to the school system. It belongs to the public. Those are not the same thing.

In fact, many states allocate funding the way we do here in Pennsylvania, based on per-pupil expenditures, not per-school expenditures. In other words, the money is meant to meet the needs of each child, not the needs of a system or institution.

This point was recently made by Professor James V. Shuls who (brilliantly, I might add) put the scenario this way:

How would you respond if you stumbled across a headline that asked, “How much do farmers markets cost Walmart?” It’s a ridiculous question. It presupposes that the customer belongs to Walmart; that any time the individual chooses to buy cucumbers from a local grower or salsa from an aspiring entrepreneur, he or she is “robbing” the dominant grocer. That’s just absurd. Yet this is the standard frame we use when talking about education.

Public charter schools do not rob traditional public schools of funding, because the money does not belong to the traditional public schools in the first place. It belongs to the public, and it is meant to educate each child in the environment where they can most thrive. That money ought to follow them regardless of whatever form of public education they choose. (For the record, this does not include vouchers, which are ineffectual at best).

Ravitch and Burris go further by maligning all the so-called sordid bad actors supporting charter schools. They strategically use the oft-demonized figures of the Walton family, Betsy DeVos and, somewhat oddly, Michael Bloomberg (I doubt they find him equally nefarious in his generous support of gun reform).

The assertion is that these mega-donors are on a “quest to elect school board members and policymakers who will undermine the public’s right to govern its schools.”

Let’s be honest, though. Burris and Ravitch play readers dumb by selectively pointing out the financial backing of their adversaries while remaining quiet about the treasure chests wielded by those more closely aligned to their own interests.

In the 2018 midterms alone, the nation’s two largest teachers unions are on track to invest nearly $27 million in campaign activity. But that’s hardly surprising—here in Philadelphia, the local teachers union has long been known to use its significant power to support city council members.

But apart from being perhaps a bit disingenuous, Burris and Ravitch also seem blind to their own privileged isolation when they decry the out-of-touch elites whose philanthropies support school reform.

Not only is this somewhat amusing given what these so-called advocates of public education earn themselves (leader of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten earns just under $558,000 a year, more than 10 times what the average teacher in America makes), but Burris and Ravitch demonstrate their own ignorance when they assert that it is only those who support charter schools who “believe that the role of the average woman or man is to be a consumer, not a decider.”

First of all, this is a false dichotomy between “consumers” and “deciders.”

Charter schools do have public oversight (although some states could do better at it) and are judged by the same test scores and criteria as traditional public schools. They are all free schools open to all children, and we are all still “deciders” in that we can use our vote to elect officials who will support educational equity and access for all public schools, including charters.

And furthermore, families are deciders precisely because they are consumers. Like it or not, education in America is a commodity and we the people are the “consumers.” Anyone who disagrees with this need only go to and peruse the real estate listings. Right there, alongside the square footage, is the school to which that property is zoned.

When we purchase our homes, families all across this country include the neighborhood schooling option as a key factor in where we spend our money. This is obviously not lost on realtors and sellers who attach higher costs to schools in “good” school districts.

I, personally, have made this choice for my family. We bought a home in a middle- to upper- middle-class suburb because of its school system. We were consumers and bought access to a high-quality school system.

Families of privilege use their wealth to access high-quality education while those without are stuck. The sooner we admit that, the sooner we can work to make such access equitable regardless of socio-economic standing.

I have great respect for what Ravitch and Burris have contributed to the education conversation in their (very) long careers. As I said in the beginning, I am punching far above my weight here.

But, I think they’re willfully burying their heads in the sand. They deride charter schools—they even go out of their way to condemn the ones I work in here in Philadelphia.

I go into these schools every day. You know what I see?

I see access.

I see access for families who have been forgotten and told to wait, yet again, for another generation or two. Oftentimes by the very people who claim to be their advocates.

This piece first ran at Education Post here.

Zachary Wright, a national finalist for the United States Department of Education’s School Ambassador Fellowship is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education serving Philadelphia and Camden. Prior to that, he was the 12th-grade world literature and AP literature teacher at Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus for the last eight years, teaching the school’s first eight graduating classes.

Over his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, he was named Philadelphia’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has participated in the fight for equal education funding by testifying before Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission as well as in the state house rotunda in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “No Matter What Anyone Says, the Money Ought to Follow the Kid Regardless of What Kind of Public School They Choose

  1. Yep, this guy is punching above his weight.

    “The money doesn’t belong to the school system.” Okay then stop giving the money (and the bills) to the local districts. Make charters actually build a budget that has to be approved (other than the Mayorals) by the state and money appropriated through the state based on the charter school cost and not the funky LEA per pupil that leads to the strange situation where two kids (lets say Jamestown and CHARIHO) are in the same charter classroom but the school is receiving vastly different revenue for each student. Charter school budgets should be based on state PPE with adjustments up or down depending on the FRL/minority enrollment of the school. That would ensure charters taking primarily non FRL white kids won’t be getting more PPE than the ones taking the minority poor kids.

    LEAs never see the state aid portion anyway so it’s not as if traditional LEAs will be “double dipping.”

    One valid complaint by LEAs under the current system is the charter seats are never provided to LEAs (in fairness the lottery isn’t until March and parents can pull their kids all through the summer so it’s not binding) so it’s a guessing game. Cities and towns can cut education funding without taking into account the looming charter bills.

    The state can assess the town/city the “local” portion *after* school starts (the state can front the Q1 tuition) – that way there is more accuracy in the numbers and municipalities actually get involved in the charter school issue.

    As the author said, it’s the public money, not the local school so make the funding process match.

    Oh..and vouchers are “public monies” too..just saying.

    Charter schools do have public oversight (although some states could do better at it) – understatement of the year in the education world.

    They are all free schools open to all children, – Hmm, technically not correct in RI and more broadly, less correct due to the staff and sibling policy. RIDE won’t release the stats, but how many “open” seats of the thousands stated are actually “not open” due to being withheld due to the staff and sibling policy. While you can sympathize with the policy, access should mean access at the student, not household, level. Even worse is the policy creates bifurcation- non-diverse charters get even more non-diverse.

    This point was recently made by Professor James V. Shuls who (brilliantly, I might add) put the scenario this way:

    How would you respond if you stumbled across a headline that asked, “How much do farmers markets cost Walmart?”

    Brilliant is not the word that comes to mind for me. You want to say a Achievement First is a “farmers’ market”. Achievement First is way closer to Walmart than the notion of some quaint local charter.

    1. I think you made some very valid points here, Joe. I hate that the money passes through the LEA to get to the charters. And yes, at BVP for example, far fewer dollars attach to Cumberland kids than to CF or Pawtucket or Lincoln kids. I can’t speak to policies re children of staff anywhere else but at BVP they cannot make up any more than 3% of the total student body. Once they hit that number, there will have to be a staff lottery. Last time I checked they weren’t even close to 3% but that was a few years ago now. Sibling preference definitely a huge advantage in K but in the older grades, it’s still really hard for siblings to get in. Non diverse charters? I’m not willing to call them out until we equally call out non diverse district schools. My public HS in MA was 2% Black—no one every accused that school of being ‘segregated’ yet that is what is now happening to charters that serve predominantly Black/Brown students. Anyway, I appreciate you weighing in and will point out your response to Zach, the author.

      1. Hi Erika – thanks for the comments.

        “I’m not willing to call them out until we equally call out non diverse district schools.” This seems a bit of apples and oranges. Town traditional schools, especially elementary, can only take residents – perhaps the town has discriminatory housing policies (that would be mostly illegal though). Yes, of course, income is a legal discriminator – ah, but isn’t that part of what charters were designed to fix? Take the most disadvantaged students and give them access?

        So you won’t call out two charters (Compass and Kingston Hill) that essentially are “mini Barringtons/EG/JAmestown” when the those aren’t even the primary communities they draw from for students? C’mon – that’s a bit intellectual dishonesty because these schools are *supposed* to be open to all students, right?

        Remember, these two charters were at one more significantly diverse; so how do they get there – because you have almost *all* the slots open at the K level and almost all now go to siblings so you get charters that started low becomes less diverse and yes, charters that started high becoming even more low income/minority – the bifurcation I mentioned?

        How fair is it to the minority/low income families applying from Kent and Providence counties that they actually have no shot at getting a seat while the white, two income, suburban household who like the shorter commute or getting their kids “out of those” schools (yes, I heard that at a meeting!) just get those slots?

        and yet RIDE is letting these two least diverse charters expand with NO restrictions to attract the most disadvantaged students. I can give credit where credit is due for charters that take the most disadvantaged students and at least try another approach.

        But do we really need to create charter versions of Barrington and EG to take the white, non-FRL students from districts that are already losers in the state aid pictures (NK and SK are taking 15% hits) and take even more of the “least disadvantaged” (and yes the dollars in the way the system works right now as most of those sending districts are high local, low state funded)?

        Charter advocates do their cause no favor by ignoring the the “darK’ and only pointing to the light.

        So, let’s take the least diverse LEAs by income (from RIDE 2018 census data)

        Row Labels FRL%
        Barrington 4%
        East Greenwich 5%
        The Compass School 7%
        Jamestown 8%
        Glocester 12%
        Little Compton 12%
        Portsmouth 14%
        Smithfield 14%
        Foster-Glocester 15%
        North Smithfield 16%
        Exeter-West Greenwich 16%
        New Shoreham 16%
        Kingston Hill Academy 16%

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