Pinkston: Time to Slow Charter Growth

MNPS Board Member Will Pinkston offers some thoughts on the fiscal impact of Nashville’s Charter Sector and makes a plea for the reasonableness of slowing their growth in a recent op-ed in the Tennessean.

Here are some key takeaways:

MNPS is ranked 54th out of 67 urban school systems in America in per-pupil funding.

Due in part to inadequate state funding, we trail school systems in Atlanta, Charlotte and Louisville, among others.

A recent analysis of teacher pay across urban districts similar to Nashville found the city’s teacher lag behind their peers, especially in Louisville — a city of similar size and cost-of-living.

Pinkston notes that charter expansion is expensive — and while he doesn’t say so explicitly, the question is: Is continued expansion of charters the best use of Nashville’s education dollars:

The school board took a fiscally conservative position. With 8,157 seats currently in the charter pipeline — including more than 1,000 yet-to-be-filed seats belonging to KIPP — that’s a total future annual cash outlay of $77.5 million.

What KIPP wants to do — expand the pipeline to more than 9,000 seats — would take our future annual cash outlays up to $85.5 million. None of this includes the $73 million in annual cash outlays for charter seats that already exist.

In short, there are lots of charter seats now and a lot more coming online even if MNPS doesn’t approve a single new charter application. These schools are a fiscal drain on MNPS. In some cases, this may be a worthy investment. But, Nashville residents should consider if they want a tax increase to support charter expansion OR if they believe any new money coming from a state school funding lawsuit should be directed at charter expansion rather than other education initiatives.

More from Will Pinkston:

Thoughts on the Next Director of MNPS

Charters: An Expensive Proposition

Charter Schools Drive Up MNPS Costs

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

7 thoughts on “Pinkston: Time to Slow Charter Growth

  1. Andy-
    Lots of points to address, but I believe that your points lack evidence in trying to prove that charters are “too expensive.” Just because that phrase is mentioned, it doesn’t mean it’s true.

    1. It seems that your post is framed as “teacher pay is too low in MNPS, charters are draining a bunch of money…thus if we didn’t have charters we could pay teachers more.”

    This is very false.

    If teacher pay is actually your main concern, shouldn’t we pursue more charters for MNPS, since they actually pay their teachers more than district schools?

    Lots of money gets caught up in central office and the bureaucracy. I think both you and I could find common ground that both for teacher pay and student outcomes, pushing as many dollars to the classroom level is what we should be trying to do. Charters do that more effectively than do district managed schools.

    2. Additionally, the larger problem seems to be the financial management of the MNPS budget. For this current FY16, MNPS non-chartered enrollment is going to fall, but MNPS added 104 FTEs. That doesn’t seem like financially astute management.

    The MNPS budget for non-chartered schools (just the operating budget) is still expected to spend $732 million (vs. $77 million for charters). I think it would be outrageous to claim that all $732 million of those dollars are being put towards effective expenditures (effective being leading towards strong and positive student outcomes). Re-purposing some of those dollars to more effective expenditures could allow for higher teacher pay and/or more effective programs that lead to higher student outcomes.

    Nobody looks into the $732 million and asks if it’s being spent effectively or not. That’s a big problem. If there was strong conviction that all $732 million was being spent effectively, then there might be higher ground to stand on for the “charters are too expensive” claim.

    3. Even then, charters are getting noticeably stronger student outcomes, at a lower cost to taxpayers. KIPP Academy has been a State Reward school for the last 3 years in a row. The MNPS analysis presented at the meeting where they were denied showed that KIPP educated 480 students at its 2 middle schools for $799 less per student than had those students been at their zoned district managed school. Meaning the district has an extra $383,000 to put towards district schools, AND those students attending KIPP were attending higher performing schools.

    Is this a guarantee that future KIPP schools would provide this type of cost benefit?

    No, but there is an actual demonstrated track record with KIPP and other charters that are showing real value and more importantly, strong student outcomes. The same cannot be said for a number of district managed schools.

    Why bet on something more uncertain for trying to get stronger student outcomes (putting additional dollars towards district managed schools) when we have nonprofit charter operators that have shown consistent value for educating students? Also note that the charter structure allows the district to pull the plug on a charter when the charter is not demonstrating value vs. that’s almost impossible to do with a district-managed school.

    4. It’s disappointing that a number of false choices continue to be put out there. This is not the only set of options (trying to scare with a tax increase is not necessary): “These schools are a fiscal drain on MNPS…But, Nashville residents should consider if they want a tax increase to support charter expansion OR if they believe any new money coming from a state school funding lawsuit should be directed at charter expansion rather than other education initiatives.”

    • Hunter, Thanks for engaging!

      I’d first point out that the story is basically the highlights from a Will Pinkston Op-Ed — I didn’t write his piece, I just shared it.

      I do agree with much of what Pinkston notes, however. For example, he talks about the current charter seats and the new ones coming online — pointing out that there’s lots of choice in terms of both district and charter schools. I’m fine with charter schools and think having high quality charter operators can enhance a district’s operation.

      I also think Pinkston raises a good point about the long-term fiscal impact of expanding charter seats further. In essence, I’m raising the question: Is charter expansion worth the cost? Maybe the answer is yes. But, that’s something citizens in Nashville need to be aware of – the cost of charters going forward.

      Likewise, as you point out, I’m sure there are expenses in the district budget that could be changed or reduced. I’d love to live in a utopia where school systems had money for all sorts of education innovations. But, we don’t. So, there are choices to be made. I’m all for options that don’t involve raising taxes… or even options that may include raising taxes.

      But, I think it is fair to ask: Of the options out there, what is the best use of any new money made available for schools. Maybe some of it goes to charters, some to improving teacher pay, some to community schools. But, with a lawsuit victory or a tax increase, the new money available won’t be unlimited. Choices have to be made. Priorities must be established.

      While you point to solid outcomes for some charters, there are also district managed schools getting very solid outcomes.

      In any case, education policy is like all public policy: choices have to be made. This article seeks to raise awareness about the long-term cost of certain choices.

      • I’m in agreement with you on the point about putting dollars towards the choices that yield strong outcomes and results for students. I’ve been trying to stress that for years now.

        I think it’s fair to raise the long term fiscal cost of charter question, but not with the accompanying falsehoods that Pinkston puts out or some of the scare tactics that have been associated with this conversation. So much of the conversation is spent on debunking myths vs. talking about value or cost/benefits of different potential choices.

        As you mention in your reply, we need to be examining what works. There’s a lot of finger pointing to charters, but very little to no associated talk about where dollars are being spent well in the district. Charters are constantly referred to as a “cost” and a “drain” but the data points to them being a sound allocation of resources. Yes, the district has some good schools as well, but also a number of low performing ones. The money allocated to all the district’s Priority schools this year for example surpasses the money allocated to all charters.

        Another example here is the Community Schools initiative. The data on the MNPS community schools is very mixed when it comes to student outcomes and achievement. I’ve looked at this subset of schools and it’s hard to tease out any notable gains for this policy choice. Yet, there are some who want to press the gas on expanding Community Schools, yet I think there is not really any sound data that shows they are improving student outcomes.

        That seems like a fiscally irresponsible proposal. I’m all for supplemental services, I think it’s a sound concept in theory, and I’d point out that charters offer a number of these services in-house or through partners, but don’t get the explicit “community school” label.

        I still believe what’s really going to move the needle on improving the district is continue to improve the quality of teaching and learning. There are a lot of dollars spent on that endeavor but I’d say many of them could be spent much more effectively.

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