Traditional public schools outperform charter schools: That's the aggressive stance taken by State Board of Education Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff, and he says he's got the numbers to prove it.
In an open letter, Ratliff cited the recent Texas Education Agency snapshot report for the 2013-14 school year, and the numbers were pretty clear. Compared to charters, traditional ISDs had lower dropout rates; higher graduation rates; and higher STAAR, SAT, and ACT scores. They are also better places to work, with higher average teacher salaries, more experienced staff, and fewer students per teacher. On top of that, ISDs also spend less money on administration and have fewer administrators as a portion of their work force. That last point is particularly damaging for fiscal conservatives, who constantly harp on supposed inefficiencies within public schools.
While noting that there are good and bad public schools, just as there are good and bad charters, these statewide numbers are clear. Ratliff wrote, "ISDs aren't perfect, but they graduate more kids, keep more kids from dropping out, and get more kids career- and college-ready than their politically connected competitors."
This brought an immediate and sharp response from an unexpected source: a joint letter, signed by former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and former Texas House Public Education Committee Chair Paul Sadler. The pair argued that Ratliff used the wrong numbers, and that he should have used the more in-depth TEA 2014 Comprehensive Report on Texas Public Schools. The pair argued that Ratliff "contorts data to paint an unflattering picture of public charter schools," adding, "our elected officials shouldn't be misleading the public with claims and data that only serve to drive a wedge between our public education options on which Texas families rely."
When asked for a response to their response, Ratliff effectively thanked them for making his point about the disproportionate influence of charter schools for him. "When you have the former Texas House Public Education Committee chair and the former U.S. secretary of education teaming up to respond to a little old state board member's press release, the political connection is made in spades."
Case in point: Ratliff has joined the growing chorus of concern over the fact the former Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility in Beaumont is being rented to the Evolution Academy Charter School for $1 per month, even though the state still owes millions in bonds on the property. Moreover, this comes as founders of the Houston-based Varnett Public School charter network in Houston were charged with 19 felony counts related to embezzling $2.6 million in school funds. Many public education advocates are questioning how lax state oversight must have been to allow this to happen.
Ken Zarifis, president of school union Education Austin, applauded Ratliff for calling attention to the constant efforts by public figures like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to tout charters over public schools. He said, "I scratch my head over this, because these are people who on the surface have been proponents of quality education for all." As for the TEA snapshot's stats, he called the difference between privately run charters and traditionally run public schools "pretty glaring. Pound for pound, you look at apples to apples, if you use everything across the board, it's clear public schools do a better job."
Ratliff argued that Paige and Sadler are going after the wrong target. He said, "I didn't make these numbers up. These are straight from TEA's report and TEA's snapshot. They can shoot the messenger all they like." He took particular umbrage with their claim he should have used the comprehensive report, replying, "I'm not interested in slicing up the data differently because they don't like the results." Moreover, he argued that the way the longer report separates out numbers for charter dropout recovery schools from data for other campuses skews the numbers in the private sector's favor. "ISDs don't get to carve off hard-to-educate kids," he said. "I'll be the first to admit that charter schools have saved some kids' lives ... but they can't corner the market on kids in danger of dropping out."
As for the finance side, Ratliff accused Sadler and Paige of "playing half a card." While he supports their point that, on average, charters in Texas get $1,000 per student, he said, "I've got schools in my district that get $1,000 less than what some charters in my district get." Ratliff argued that school finances are so complicated that they cannot be narrowed down to one statewide bullet point – again, something he argues Sadler should know. Considering charter schools operate under looser requirements and restrictions than traditional public schools, their costs are inevitably different. That's before taking into account long-standing and heavily researched findings that show many charters skim off the best, cheapest-to-educate students, and send the rest back to the state.
Then there is federal involvement. A recent study by the Center for Media and Democracy found that the U.S. government has pumped $3.3 billion into charter schools over the last 20 years, a figure that does not include all additional grants. This effort, which has marked both Republican and Democratic administrations, drove huge inflation in the Charter Schools Program, from $4.5 million in grants in 1995 to $253 million in the current fiscal year. Even though there is no evidence of its efficacy, the Obama administration is doubling down on that policy. In the latest draft budget for FY 2016, the president requests Congress grant a 48% increase in that fund to $375 million. For context, the highly touted new Excellent Educators for All initiative, a tent-pole part of the administration's agenda which Duncan represented as "critically important", will only receive $350 million. Similarly, Obama is only asking for $25 million for arts in education funding – the same as it received in 2014.
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