Wednesday, July 28, 2010

LFC Charter School Report Available Online: Paints a Dismal Overall Portrait

Those wishing to read the new LFC charter school report online need only click here. See for yourself what the study says. It has some technical information on there (I couldn't understand a chart depicting "charter schools impact on MEM and program cost--FY2010") that may be tough to follow, but the overall picture is pretty clear: there is little oversight of these schools, which results in mismanagement of public funds in more than just a smattering of charter schools; the performance of students in basic reading and math, compared with their public school counterparts, is not demonstrably better, and it is apparently worse for Native Americans and Hispanics; graduation rates are lower than in public schools; and charter schools are clearly more expensive to taxpayers: to the tune of $1900 per student. More than enough evidence to warrant a serious reappraisal of whether the program should be continued or at least drastically curtailed and brought under better management. Perhaps those charter schools that excel might be sustained even though they may cost more.

Most of the conclusions are pretty much along the same lines as other studies that have been done nationwide on charter schools. For a Stanford University study that includes New Mexico, click here. Mismanagement is a common thread nationwide. The schools insist on independence so they can innovate, but independence too often breeds a lack of accountability and mismanagement and, ultimately, poor student performance.

The LFC doesn't recount some of the scandals that have broken out in New Mexico over mismanagement of public funds in charter schools. In my blog comments on July 24 I note that "Danny Moon, for example, highly touted as head of Albuquerque Charter Vocational High School by Gov. Bill Richardson and Reader's Digest as a model leader for charter schools, was indicted for racketeering and fraud; he died this year just after his trial began. He was being paid $175,000 to oversee two schools. Another Albuquerque charter school superintendent was being paid $204,000 for overseeing 500 students. The Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent gets paid $256,000 for overseeing 94,000 students." The LFC report does discuss questionable expenses discussed in audits, such as the instructional money that paid for a student prom.

Some have complained that the sample size, 16 out of 72 schools, is too small to stand as a valid portrait of the whole, but most of the report deals with more than just the 16 schools, and the report is careful to be appropriately modest in its conclusions. Yes, further study is required before final action is taken, but when school superintendents supervising 500 students get paid almost as much as a nationally selected Superintendent of Public Schools in Albuquerque, for a school that is not demonstrably better than the average public school, more than fifteen years after charter schools began in New Mexico, you begin to wonder whether our political system is capable of supervising two parallel school systems for both management of funds and student performance. Can we really afford to continue an expensive experiment that after 17 years has not lived up to its promise?

What we can be certain of is that the 72 charter schools will have paid and unpaid lobbyists slurping at the trough, making campaign contributions and attacking the messengers of bad news. Already expressions of outrage from the charter school community have been covered amply in the media and we wonder whether the outcome of the debate will be determined on the basis of what legislators think is good for public policy or on the basis of a vocal advocacy group that plays its political cards right.

I repeat: can anyone give me a good reason to continue charter schools in New Mexico? I'm open and I will give you equal time.

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