Vinehout Simply Wrong On Independent Charter Schools

by James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

State Senator Kathleen Vinehout, a possible contender for governor, let her displeasure be known concerning a proposed expansion of non-instrumentality charter schools in Wisconsin. The Illinois expatriate asked in an op-ed for UppityWisconsin, “Do we want to encourage out-of-state companies to run local schools with tax dollars?”

Gasp at the unholiness of it, some privately-run public charter schools might make a profit for their investors while educating Wisconsin kids. What’s next? Illinois hotels will make money off of visiting Wisconsin state senators?

Aside from reminding Vinehout that Wisconsin is not North Korea and businesses, residents and even state government buy goods and services from outside our borders, let’s also remind her what state education spending is for.

When determining state aid for K-12 education, the state doesn’t take a census of buildings, union officials and administrators in a district. It counts students. State aid to school districts is based on the number of students enrolled to provide the students an education, not create brick-and-mortar monuments to former superintendents and presidents.

So when Vinehout complained that the money for the charter schools comes out of the state aid for schools, someone should ask why is she complaining? That’s what the money is for.

The fact is, despite Vinehout’s complaint about the cost of sending students to non-instrumentality charter schools, the schools remain a good value for the taxpayers. Vinehout said the cost of educating a child in one of the charter schools she opposes is nearly $8,000 a student. “This cost is born by nearly every other public school district in the state.”

Well, yes, but those independent charter school kids don’t just disappear if we suddenly abolish their schools. Most likely they would end up attending the Racine or Milwaukee public schools at substantially more cost to the taxpayers. Public Policy Forum said MPS spending per pupil for 2011-2012 at $15,139. They said the Racine Unified School District spent $12,801 per pupil.

For the investment in the students attending these schools, the state is getting a better return.

Vinehout said that the independent charter schools do not produce better educational outcomes. “People reminded me there is no evidence private charter schools have any better academic outcomes than public schools when compared on a level playing field. ‘The real enemy of students’ academic success is poverty,’ a superintendent said.”

When a school superintendent offers that trite excuse, I want to ask, “What are you doing to make your students rich?”

Of course, what Vinehout claims she is being told simply isn’t true. Independent charter schools are having success educating children regardless of the child’s socio-economic status. In Milwaukee, the independent charter schools actually had 6.5% more low income students in 2011. However, they had better report card grades than either the MPS schools or schools chartered by MPS, a whole category higher. WKCE scores in both 2011 and 2012 were also higher in the independent charter schools.

Standardized testing showed independent charter schools outperforming MPS schools and MPS charter schools in the 2012-2013 academic year, too. As the MacIver Institute reported back in July, “These independent charter schools scored significantly higher than peer institutions when it came to math at these grades despite educating a similar number of economically disadvantaged students. These advantages persisted in reading scores as well.”

So despite educating more disadvantaged students, the independent charter schools are doing a better job at a lower cost. Vinehout says that instead of giving money to those schools that are succeeding, she wants us to focus on spending more money on public schools.

Legislators should ignore this advice. Instead of playing into fears of schools from out of state, legislators have a responsibility to make sure state spending on education is actually providing students with an education. The growth of independent charter schools in Wisconsin will mean that more parents will have more and better educational options. The state will have a better return on investment with better educated students, even from disadvantaged backgrounds.