Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Charter Question: Paradoxically Ironic?

I have had the opportunity to work with the Kansas Legislative Post Audit group on a few occasions. The LPA staff has always proven itself to be professional and fair-minded. LPA is required by statute to do three “Efficiency Audits” of school districts every year. The Emporia School District was one of the districts audited this year, and the report was presented to the LPA committee on July 21. Having spent a large part of my life in Emporia, I was eager to hear the results.

KASB Advocacy staff member Tom Krebs covered the committee meeting and was quick to report new leadership in Emporia seems to have made a world of difference because they got a good report from LPA. Mr. Krebs intimated the LPA report found that in the past four years the district has shown massive improvements in all areas, but I cannot seem to find that particular finding in the report. (For those of you who don’t get the gist of Mr. Krebs’ humor, I left the superintendency four years ago.)

Emporia’s LPA report had a fairly typical list of suggestions from LPA: Procurement cards, schedule changes, and food service were areas where savings might be found. But there was one recommendation that jumped off the page: on page 20 (www.kslpa.org/docs/reports/r-14-009.pdf) the LPA staff included the following recommendation: “The district could save between $260,000 and $600,000 annually by housing its charter school within existing traditional school buildings or by closing it entirely.”

In “The Crack-up,” F. Scott FItzgerald wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." As much as I want to have a first-rate mind, I am really struggling with his one. Charter school advocates argue the state should have more charter schools because they offer better achievement at a lower cost. Thanks to the thoroughness of LPA, we can use the Emporia Charter School as a test for both of these arguments. LPA found that achievement in the charter school was about the same as the rest of the district in reading, and a little lower in math. The lower cost argument is addressed directly in the finding: the district would save $600,000 by closing the charter school.

After consulting with English experts Mark Tallman and Carol Pitts, the ruling is this is both a paradox and an irony. Other opinions as to how to classify the phenomena are welcome, and I have a few in mind that I learned from my father, who is less concerned with literary devices but much more descriptive with colloquialism and colorful vernacular.

But I have diverged from the point: charter schools are not a panacea for achievement and/or efficiencies in Kansas. In Kansas, past legislatures have recognized this fact and provided locally-elected boards of education the authority to seek charter status when they see a need and purpose. The Emporia Charter School was not created to save money. It was created to serve a group of students who could be better served in a smaller setting with different types of instruction. The locally-elected board saw the need, applied for charter school status, and governed the school to meet the needs of those students.

It was not state bureaucrats, not city, county or state politicians, not ivory-tower academics, not national think tanks or ALEC. It was just the elected leaders who were chosen by the community specifically for their ability to make decisions about how to educate children. Yet when this happens, many of the same people who advocate for more charter schools and more efficient education will criticize Emporia as inefficient.

I imagine some smart pundit will explain to me how this is not an irony or a paradox at all, and it is just that I have failed Fitzgerald’s intelligence test. For now, I am puzzled. What does it mean to be efficient? How do we put a price on innovation? On achievement? Those answers will need more discussion, but this latest LPA report will provide some clues.

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