Antony Davies & James Harrigan: Wolf should reform schools parents don’t choose
Last month, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that he would be undertaking “comprehensive charter school reform … (to) level the playing field for all taxpayer-funded public schools, (and) strengthen the accountability and transparency of charter and cybercharter schools.”
At the heart of his announcement lie two assertions: first, that charter schools enjoy some sort of advantage that warrants “leveling,” and second, that these schools are somehow not already accountable.
Charter schools are public schools. They operate on tax dollars, just like any other public school. They are, however, exempt from many governmental mandates. Charter schools are obliged to follow the same rules as any other public school regarding health and safety, civil rights and various other areas, but they are exempt from other state and school district rules. This gives charter schools a freer hand in determining their own curricula and in hiring teachers. If charter schools enjoy an advantage, it can be found here.
Working against these advantages, however, is the fact that charter schools are funded at a considerably lower rate than are traditional Pennsylvania public schools. Charters generally receive between 70% and 75% of the funding per pupil of traditional public schools. The reality is a tradeoff. Charter schools benefit from being free of many of the rules that bind other schools, but they have to make due with considerably less revenue per student. Whether, as Wolf claims, this balances out to a net advantage for charter schools is not at all clear.
And what of Wolf’s complaint that charter schools are not accountable? One must first ask, accountable to whom? The governor suggests a number of changes that would increase the accountability of charter schools to the state and local governments. But unless the governor, Legislature and various school boards know better what Pennsylvania’s children need than do those children’s parents, increasing accountability to various governmental bodies isn’t likely to achieve much.
And here Wolf misses the most important feature of Pennsylvania’s charter schools. Charter schools are already accountable to parents and students in a way that other public schools aren’t. Because students and parents freely choose to enroll in charter schools, and the parents’ tax dollars follow those students, charter schools have a stronger incentive to serve those students and parents better.
Traditional public schools’ incentives are actually reversed. When traditional public schools don’t perform, school boards argue that it’s because the schools need more money. Traditional public schools promise performance in exchange for more tax dollars. Charter schools receive more tax dollars only after they actually perform.
These differences aren’t due to the people involved, but arise because the two types of schools serve different masters. Regardless of what mission and vision statements might claim, an institution ultimately serves those who fill its purse. When parents and students control the flow of tax dollars, schools serve parents and students. When bureaucrats and legislators control the flow of tax dollars, schools serve them.
And what master does Wolf serve? If he served parents and students, he would be reforming the schools they aren’t choosing rather than the ones they are.
Antony Davies is associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James Harrigan is managing director of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast, Words and Numbers.