The revealed preference of (some) school choice advocates

The argument for school choice and competition rests in large part on the assumption that competition will allow parents to vote with their feet, creating accountability for under-performing schools and providing stronger incentives to improve. That argument in turn is rooted in the notion of “revealed preference,” which holds that the next-best solution to the impossibility of knowing consumer preferences is to observe their market behavior.

With that in mind, I think it is fair to apply the same rubric to those who advocate the loudest for school choice by asking what their behavior reveals. Two recent articles on the interaction of charter schools and public finance offer some interesting information in that regard. In one, reporter Scott Waldman of the Albany Times Union did some good investigative work into campaign advertising in a recent city election and found the following:

ALBANY — A group associated with Albany’s charter schools sent out multiple fliers and likely paid for a push poll to kill the Albany school budget.

At least three separate fliers were sent to Albany residents in the last two weeks that encouraged voters to reject the school budget and intentionally exaggerated a tax rate increase to mislead voters. A telephone push poll also asked city residents leading questions including if they were fed up with tax increases and wasteful spending.

A postal record, obtained by a Times Union Freedom of Information request, lists the customer who paid for the mailings as “School Performance.” Tom Carroll, who founded the Brighter Choice Foundation — which supports all of the city’s 11 charter schools — is on the board of School Performance Inc., according to the most recent public records available. Chris Bender, executive director of Brighter Choice, has also served on the School Performance board.

***

Albany Superintendent Ray Colucciello said the mailings show voters that some charter operators would stoop to a clandestine attack just to harm the public schools. He said that it will make it harder to have collaboration with charter schools in the future.

“How can you work together with someone who would try to defeat the resources for 8,500 kids?” he said.

***

Bender, who was compensated $217,000 in 2009, lives in Loudonville and Carroll, who earned $328,000 in 2009, lives in Clifton Park [ed. – these are not in Albany proper].

Carroll did not respond to requests for comment and Bender has denied that the Brighter Choice Foundation was involved in the mailings. Though that is technically true because School Performance is a separate entity, the organization has received a significant amount of money from Albany’s charter schools. Its board members also run many of Albany’s charter schools.

School Performance, which provides management services to Albany’s charter schools, is listed as being funded entirely by public money on its 2009 tax return. Some of the money for the organization has come from Albany’s charter schools, which means Albany taxpayers may have supported an entity that has encouraged them to vote down the district’s $206.5 million budget proposal. Money has been contributed to School Performance by the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable arm of Wal-Mart.

While the article does note conflict between the charter schools and the traditional schools, that is hardly a rationale for illegal behavior, let alone for the actions of highly compensated people drawing outsized pay from government tax revenue, while acting aggressively to de-fund access to basic services.

What I found especially interesting was that the charter schools are both entitled to public money but also funded even in the absence of a schools budget, which makes no sense:

Albany’s charter schools are currently reimbursed about $12,000 per student by the Albany school district. A defeat of the budget would have no effect on the charter schools, which received $30 million in Albany taxpayer money this school year. (emphasis added)

That doesn’t sound possible, but it does seem to be a pattern that demonstrates at best poor negotiating skills and at worst outright co-opting of budgeting processes in a way that is directly counter to claims that charter schools represent some new frontier of accountability. The results are particularly jarring in Pennsylvania, where even access to public education is becoming a privelege:

The Philadelphia school district may have to cut 3,800 positions in order to close a $600 million deficit. Another proposal to make up for the loss of almost $300 million in state funds this year includes eliminating free transportation to and from school.

That means no busing or free SEPTA transpasses for any students except those in special education students and those attending charter schools.

That’s because state law requires the district to provide transportation to and from charter schools. But students who attend public and parochial schools next year could have to pay their own way. (emphasis added)

There is plenty of blame to go around here, and I have no claim of insight into any of it, but you have to wonder about what kind of mindset it would take to demand these kinds of carve-outs and exemptions amidst such extreme budgetary pressures. Certainly not some over-riding concern for “the children.”

 

 

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