The Trickle-Down Effect

Without question, economy is top of mind for virtually all Americans.  We’re concerned how it is going to effect our employment, our ability to pay our bills, saving for our kids’ college, or having any hope for retirement.  The recent collapses in stock prices (and just about everyone’s 401Ks) and the absence of public faith and trust in our economy has just about everyone worried.

That said, only time will tell what affect it all might have on our educational system.  We started the school year hearing that some districts were considering shifting to a four-day school week to save money on gas prices.  Now we’re hearing districts’ concerns about the value of retirement accounts and how we’re all going to do more with less.  But are there any real short-term concerns that come out of the immediate economic problems?
If you read The Washington Post, the answer is a resounding yes.  For those who watched the evolution of DC Public Schools, we all know the power and the impact of public charter schools in our nation’s capital.  Currently, nearly a third of DC public school students attend charter schools.  And just this year, we saw the DC Catholic Archdiocese convert a number of high-quality Catholic schools into public charter schools, all in the name of better serving the greater DC community (and not just the Catholics within the city).
So what’s the story?  WaPo now has DC’s charter schools facing “financial challenges.”  KIPP DC is struggling to line up funds for renovations for a new high school and early childhood center to be added to KIPP’s successful DC efforts.  The successful Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy may not be able to add a third campus, as originally intended.  And other charters with lower-than-expected enrollment (and thus lower-than-expected funding from DCPS) are scrambling to find stopgap funds to help them meet their obligations to the students and families of DC.
Why is this all so important?  As a nation, commitment to public charters schools as part of our educational system has never been stronger.  Both presidential candidates note their support for charters, and emphasize the needs for strong structure, strong quality, and strong results from these schools.  Recent data from groups such as the Center for Education Reform has shown that public charter schools are already being asked to do more with less that a traditional, old-school public school gets to operate.
What’s next?  We’d all like to believe the economic issues will resolve themselves, and money will once again freely flow into our school systems.  But we are realistic enough to know that is unlikely to happen, at least in the short term.  We also are smart enough to know that if this is happening in DC, it is likely having similar repercussions on other cities with strong charter systems.    
All this speaks to the a greater emphasis on quality, whether they be charter schools or not.  Our states and school districts need to ensure that education funding is going to high-quality schools, to those with strong policies, strong administration, strong practice, and strong results.  As our dollars are scarcer, we need to invest in schools that are doing it right and proving their work.  At the same time, we need to make sure that lenders and financial agencies — those who help fund building renovations and bonds and bridge loans — understand the importance of strong governance and strong management in our schools, charters or otherwise.
After watching the education reform process for the past decade, does anyone really believe that a $23 million loan to build a KIPP high school and early education center in DC is a bad investment?  Of course not.  We know there is good research and not so good research in education.  Likewise, we know there are good investments and not so good investments in public education.  Financial, academic, or otherwise, a good investment is one accountability and achievement.  
These financial times call for tough choices.  We need to make sure we are investing in what works, and we need to make sure that innovations like high-quality charter schools don’t fall victim to the larger worry.  Otherwise, we hurt families today when we shut down or cut back their school options, then we hurt them again when their kids don’t have the high-quality education they need to achieve in the 21st century workplace.

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