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Winters: Give K-12 Schools More Freedom to Boost Bang for Taxpayers’ Buck

Marcus Winters — whom I will long remember as the author of Teachers Matter and featured presenter at the Independence Institute’s first-ever Brown Bag Lunch — has written a great new piece for City Journal.

Appropriately titled “Better Schools, Fewer Dollars,” Winters’ column addresses the issue of tight budgets and educational productivity. A few weeks ago I highlighted a new 2-minute Education Policy Center video on rethinking Colorado school finance that sounded similar themes.

Winters brings forward data, some more familiar than others, to show how spending per K-12 student skyrocketed in the past generation with very little or no improvements to show for it. The Manhattan Institute senior fellow further undermines the logic of adequacy studies used to inform court decisions like Colorado’s Lobato case. And this is what a Denver judge hangs her cut-and-paste ruling for the state to spend billions more in scarce resources?

Anyway, Winters also reviews the research on cost-saving charters and voucher programs, which show some benefits for students and at the very worst could be interpreted as not doing any harm. Nothing new or surprising there for faithful readers or others who have paid attention to the education reform debate. But his concluding proposal intriguingly demands a closer look:

Schools don’t need more funds; they need the freedom to use their funds as they see best. That can happen only if the restrictions of the current system no longer bind them. A better system—one that the United States should begin moving toward—would be a taxpayer-funded one of relatively autonomous schools. Every school would become, in effect, a charter school. Districts would still have a role in this kind of system, imposing performance standards that schools would have to meet to keep their doors open. But it would be each school’s responsibility to adopt sound policies and use its resources wisely.

Ironically, Winters’ great article came out at almost exactly the same time as a more prominent national education policy figure stumbled around trying to figure out if charter schools are really public schools. Ummm… by every reasonable definition, yes they are. Maybe that would have been too hard for me to figure out if I were only 4.

Just a few quick points to back it up. Like other public schools, charters are free for families and cannot discriminate or deny students access (despite insinuations to the contrary). At least in Colorado, charters are run by independent boards and can only be incorporated as nonprofits. Like any public school, they can and often do contract with private entities for educational and other services. How is that fundamentally different from a school board agreeing to cede authority to private union organizations as exclusive representatives of assigned employee groups?

(Oh, and by the way, the highest-quality research suggests some real benefits to charters.)

Trying to muddy the waters about a fairly obvious legal fact says a lot about someone’s agenda. That’s their prerogative to do so, but it makes such people less credible in many reasonable observers’ eyes. Charters are different from other public schools because of their greater freedom from certain mandates and their greater autonomy to innovate and manage at the site level. Perhaps Winters is onto something with his call to “charterize” the school system. One thing is for certain: It wouldn’t make public education any less “public” than it is today.