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Does Choice Cost Traditional Public Schools Money?

One of the leading criticisms of voucher programs—and charter and virtual schools, too—is that they undermine traditional public schools' finances by sucking away per-pupil funding and resources.

A new paper published by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which supports public and private school choice, challenges that assertion.

Author Benjamin Scafidi attacks the question this way: If a substantial number of students left a public school district, is it realistic that the school system could cut its costs enough to account for the loss in student population, and the resulting loss of money? His argument, for both large and small districts, is yes.

In the paper, Mr. Scafidi starts with the United States' average per-pupil spending in 2008-09, which was $12,450. He estimates that 36 percent of those costs were "fixed" in the short run, while 64 percent were variable, or costs that can change with student enrollment. Assuming that a school choice program redirects less money to a charter or voucher program than was going to a student's traditional school, that shift can improve the financial standing of the public school district, argues Mr. Scafidi, an associate professor of economics at Georgia College and State University, in Milledgeville.

Mr. Scafidi considers the costs of instruction, student support, instructional and staff support, food service, and some other areas to be variable in the short run. In other words, those costs can and often do fall as students leave traditional public schools, even from one year to the next, enough to make up for the loss of funding that comes with the loss of students.

But Helen Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, said in an email that, in most cases, "districts are likely to be worse off" because of student losses due to choice options.

One factor, she said, is the extent to which students leaving the traditional public system are relatively advantaged students, who carry low costs, or disadvantaged students, who cost districts more.

—Sean Cavanagh


School Reform, New Orleans Style

When the leaders of Michigan's Education Achievement System were looking for an example of how to organize their newly created network of low-performing schools, they took a trip down south, to New Orleans. Tennessee did the same as it planned its Achievement School District, which will eventually manage low-performing schools in Chattanooga, Memphis, and Nashville.

Now the nonprofit organization New Schools for New Orleans has created a guide for other policymakers who may be interested in bringing reforms similar to the New Orleans Recovery School District to their own cities. The Recovery School District took over most of New Orleans' city schools after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and converted them to charter schools. The RSD now manages schools in the city and other parishes in the state.

The guide was created as part of the organization's $28 million federal Investing in Innovation grant. New Schools for New Orleans received the five-year grant in conjunction with the Recovery School District in October 2010 to expand the charter model in New Orleans and other urban districts.

Neerav Kingsland, the chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans, said in an interview that the guide is not intended to suggest that everything New Orleans did should be replicated wholesale. For example, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina forced a ramping-up of services that turned half the city's schools into charters within two years. A more manageable pace of expansion, Mr. Kingsland said, might be converting between 3 percent and 8 percent of a city's schools to charters each year.

The guide also notes that districts need to play a role in nurturing charter school management organizations. The guide concludes with examples of the roles that a central office must play even within a decentralized district of autonomously run schools. For example, some entity must be responsible for an enrollment and transportation system, and for evaluating schools and shutting down low-performing schools. Those are issues that the Recovery School District is still grappling with, Mr. Kingsland said.

However, he said the district is happy to talk both about its successes and ongoing challenges. "We're hoping we're that the city that can help other cities," he said.

—Christina A. Samuels


College Board Launches Website for Students

The College Board launched a free resource, BigFuture, aimed at engaging students in the college-planning and -search process. With bolder graphics, more videos, and a process that draws in users with questions, the tool is pumping up the hip factor in an appeal to tech-savvy students.

BigFuture has information on finding colleges, paying for your education, and making a college plan. About 60 percent of the content on BigFuture is repackaged material already available on the College Board website, and the rest is composed of brand-new topics, said Roy Ben-Yoseph, the executive director of digital products for the New York-based nonprofit that sponsors the SAT, Advanced Placement, and other programs.

The idea was to create an interactive, user-friendly resource in response to concerns that the college-admissions process is becoming more complex and that access to expert counseling is uneven.

Students can get too much of the information on BigFuture without signing up, but to create a plan or save their work, users must create an account or use existing login information.

When searching for colleges that match a student's interest on BigFuture, the user can sort by filters such as location, majors, sports, diversity, and cost, and give each a weight of importance on a sliding scale. College-profile information of nearly 4,000 institutions is collected by the College Board in its Annual Survey of Colleges.

Information throughout the site is provided in nugget-size tips and one-minute videos with students' stories such as how they decided about going to school in a city, what role extracurricular activities played in deciding a major, and putting together a financial-aid plan for college. There are also videos from experts addressing topics of college planning.

The hope, Mr. Ben-Yoseph said, is that the tool will be engaging enough that it is used across a student's entire high school career and by school guidance counselors.

—Caralee Adams

Vol. 31, Issue 26, Page 14

Published in Print: March 28, 2012, as Blogs of the Week
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