Summit Public Schools’ Worst Financial Nightmare: Hosting a Charter School

As someone who teaches School Finance for Montclair State University's Graduate School of Education, has performed consulting services for a range of school districts, and served as a school business administrator, I know of more effective ways in which Summit Public Schools could close achievement gaps among different groups of students as well as to raise student achievement for all students than simply expanding kindergarten from half-day to full day. Indeed, the significant incremental capital outlays and increased annual operating expenses including incremental debt service would make moving to full day from half day kindergarten prohibitively expensively.  Spending funds differently or more efficiently, however, could close achievement gaps more readily.  

Summit already benefits from a wide array of kindergarten and other Pre-K programs both in Summit as well as within a short radius.  This raises the question as to why should Summit spend scarce financial and human resources by adding a half day of kindergarten when we already have such services readily available and accessible?  To address the challenge of how to enable economically disadvantaged families to attend full day kindergarten, many of whom may not otherwise be able to attend, Summit could charge tuition to those who could afford the additional half-day of kindergarten and use these funds to help subsidize economically disadvantaged families.  Alternatively, to help economically disadvantaged families, Summit could provide scholarships such that economically disadvantaged students could attend full day kindergarten at one of the many programs located within a short radius of downtown Summit.

Our property values are undergirded by the quality of our local school system; the quality of our schools, therefore, is capitalized in our property values. To that end our property values are driven by the market demand for our schools, hence, for our real estate.  To the degree that our schools offer educational programs and services that meet market demand, Summit will retain and attract similarly motivated "homevoters," using Fischel's terminology.  Our property values will be sustained as a result.  

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In fact, you might recall when the Board of Education was keen to reduce Gifted and Talented, Honors, and AP classes just a few years ago.  Our property values, however, are much more likely to benefit if our schools meet market demand by offering or expanding Gifted and Talented, Honors courses, and AP classes rather than adding a half day of kindergarten, the market demand for which is already being well met!  In terms of budgeting our scarce financial and human resources, Summit Public Schools would seem to benefit much more by reinstating or expanding Gifted and Talented, Honors, and AP course offerings that would in turn help to raise our test scores (e.g., NAEP, NJASK), help to attract and retain quality teachers, and maintain the essential public support for the public funding of public education in Summit.

Conversely, diverting scarce financial and human resources away from student achievement programs which meet the market demand of our “homevoters" increases the risk that residents, especially those who have children in or expect to have children enrolled in our schools, will “vote with their feet” (Tiebout's concept for voters’ reactions to a perceived decline in the quality of the locally provided education or to voters’ determination that the local school system is simply not meeting their needs).  Voters “vote with their feet” by enrolling their children in private schools, moving out of town, or demanding a charter school be established in Summit as has been the result in many similar communities.  The threat to the quality of Summit’s public school system and to our property values, that are a function of the quality of our locally provided education, cannot be overstated. 

A charter school would be an overwhelmingly unfunded mandate on our local public schools because state law requires the host district, which would be Summit in this case, to pay 90% of its average per grade cost times the number of pupils enrolled in those grades in the hosted charter school; over which Summit would have no control.  This forced funding stream could escalate without control forcing property taxes to skyrocket because our local property taxes would be siphoned away by the charter school!  In addition, Summit’s schools would lose state and federal enrollment based aid for each of its students that would attend the charter school.  Moreover, because charter schools typically enroll disproportionately fewer at-risk and special needs students, who are more challenging to educate and, therefore, more expensive to educate, than their host traditional public school district, having a charter school locate in Summit would increase operating expenses for our public schools.  Such a skyrocketing of property taxes would most assuredly cause many residents to "vote with their feet."  It would be better for Summit to meet the needs and priorities of its “homevoters” rather than use scarce resources on programs that would not provide commensurate benefits, and ultimately could run the risk of a charter school——our school system’s worst financial nightmare!

 Stephen Coffin writes about education issues in New Jersey and beyond.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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