After the Birmingham Board of Education recently decided unanimously to deny two applications for charter schools, Weld sat down with Dr. Peter Jones, an assistant professor at UAB whose research specializes in the financial ramifications of education policy, to discuss the potential effects of charter schools when they move into a district.
While earning his doctorate at the University of Kentucky, Jones authored a study, “Charter School Locations Across the U.S. and Their Influence on Public School District Revenues,” in which he explores the ways in which the rise in charter schools has impacted various school districts across the country.
Weld: There has been a lot of discussion surrounding charter schools in Birmingham lately. What do you see as being some of the arguments both for and against charter schools?
Dr. Peter Jones: One of the reasons that people want them is that they provide an alternative to whatever public school district you live in. If you live in a school district that doesn’t perform as well, then charter schools provide people with an alternative choice, and since they’re publicly funded, they’re essentially free.
Most parents, if they don’t like their public school choice, and [if] they have the means, will send their child to a private school. Or they move out of that district and go to a better district. Charter schools essentially take away that need, because people are able to access what they perceive as being better schools and lead to another option besides traditional public schools. It allows more parent choice within a school district.
School districts themselves, and this is more with other states, see that they can cooperate with charter schools because they can serve different student populations or provide something that school system isn’t able to provide.
Weld: Is there an example of this in Alabama?
Jones: In Mobile, a charter school is focused on students that are at risk of dropping out or have already dropped out. Because they don’t have to follow some of the state laws in terms of curriculum design, that school can cater to students who are at risk. There’s basically no competition [with] Mobile schools, because they’re serving a population of students who wouldn’t be in those schools. They’re bringing more students into the system.
Weld: You touched on the pros of charter schools, but what are some of the cons?
Jones: The thing with Birmingham City Schools, and this is happening elsewhere too — there are a bunch of cases across the U.S. — essentially what you are doing is creating a second system. You’re creating a new school that requires additional resources, and Birmingham City Schools would lose revenues to that charter school. This has been a drawback for a lot of school systems in the U.S.
Weld: In your opinion, do you think charter schools would benefit families living in Birmingham?
Jones: They absolutely could, for those reasons I just mentioned. In any situation, as humans, we just enjoy having more choices. If parents within BCS perceive those schools as not performing well, they would have another option. Another thing, too, as evident by the people who work downtown but live in Hoover or Mountain Brook — a lot of those people chose to live there because the schools are good. If Birmingham had charter schools, and those people perceive them as being a good option, you remove the need to live so far away from where you work. BCS, in that sense, could see more people move into the city.
Weld: Are there any examples of some drawbacks in certain districts that stick out to you?
Jones: In Pennsylvania, a school district essentially had to issue a bunch of public debt to cover their operational budget, which rarely ever happens, right? Usually you’d do this in order to build a new school or a new stadium, but you typically fund operational expenses — your salaries, maintenance upkeep — with tax revenues. But essentially, charter schools came in, and they didn’t have time to move around resources, and they were left without the revenue the charter schools had taken, so they had to issue this debt. It’s been something I’ve heard in the debate here, that charter schools take away resources.
Weld: If you Google “charter schools” there is a lot of information that labels them as being “controversial.” Why do you think that is?
Jones: My sense is that people are fairly informed about charter schools, but because they differ so much across the states, in different policy environments, there’s just a whole host of information out there.
You can Google charter schools and the results and opinions are just all over the place. So to me it becomes controversial, because if you’re leaning toward not supporting them, there is evidence out there that shows they do take resources away, and they don’t perform to the level of some public schools. And all that is true that there are some [poorly] performing charter schools. You can find that information to support your anti-charter school belief.
The other side of the coin is that if you support charter schools, there is plenty of evidence to support your stance. There are better-performing charter schools out there, like in Boston, that are success stories. Harlem Academy in New York is another one of those. You see these types of stories, so if I support charter schools I can go out and reference those schools.
Again, [looking at] the revenue piece, there is evidence that shows charter schools could work in favor of districts’ revenues. You could say that you may end up losing initial revenues to the charter schools, but you might not need them to cover expenditures, and you could bring more students into the market. That, to me, adds a lot to the controversial aspect of it because you have both sides kind of yelling at each other with facts that are absolutely true. It’s just they’ve often cherry-picked data from one state or one policy area. Both sides have done that.
Weld: Are the academic standards for charter schools the same as traditional public schools?
Jones: Traditional public schools have to follow the standards set by the state. Charter schools must meet these exact same standards. They are subjected to the same state tests, all those same things. Charter schools will often set higher standards. So, in addition to the test scores, they may try and send all their students to college, or they may target students, like in Mobile, who are at risk of dropping out and have them meet those standards with students who would otherwise be unlikely to do so.
Across all states and all charter school laws, they are held to the same accountability standards.
Weld: In Birmingham, the charter school operators who were denied by the Birmingham Board of Education have indicated they are going to appeal to the Alabama Public Charter School Commission in order to be authorized. How do you see that playing out?
Jones: I thought it was interesting when the operator of the Star Academy [whose application was denied by the Board of Education] basically said he was excited that the local school board denied [them] because now [they] are just going to apply to the state and [are] confident they will pass it. We’d rather the state be our school board — the authorizer will basically act as the school board — as opposed to the adversarial Birmingham City Schools.
I can see where he is coming from. Really, Birmingham has relinquished that authority over it. I don’t know if it’s a slam dunk that the state will authorize it, but if they think the application is worthy, and they do sign off on it, then there will be a charter school in Birmingham next year.
Weld: In your opinion, how long do you think it will be before Birmingham has its first charter school, if at all?
Jones: It depends on how quickly the state moves with that application. But again, if they think the application stands up, then — and I’m not sure about the actual timeline as far as the start of the 2017 school year — but certainly by the fall of 2018 you could see charter schools in Birmingham. You have to go through the school board first if you want to start a charter school. You may start to see operators kind of go there with the idea that they are just going to appeal to the state. You may start to see more situations like that.