charter schools
(Megan Ross)

The executive director of the Oklahoma State School Board Association, Shawn Himes, opened the first of the Sept. 11 House Common Education Committee’s interim studies on “Brick and Mortar Charter School Funding,” by explaining how Oklahoma is one of only four states that doesn’t fund capital expenses for its traditional public schools at the state level.

Although Oklahoma has a balanced funding formula for operations, our reliance on local dollars for capital needs could undermine that fair system.

Hime said we are stronger together and should unite, “put ego aside,” and help fund traditional public and charter school capital expenditures. But the day’s presentations underscored how the issue is more complicated. In my opinion, other accountability issues must be addressed before increased capital funding for charter schools should be contemplated.

Presentations draw contrasts

A second interim study, “Real Cost Per Student for Virtual Schools,” began with a presentation by Rebecca Wilkinson, the executive director of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual School Board. Wilkinson referenced a paper making the incomprehensible claim, “The operating costs of online programs are about the same as the operating costs of a regular brick-and-mortar school.”

It found the per-student cost of a full-time virtual school is between 93 and 98 percent of a traditional school. Actually, this finding is based on a “cost model” — which I’d call a wish list — where, for instance, the teacher-student ratio is almost 80 percent more than the national average, and salaries and support services are far greater than what exist in traditional Oklahoma schools.

Wilkinson also cited a study estimating the virtual per-student cost is 17 to 28 percent lower. Derald Glover of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administrators then cited scholarly research by the National Education Policy Center and others showing virtual schools need 24 to 39 percent less funding than brick-and-mortar schools.

And the NEPC research cited by Glover explains why traditional public schools are the better vehicle for expanding online instruction. They cost less and produce better student performance.

Glover foreshadowed a key recommendation that would be made in the day’s third interim study, “Charter School Sponsor Oversight Responsibilities.”

He explained why virtual school funding should not be based on student counts like brick-and-mortar schools. Rather, Oklahoma should learn from research and from states that base funding on course completion.

Most agree more accountability needed

The day’s third interim study nailed down a pattern where presenters — regardless of their positions on charter and traditional public schools — basically agreed that today’s virtual charter accountability system is inadequate. For instance, the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s general counsel, Brad Clark, acknowledged charter oversight is “not easy work” and tighter accountability is needed.

He noted the “whole premise of charters” is performance-based contracting. This raises an obvious question: Why not give for-profit virtual charters what charters originally asked for — accountability based on student outcomes?

Then, Wilkinson of the Statewide Virtual School Board was less explicit, but her answers implicitly argued for increased accountability for virtual charters. As Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer reported, Rep. Sheila Dills (R-Tulsa), asked, “If virtuals can spend so much on marketing, do you believe they receive too much?”

Wilkinson eventually replied: “It is something this committee should be asking.”

During both of her presentations, Wilkinson seemed determined to avoid answering questions in a direct manner, but repeatedly agreed that more oversight is necessary. She said the accountability law is only two years old, so she didn’t know if she could answer some questions. Wilkinson then expressed concerns about using the metric of 40 completed assignments for attendance oversight. Answering Rep. Melissa Provenzano (D-Tulsa), she voiced concern about charters not being accountable for low graduation rates, even with full-year students.

One administrator sees it differently

Richard Haynes, superintendent of Spiro Schools, took the opposite approach, which he called, “keeping it real.”

Haynes was eloquent in explaining why the extracurricular activities funded by traditional schools are so valuable. He shared the wisdom of a mentor who “teaches football but coaches science.”

Haynes also provided anecdotes indicating virtual schools sometimes drop students after they collect per-student funding. He also explained how their attrition rates mean students who start behind are allowed to sink further.

Haynes candidly expressed the hard truth that many others dance around: “The money game is being played.” Like virtual charters, Haynes said his school also has to participate. But Haynes concluded, “I have to play it with a conscience.”

Compromises would benefit everyone

That brings me back to Shawn Himes’ proposal. As Rep. John Waldron (D-Tulsa) said, Oklahoma law could already allow more money for capital expenses, but it hasn’t been funded. So, is Himes’ recommendation where charter and traditional public schools get capital funding the only doable pathway for brick-and-mortar schools?

The interim study audience included powerful advocates for charter expansion, as well as the head of Harding Fine Arts, a high-performing charter that welcomes everyone from its neighborhood. Such a compromise would benefit the less fortunate children in my Central Park neighborhood where Harding Fine Arts is located and pursuing a $12.9 million capital campaign for building repairs.

I’d be tempted to support capital funding for charters, as well as traditional public schools, if those charters were held accountable for end-of-the-year metrics as opposed to October numbers. Perhaps we should consider funding capital projects for charters that don’t just begin the year with a low-income rate of 70 percent, but also end the year with such a student population.

Such a compromise seems unlikely, however. Attrition is an unavoidable feature of too many charters, and I wouldn’t consider Himes’ suggestion before the current virtual accountability system is fixed. The Legislature should then start to hold charter school sponsors accountable. Until those challenges are accepted and addressed, however, why should we open another can of worms?