Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Gary Palmer: The Real costs of the legislature killing the charter school bill

  Once again the Democrat majority that controls the Alabama State Legislature did what they so often do -- fail the parents and children of Alabama. The latest abuse of their legislative majority is the killing of a bill that would allow charter schools in Alabama.

  Charter schools are independent public schools allowed to operate with much the same flexibility as private schools. Charter schools can set objectives and hire the teachers and staff necessary to achieve those objectives. They do not have the restrictions placed on public schools when it comes to firing incompetent staff or teachers. In addition, if charter schools fail to educate adequately, they can be closed.

  Although they are under state law and are usually authorized by a state or local government agency or college, they have much greater independence in establishing budgets and academic programs. Charter schools can be a tremendous benefit to communities with failing schools where the majority of students come from highly disadvantaged backgrounds. And that is what makes the killing of the charter school bill so disappointing.

  According to a report from Johns Hopkins University, from 2005 to 2007 there were at least 86 Alabama high schools with graduation rates of 60 percent or less; 28 high schools had graduation rates of 50 percent or less; and 10 had graduation rates below 40 percent, including two high schools that had graduation rates of 31.5 percent and 32.7 percent. Children who are forced to attend these schools have no other options. It is in these areas where charter schools have the greatest potential to improve outcomes.

  Opponents, namely Paul Hubbert and the education employees union, claim that charter schools do not produce better outcomes than public schools. But a 2009 study of New York City charter schools by Dr. Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford University found that charter schools can play a very significant role in closing the achievement gap between highly disadvantaged students and those from more affluent backgrounds. The students in Dr. Hoxby’s study are predominantly minority and low-income, with well over half of the students coming from single-parent households.

  According to the report, “on average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten to eight would close about 86 percent of the achievement gap in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English.” The study also found that a student’s chances of graduating from high school increased by seven percent for each year they were in the school.

  While the Legislature may have killed the chance to get more than $180 million from the “Race to the Top” program, the greater loss for Alabama is in the potential economic and financial impact that could be achieved from a charter school program.

  According to the Schott Foundation, the cost to Alabamians for the achievement gap between black students and white students is $454 million. The foundation report estimated that the potential return from closing this gap included a potential net increase in state revenue of $279 million. These estimates are based on a Columbia University study by Henry M. Levin, Ph.D. Dr. Levin projected that over a lifetime, each additional Alabama high school graduate would yield a public benefit of $209,000 in higher government revenues and lower government spending.

  Other studies give more evidence of the potential benefit of closing the achievement gap and lowering the dropout rate. A report from the Alliance for Excellent Education found that the lost lifetime earnings for the 25,000 Alabama students who did not graduate from high school in 2009 totals over $6.5 billion and will add $254 million to the state’s health care costs.

  In addition, more than $2.1 billion would be added to Alabama’s economy if minority students graduated at the same rate as white students. Finally, Alabama’s economy would see a combination of savings and additional revenue of $125 million each year in reduced crime costs and increased personal earnings if the male high school graduation rate increased by just 5 percent.

  These projections are what the supporters of charter schools should focus on because these numbers reflect the real potential of charter schools. But there is another way to look at these projections.

  The loss of the potential increase in personal earnings, reduction in state spending and increase in state revenues could be viewed as the costs to the people of Alabama for having our State Legislature run by Paul Hubbert and the education employees union. It is the cost of the Alabama State Legislature once again throwing the parents and children of this state under a bus driven by a powerful special interest.

  About the author: Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.  

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