As in most of rural Alabama, times are not easy in Winston County. Two-thirds of Hiller’s 274 students receive free-reduced lunches. It is not easy running a school on an ever-shrinking budget.
I asked Hiller what she would do if she had money for her school. “I would run the air-conditioning and heat when they need to be run,” she said. “But we don’t because we’re trying to save on our utility bill. And I would buy English textbooks.” New books are a rarity in many schools these days because the state education budget only allows $15 per student for books that cost at least $65 each.
The charter school debate this year was largely philosophical, seldom about money. No one mentioned that the Legislative Fiscal Office said it would take a minimum of $900,000 to set up a new bureaucracy to handle all the details involved with approving and regulating charter schools in Alabama.
No one mentioned that at $65 each, you could buy 13,846 textbooks with $900,000. Or that you could pay the entire Winston County school system bill for electricity, water and sewer, gas and garbage service that was $747,785 in 2011 (a decrease of $50,413 from the year before).
But I think about dollars and cents all the time. That’s natural, I suppose, considering Daddy lived through the Great Depression and Grandpa was a Covington County sharecropper. Consequently, being thrifty is part of my DNA.
Other numbers involved in the charter discussion didn’t make a lot of sense, either.
For example, the legislation said there would be only 20 charter schools in the state. The National Charter School Research Project shows the average charter has 301 students. So that’s 6,020 students in Alabama charters. Stanford University research shows that 17 percent of charters perform above average, while 37 percent perform worse than regular public schools.
So, Alabama would have 1,023 students in above-average charter schools and 2,227 in below-average schools. In addition, the legislation allowed a charter school “authorizer” to collect up to 3 percent of a school’s funding for additional administrative costs. The fiscal note put this at $157 per student. That would be another $945,140 (6,020 multiplied times $157).
In all, that’s $1,845,140 in administrative expense to have 1,023 kids in above-average schools. That’s $1,845,140 that would never make it to a classroom, buy textbooks or pay utility bills.
Another number I kept thinking about was six. As in six lobbyists registered with the Alabama Ethics Commission working on behalf of StudentsFirst, an organization headquartered in Sacramento, Calif. One was a contract lobbyist from Montgomery, one was from Birmingham and the other four had a Sacramento address.
This organization was started by Michelle Rhee, who was chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system from 2007 to 2010 and is one of the more controversial figures in education these days. According to the StudentsFirst website, “Under her stewardship, D.C. schools experienced increases in student achievement, a rise in graduation rates ….”
However, there is no mention of the fact that a New York firm has been hired for $236,000 to investigate allegations of cheating on standardized tests in D.C. schools while Rhee was chancellor. Or that only 58.6 percent of all Washington graduates in the class of 2011 got their diplomas in four years.
But being less than forthright seems to be standard procedure for Rhee’s organization, as it will not reveal where it gets its funding. I attended a meeting conducted by one of the StudentsFirst lobbyists in Montgomery. The crowd of about 20 was told that the governor and state Legislature invited them to Alabama — yet, one of Gov. Robert Bentley’s staff members told me he did not invite them. We were also told that the organization has 17,000 Alabama members, which seems odd considering few, if any, showed up for the meeting.
Daddy was right. It is important to be able to pay your bills before you go to the toy store and wish for something you can’t afford.
At this point in time, when we’ve once again whacked the education budget, the numbers simply do not justify charter schools. And if you ask the good people of Alabama to choose between more bureaucrats or more textbooks, I think we all know the answer.
As for why folks in California are so interested in what we do in Alabama schools, I have not a clue. But then, I doubt any of them have a clue where Arley is, either.
Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, a look at 10 high-performing, high-poverty rural schools. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.