Pondering Chartering: Getting the incentives right for the good of the whole!

I had a fun chat with EduShyster the other day about my recent report on charter school business practices. It was during the course of that conversation that I articulated some of my major concerns about how we are currently approaching “chartering” as public policy, and, for that matter, academic researchers of chartering as public policy. Here are a few points that I think are key takeaways from my recent ramblings.

First, I discuss the fact that there are “better” and “worse” actors in the present system. But a major problem is that there’s little pressure for anyone to do anything about the “worse” actors (or “bad apples” as Edushyster called them). I explained:

It’s to the benefit of the good guys to have the bad guys there because it makes them look better. When you’re KIPP, you look that much better when White Hat does something awful.

Further, because we (including policy researchers) are obsessed with what I refer to as “pissing match” studies of whether charter schools on average “outperform” matched, district, or schools of “lotteried out” kids, it’s in the interest of charter  operators to gain every edge they can over the “competition” (or the “comparison” group, or “counterfactual”). In other words, it’s NOT in their interest to support strengthening the “competition.”  I explained:

It’s just like the way that they continually argue for boosting their own subsidy, even if they know full well it’s at the expense of the district.

The problem is that there’s no incentive under the current policy structure for them to want the district schools to do better. And there’s every incentive for them not to. That’s what’s wrong with this system. Even when they’re good folks and trying to do a good thing, there’s still that undercurrent.

It’s time for all of us to rethink how we frame this conversation to get the incentives right!



Published by schoolfinance101

Bruce Baker is an Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. From 1997 to 2008 he was a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. He is lead author with Preston Green (Penn State University) and Craig Richards (Teachers College, Columbia University) of Financing Education Systems, a graduate level textbook on school finance policy published by Merrill/Prentice-Hall. Professor Baker has written a multitude of peer reviewed research articles on state school finance policy, teacher labor markets, school leadership labor markets and higher education finance and policy. His recent work has focused on measuring cost variations associated with schooling contexts and student population characteristics, including ways to better design state school finance policies and local district allocation formulas (including Weighted Student Funding) for better meeting the needs of students. Baker, along with Preston Green of Penn State University are co-authors of the chapter on Conceptions of Equity in the recently released Handbook of Research Education Finance and Policy, and co-authors of the chapter on the Politics of Education Finance in the Handbook of Education Politics and Policy and co-authors of the chapter on School Finance in the Handbook of Education Policy of the American Educational Research Association. Professor Baker has also consulted for state legislatures, boards of education and other organizations on education policy and school finance issues and has testified in state school finance litigation in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona. He is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, a group of academic researchers who conduct technical reviews of publicly released think tank reports on education policy issues.

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