Charter Schools are Labs for Education Solutions

August 2, 2009 8:48PM

Tori Stewart urges state lawmakers to expand charter school opportunities for Tennessee students. This article originally appeared in the Tennessean. by Tori Stewart “You get what you pay for.” Common sense reminds us of the truth of this proverb. A cheap cut of meat won’t taste as good as an expensive one, a traveling fair won’t give you the same thrills as Disney World, and on an airline, a first-class seat will help prevent the leg cramps you might get in economy. Throughout our daily lives, we use cost as a measure of value. The more costly something is, generally the more value we expect. We use this approach in problem solving, too. If a cheap knife rusts quickly, we buy a more expensive one that will last longer. Our solutions are heavily framed upon the assumption that, even if we cannot currently afford it, more money will fix the problem. Unfortunately, this logic does not apply to Tennessee’s public schools. The opposite is actually true: More money equals less value. Take the school systems in the state’s four largest counties: Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton and Knox. When you compare the amount of money these systems spend per pupil with their ACT scores, you will be shocked to learn that as one goes up, the other goes down. The average ACT composite score in the state is 20.7; the average per pupil expenditure is roughly $8,300. Three of the systems spent more than the average: Hamilton, $9,000; Davidson, $10,200; and Memphis City (Shelby), $10,400. Yet, the higher the numbers went, the poorer their students did. Memphis students’ scores were more than 3 points lower than the state average, at 17.5. Hamilton and Davidson scores were 19.7 and 19.1, respectively. Knox and Shelby county schools provide an even more remarkable contrast. Knox spent only $8,200 per student and Shelby only $7,900 — both less than the state average. Yet, their students averaged almost a 22 on the ACT! How is it that the large Tennessee counties that spend more get worse results, while the ones that spend less score higher? It’s time for Tennesseans to wake up to the fact that the translation from money to value isn’t working in the public education system. That conversion will only be fixed by identifying which elements in the education system produce value and which only drain it away. Trial and error needs to take place to figure out what went wrong. Charter schools provide the laboratory for experiments to take place. These individualized schools are exempt from certain rules and can find out what works and what doesn’t. Far from threatening public schools, charters allow public schools to reap the knowledge of what succeeded and what didn’t, which can ultimately allow us to truly get what we paid for: an education. Tori Stewart is a student at Bryan College and a policy intern at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to free-market solutions to public-policy problems