Public schools suffer when students leave
I like writing this column. The discipline of exploring complex ideas in 750 words or less helps me think and, I hope, gives the reader access to those thoughts in an engaging and informative way. I am grateful to the Heights Observer for providing me with a deadline and platform for sorting through issues that I find significant to my passion for democracy and the crucial role of the common good in a humane society.
Readers have been wonderful. They give me positive feedback at the grocery store or the swimming pool or when I’m walking my dog. Last winter, a complete stranger stopped to talk to me after whisking past on her skis. Feedback from teachers is often the most moving. They thank me for describing how the damage caused by testing has motivated several of them to leave their beloved profession.
Last month I received the first feedback I have received over the phone. The caller disagreed with me. I am grateful that she was friendly and respectful as she shared her views about vouchers. It was a valuable reminder that we don’t all see the same reality the same way, and that’s the way it is supposed to be.
Two of her comments stood out because her position was so different from mine. She did not think it was harmful to public schools when families opt out of them, and it would be hard for the public schools, she thought, if a large number of students were to return to them.
I do not question a parent’s right to opt out of public education, but as a public-education advocate, I think it is a real loss when they do. What bothers me is that more students are leaving public schools because Ohio law supports them in attending charter schools or using publicly funded vouchers for private or parochial schools. It harms public education, and it is expensive.
Public schools exist because education is the cornerstone of our democracy. It is in the public’s interest for everyone to be educated. As the social divide grows, there are few places where we all are guaranteed access, and welcomed. The public school is one such space. As schools develop children and future citizens they also build community. A taxpayer-funded public system is a substantive way in which we take responsibility for each other and unite in common purpose. It is great stuff!
Every time a family leaves our public schools, I feel pain. It is one less child to learn with and to learn from, one less family that can provide energy and concern and help the school succeed, one less friend to turn to, one less voice to stand up for all the other children and the schools and the individuals who work in them. Public schools are there for the whole community. Each loss makes it less inclusive, less representative, and weaker.
Losing students is expensive. When students leave using a voucher or to attend a charter school, they are financed out of the per-student state funding allocation to the school district they are leaving. That leaves less money for students who remain in the district and shifts more of the funding burden to local levies.
Reduced enrollment undercuts efficiency. The needs for a superintendent, treasurer, personnel process, academic planning and leadership, communications, transportation and building maintenance don’t go away when enrollment declines. Efficient use of facilities and teachers depend on operating at capacity.
Fewer kids can be expensive, and more kids do not necessarily increase the need for local funds! If 1,000 kids came back into our schools today from all grade levels and all parts of the community, they could be absorbed into the system with only limited new costs. Each would generate about $2,500 in state funds. If they are returning from a charter school or used a voucher, they would bring at least $4,500 in state funds. Because most kids would be absorbed into existing classrooms, they would increase overall efficiency and generate only slightly increased costs due to special needs, additional buses or the hiring of a few more teachers.
It would also mean 1,000 more people with a direct interest in the success of schools, 1,000 more threads in the web of community, 1,000 more perspectives and people to value and learn from, and 1,000 more reasons to operate neighborhood schools.
In public schools, every participant adds value. Every loss is real. That’s why Ohio needs to stop spending precious public funds to underwrite an exodus from a prized community institution.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.