Friday, March 28, 2014

County education money: Whose is it?

A sign of the changing education landscape:  For the first time in 13 budget cycles I've covered,  Mecklenburg County commissioners sat down to talk about charter schools.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  which briefed the commissioners,  has posted that report online. It includes a lot of interesting items for anyone who cares about the issue,  including a map of where Mecklenburg's charter students live,  a list of which schools they attend and a demographic comparison between CMS and the students attending Mecklenburg's charter schools.

The presentation got me thinking about the way I've always reported on county funding as an allocation for CMS.  There's good reason for that.  The superintendent,  top administrators and school board spend weeks crafting a request,  which commissioners scrutinize and vote on.  While everyone knows that there's a pass-through to charters,  it's CMS that gets the scrutiny, praise and heat.

Given the work that CMS puts into getting that allocation,  it's easy to understand why officials and supporters might resent about being forced to give up some of their money  --  especially when that pass-along is expected to top $30 million next year.

But if you look at is as the county's allocation for public education,  it makes more sense.  If CMS projections materialize,  about 157,000 Mecklenburg students will enroll in public schools next year.  CMS will get about 91 percent of them, and 91 percent of the county money.  The charters that serve the other 9 percent will divvy up that portion.

The big question is whether that's a smart way to spend local money. CMS board member Eric Davis took issue with my recent post critiquing his comparison of CMS and charter spending projections.  I said it was a false premise to assume that the per-pupil share passed along to charters meant anything about the actual cost of operating those charters.  Davis said I missed his point:

While there are many charter schools that are well performing, my comments were solely based on financial efficiency of charter schools versus CMS.

CMS is better positioned to absorb another 2300 students within our existing network of 160 schools than opening 10 charter schools, each of which will need a new principal and other support staff. That staff already exists in CMS.

Moreover, CMS per pupil funding continues to go down, dropping over the past 5 years by 7.2% in state funding and 5.4% in county funding. Since charter schools receive the same per pupil funding as CMS, they offer no possibility of reducing per pupil expenditure when another charter school opens. Hence, charter schools are a less efficient way to educate an expanding student population than the existing system.

In a time when we hear that our state does not have money for public education due to other issues such as increased health costs, it would seem that our decisions would be guided by how to improve the efficiency of the existing system. Charter schools, while they provide choice, do so in a more expensive way than increasing choice within the existing system.

Davis might be right  --  if CMS were,  in fact,  planning to absorb all the new students into its existing schools.  But CMS is doing exactly what Davis and Superintendent Heath Morrison have criticized charters for doing:  Creating small schools.  They're counting on the state to approve $922,000 in the 2014-15 budget to launch the UNCC Early College High  (100 students),  Levine Middle College High and Harper Middle College High (69 students who have so far applied for next year's debut on a combined campus).  That's in addition to the local and state money CMS would normally spend for those students,  and the county money to set up mobile classrooms.

CMS is also creating Hawthorne Health Sciences, a magnet high school with 87 students enrolled so far,  and a new Montessori magnet in Huntersville with 92 enrolled so far.

The state requires a minimum of 65 students in each charter school.  Even the small charters generally try to open with more than that.  And most plan to add grades and build enrollment in coming years,  exactly as CMS plans to do with its small start-ups.

Bottom line:  Large schools generally have lower per-pupil costs than small ones,  whether they're charters or CMS.  Schools with low poverty and few kids with special needs are cheaper than those at the other end of the spectrum,  regardless of who's running them.

And CMS is opening small schools for exactly the same reason the state is authorizing charters:  They believe it's the right thing for students.

When I pressed Morrison about the per-pupil cost of his small schools,  he noted the success of existing ones such as Cato Middle College High.  "How do you put a price tag on the overall quality?"  he asked.

That's a question that bears thoughtful exploration,  for charter and district schools alike. 


Anonymous said...

Aren't both "public" schools?

Anonymous said...

Charters should make their own request.

Wiley Coyote said...

"How do you put a price tag on the overall quality?" he asked.

When CMS actually reaches quality, then maybe Heath will understand his query.

The money is the money is the money.

CMS is facing the fact their brand is declining because of education alternatives.

At some point in the not too distant future, we could see a decline in CMS enrollment and then we will see them deal with cutting staff and closing schools.

As Ann points out with her analogy of CMS' small schools v. charters, CMS has no room to talk about using funds and facilities efficiently.

Again, MIE and Coulwood added to the list of wasteful spending and dumb ideas.

Anonymous said...

Wiley, watch the 6th grade enrollment numbers at MIE next fall. Adding 6th grade is not stemming the tide of students heading to charters and magnet schools. Many 5th grade parents and students aren't excited about the change and aren't planning on staying for middle school.

Anonymous said...

anon 10:00...

Two STEM schools 8 blocks apart, both will be middle schools...MIE k-8 Coulwood 6-8...

Adding many mobiles to MIE on 16 acres of land while Coulwood sits on over 30 acres with athletic facilities that MIE will have to use.

...and Davis has the audacity to talk about efficiency.

Wiley Coyote

Shamash said...

"How do you put a price tag on the overall quality?" he asked.

That's a question that bears thoughtful exploration, for charter and district schools alike.


More likely, that is an evasive answer from a polished politician with something to hide.

I'm sure he thinks he's pretty slick for coming up with that little parry to your legitimate question.

Anonymous said...

People want smaller class sizes and schools. Their children perform better in smaller classes and smaller, more intimate schools where the children are not just numbers.

Anonymous said...

2:35 you are correct. But should someone not question Heath about his Opportunity Culture that will result in larger class sizes? It is happening now!

Shamash said...

There are plenty of studies on optimum sizes of both school districts and individual school sizes.

The costs follow a U-shaped curve for both district and school sizes.

CMS is WAY PAST the optimum district size.

Very few (if any) studies report schools with less than 250 students as being cost effective.

Most are in the low thousands depending on what sort of "effectiveness" you're looking for in a school.

Anonymous said...

I don't think school size is as important as district size. The super districts are to inflexible. They are constantly creating positions, paperwork, rules and procedures. I have taught in two super districts and both had issues. 4-5 elementary, 1-2 middle schools and one High school. Each district should be a town or municipality. NOT a county. Unless there is a very under populated county. Evan then I think students and towns would be better served in a one room schoolhouse then a county. Each county will have a REAL vocational school that kids can go to from the different towns. The towns will compete under this model. Under funded or low income areas can get the state and federal support. I don't think it will help but at least the feds/state burocrats will only be able to screw up some areas. Principles of each school should directly report to and be accountable to a school board. A board of elected officials from that town. Not some giant county where loyalty is divided. Bigger is not always better. Consolidation does not always produce a better product and can stifle new ideas and competition.

Anonymous said...

Before moving to Charlotte I taught at a college prep magnet in NC that typically graduated around 75 in each senior class. I taught all of the Junior English courses and an elective class. It was a prescribed dress code school and it was also a lovely environment in which to work...I knew the names of just about every kid in the building and there was a sense of a common mission. There were no athletics and students could participate in their home school's programs if desired...we had the State Champ in wrestling one year... a now PRO NFL player and the arts programs were outstanding. If I had not moved, I know I would still be teaching there as most of the people I taught with are still there as well.

Upon moving to Charlotte I have taught in 2 CMS high schools, a middle school, and a charter school. In the first high school, I was assaulted and the admin didn't really care...they wanted it to go fact, with a dislocated shoulder and a bloody lip, I had to make my way to my classroom and give one offered to take my class, etc. and it was like it didn't happen...the girl in question (group actually) had to assault someone as part of a gang requirement...with my backpack on coming into the building for the morning, I looked much like a student. I was asked if I would like to transfer schools and I eagerly said yes. My years in middle school were lovely, I was at a good middle school and even though I had never thought of teaching middle grades, it turned out to be a great place to be...However, Gorman's policies and the frozen pay scale prompted a move outside the system.

I was a sold a charter by an admin there that wanted to hire me very badly that in reality didn't exist and could, would, and will never exist...the school wanted it to exist and I worked with some lovely people who are still my friends, but administrative chaos, lack of organization and clear direction, lax standards for discipline and lack of support for teachers was not what I as looking for in a school. This charter still exists, but I would never, ever send my child or recommend to another to send their child to this school...there are teachers there who try to include rigor, etc., but the vast majority are content being able to work in a place where they can get by with the minimum...teachers consistently have pay and benefit cuts...there is no direction at that institution. Because the State and local LEAs don't have any real oversight it continues and monies are poured into a place that in reality isn't doing its job for students in our community..there are MANY, MANY more charters like the one I experienced than there are those who ARE doing a great Lake Norman Charter or Davidson, etc. both with fine reputations for excellence.

I am now in a place where I am quite happy, I feel valued (at least at my school and by my colleagues...the State of NC and its policies notwithstanding). I am in a place where discipline is enforced, the school day runs smoothly, there are consistent policies in place, and working with my students is a joy. I am lucky...and yet...CMS says our school needs FEWER teachers next year than this year, even though we run some core courses 35-40+ per class. If monies weren't being diverted to every fly by night charter that wants to pop up the PUBLIC SCHOOLS of our city would have better options on some level. Instead, the State grants just about any group with a "I believe the children are our future" tagline the permission to open a is INSULTING...teaching, running a quality school is HARD WORK and it requires specialized knowledge...the path to hell is paved with good intentions and some of these "charter schools" are ultimately a detriment than a help to the students whose parents are foolish enough to think the grass is greener...I know...I thought the grass would be greener and it wasn't...

Anonymous said...

I think the question with magnets that ultimately focus only on conventional academic success (Berry, Cato, etc) is the same question with many successful charter schools.
Are they building academic quality, or are they merely siphoning it from the schools most of these students have come from?

Unknown said...


One of the great advantages of the open meeting laws is anyone can sit in on Board committee meetings. Such was the case last year when a committee meeting turned to Charters and specifically Coulwood and Mountain Island.

There was concern among all committee members that the new Charter would be a luring choice for parents. They noted Coulwood was just an average school. That Mountain Island was a great school but had parents who were always searching for the best for their children. The conclusion was that neither school could not stand the Charter competition.

The point of the discussion was not academic excellence but preventing a raid on the student population. That alone is enough to appreciate the Charter law.

I get the feeling our Board of Education has gotten half the message being sent by Raleigh. They got the part about having to be better. They have not gotten the part about being cost efficient.

Bolyn McClung

Larry said...

What is more interesting is just which students in CMS get more and which get less, especially if you are concerned about what Charter Schools get.

But I guess we do not worry about that. Or the fact that lack of spending in say the suburban schools have ham stringed so many educational careers of so many students due to lack of the board, CMS or even the observer.

Anonymous said...

The day of reckoning for CMS has just started. Suburban parents know how they are taken advantage of by CMS and its inequity of per pupil spending. They know CMS loses when they have to pay the charter school the correct portion of tax money that should be following that student rather than the discriminatory portion now demanded by the illiterate minorities.

CMS has played games for too long with pupil assignment, per pupil spending and lack of strong magnet and academic programs in the suburban schools. Most successes in suburban schools are in spite of CMS and its policies. However, Mecklenburg County refuses to recognize it is losing the best and cheapest opportunities to create a strong workforce.

Sadly the teachers are the pawns in all of this. I was mot saddened o read of 8:25's story of being assaulted and why she or another teacher did not call the police, the real police, get looked at by Medic and the fire department and get charges filed against the students. Teachers are the asset of the school system. The students are not.

Anonymous said...

If you were to break down Ann's post to its logical arguments, your summary would look something like this:
-A Charlotte politician recently made a highly dubious argument that per-pupil spending is lower at CMS than at charter schools.
-Ann, as the reporter, called him on it, asking him why his argument made no sense.
-The politician ignored Ann's question and instead answered Ann's question with another question.
-Instead of pointing out the fraudulent nature of the politician's original statement on per-pupil funding, Ann chose to praise him for the thoughtful nature of his evasive answer.

Wiley Coyote said...


I'm not sure what charter you're referring to nor what part of the charter law had to do with the MIE/Coulwood scenario.

Anyone with half a brain (which using your definition all of the BOE members fit the half of a brain description since they only "got it half right") can see looking at the proximity between Coulwood and MIE plus toss Paw Creek into the mix, along with the footprints each school sits on, could come to the conclusion doing what they did was a bad idea.

I am for magnet programs, but managed just like anything else - efficiently/monetarily.

Coulwood was supposed to take overcrowding off of another school that has a huge wait list yet the other school STILL has a wait list.

I would disallow those kids who are wait listed and whose parents badly want ther child to go to a STEM school yet refuse to send them to Coulwood.

The fact is, CMS should have never made MIE the STEM, instead put it at Coulwood.

Or, if Coulwood can't recruit enough to make it a STEM school, keep Paw Creek and MIE elementary schools, Coulwood a 6-8 Middle school and if student populations continue to decline?

Close a school.

Of course, CMS will NEVER close a school and sell the property - ever, regardless of whether it makes sense or not.

Shamash said...

Anon 8:25am.

I really don't understand how a teacher could work with a really bad school (charter or not) and not blow the whistle.

Why allow these schools to continue to exist if they are a waste of money.


Is there no one who could do anything about such corruption?

After all, it IS corruption.

Just as much as what our former mayor was accused of.

Unknown said...


All across American urban school district administrators are short changing affluent mostly well-behaved and academically performing students so that students in the most needy of classrooms have an improved chance to succeed. In Mecklenburg that program is called Weighted Student Staffing (WSS.) Charters are destroying the financial underpinning of WSS. It happens like this.

Raleigh gives equal amounts of money for each student. Let’s say that number is $6500. This doesn’t include the County money; but it could.

CMS has looked at its academically challenged students. Sorted them by ZIPCODES. And decided that they need up to 30% more classroom funding. In other words there is a price for smaller classrooms, more teachers and special materials. That group is currently 50% of the 140,000 student population.

Based on this theoretical assumption there are now two per student allocations.

50% get $8,400 per student.
50% get $4,600 per student.

There is no need to discuss student results in this. The point is the affect of Charters on CMS’ budget when one of its student jumps ship.

Every time a student leaves CMS for a Charter, CMS potentially loses $1950 that could have been supplanted to a needy ZIPCODE. The sum may be high but the point is the affect of Charters is to rob CMS of its ability to fund WSS.

The predictions are dire for WSS funding. More WSS students. More Charters opening. Expenses and funding headed in opposite directions. If CMS where a business this would be classic shrinking margins.

The most critical question for the 2014-2015 budget is can CMS continue to fund WSS at 30%. Several years ago during the budget crisis it was almost cut it to 25% but the County came through with $25M for five important programs. WSS was one.

Last year was the first year of the lower credits needed for graduation. That helps the money part of the equation but does it by cutting classroom time. That is a boneheaded formula.

Many are counting on L.I.F.T. I know the first year report was low but I tend to see that what is being done in the early grades will drastically reduce the need for WSS in the future. However, as long as CMS continues looking at where a student lives or family income, instead of actual individual student achievement, there will be no cost savings at all.

Dr. Morrison believes better learning happens when there is better understanding among students and teachers. Handled with great sensitivity, this is the ultimate method to lower the cost of education. I did not support the earlier attempt at what is called Cultural Competency. I would support a revised plan…and not just for the sake of saving dollars.

Bolyn McClung

Anonymous said...

Bolyn wrote "All across American urban school district administrators are short changing affluent mostly well-behaved and academically performing students so that students in the most needy of classrooms have an improved chance to succeed."

He is absolutely right, yet we continually hear that high poverty children and children of color are being drastically shortchanged by public education. Much of the national media loves this theory, as it is a convenient to explain away the achievement gap. Not too many years ago our local media (especially the editorial page of this paper) espoused the same line--wealthy suburban schools receiving a much larger share of the pie, so of course those kids were doing better. However, at least here, the truth eventually won out over political correctness and we now have much more accurate reporting about this issue. Unfortunately the damage done to community trust by years of misinformation is not easily repaired.

Anonymous said...

The simple way to look at it ($$ amounts are for example only): A suburban student gets accepted at a charter school. The per student funding at the student's CMS home school is $4500. The average per student funding in CMS is $7500. CMS is required to pay the charter school the average per student funding of $7500. That student now costs CMS $3000 more than if he had attended his CMS school. CMS denied for years that this was true, but numbers don't lie. WSS means the suburban kids cost less to educate when they are in CMS, but more when they leave for a charter.

Anonymous said...

10:12, that's not how it works. The per-pupil funding at any school, CMS or charter, is a mix of state, county, federal and often grant/donation money. You can see in the state report cards (link in right rail) that it varies quite a bit by charters. CMS has not recently released a per-pupil calculation for its schools, but those numbers also varied, in the ways I've described here.

The CMS pass-along, or payment, to charters is only county money and it's a straight per-pupil share of the county allotment (around $2,300). It's the same regardless of how much the receiving charter school actually spends and regardless of actual spending at that student's assigned CMS school.

CMS might indeed "lose money" if it gives up students who would get less than the fixed share at their home schools -- and might do well when charters pick up students who are more expensive to educate. But the state and federal money aren't part of the CMS pass-along.

Larry said...

So we can all agree that Charters get a lot less.

And they either do a great job or a mediocre job, either way it is much better than the job at the majority of CMS schools.

Glad we finally agree on something.

Shamash said...

Looking at the slides(under NC Charter School Flexibility) the main thing that concerns me is that "NO" under "Competetive Contract Bidding Transparency".

What FOOL put that in place?

It's just asking for trouble.

With all the corruption in government WHY would ANYONE allow this?

Anonymous said...

Okay Shamash,
Even though I'm out of the country, I must defend the assaulted teacher who spoke the truth in volumes. One can only experience the fear that permeates the CMS hierarchy top to bottom from downtown to custodians. The former teacher who was advised to quit in his best interests by CMS just needed a great education lawyer to try and clear his name and receive a substantial settlement. The harassment of the late NWSA principal and cover up of prior communications with no admissions is yet another sordid tale from the usual HR playbook. Unfortunately so very,very, typical.

Shamash said...

Anon 1:20pm.

Someone has to feel the pain of their wrongdoing or they will never improve.

If I had been physically assaulted on the job and treated like that, I would have involved law enforcement and a little "bad" publicity for sure.

And then I'd start looking for that NEW job.

Because you KNOW you're toast at the old one (unless you manage to get the management in cuffs).

But at least you get your pound of their flesh as compensation.

(As I'm fairly sure someone close to our former mayor has done...)

People need to go public with these "issues", not help cover them up.

SOME parents send their kids to those schools expecting a safe environment, not a gangsta's paradise.

They are also harmed.

Shamash said...

Again, if nobody (especially teachers and administrators who KNOW what's happening) stands up to the stupidity and corruption in schools, it will just continue.

This sort of behavior (especially from teachers who know) just underscores my views that the teaching "profession" isn't very professional and that teachers are part of the problem in our schools.


At some point you have to decide whether you stand for SOMETHING besides a paycheck.

Unlike decades ago, there are plenty of ways to get your voice heard today.

You don't have to own a newspaper.

Start a list like "Angie's List".

Name names. At least of schools, if not of individuals.

Why say things like:

"monies are poured into a place that in reality isn't doing its job for students in our community..there are MANY, MANY more charters like the one I experienced"


At least SOME parents might want to know to ask around a bit more about THOSE particular schools.

Of course, we all know that one opinion may not be worth much, but over time, patterns could emerge.

It's a bit like those cab companies who are just now coming out of the woodwork about requested "donations" to Cannon to get business.

Where were they when this was going on? Why wait until someone else acts to blow your whistle, too?

I hope they were talking to the FBI about the corruption (which is what I would have done), but I suspect they weren't.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you are saying when you made this statement.

"Looking at the slides(under NC Charter School Flexibility) the main thing that concerns me is that "NO" under "Competetive Contract Bidding Transparency"."

This is where companies such as Charter Schools USA have such a huge advantage and is turnign edcuation into a capitalist venture. Charter schools USA is only one component of this corporation. There are three components, all three are owned by one person, Jonathon Hage. The North Carolina Charter Educational Foundation, is the marketing arm, Charter schools USa is the facilitating branch and then they bring in their own designer and builder, Red Apple LLC.
Also, not sure where people are getting their numbers, but Charters get a more than $2,300 per student from school systems.

Shamash said...

Anon 10:53am.

I don't believe people are just being naïve when they put rules like this in place.

I think they do it with the intent of making money from corruption one way or the other, either directly or through "contributions" of various sorts from those who benefit from the loopholes.

Of course, there are people of all sorts just looking for these kinds of loopholes to take more than their share of loot and are willing to help keep those who give them the lucky breaks a share of their takings.

Anonymous said...

It seems rather disengenious to me for people to have a problem with the privitization of public education, that someone might make a buck, when we see huge amounts of waste and fraud the way it is run now. And we, as a taxpaying public, have no teeth to put an end to it.

Shamash said...

Anon 1:05pm

I certainly don't have a problem with someone making a buck off education. Especially if they can deliver the goods.

I just want it done as honestly as possible. Rigged bidding on contracts or contracts to captive companies of school owners is not the way to do this.

If anything, I had hoped the "privatization" move could have been designed with honesty in mind from the ground up.

Instead of the usual shenanigans we've come to expect from government-run "industry".

As taxpayers we do have teeth, but it usually takes a scandal to get any bite.

Anonymous said...

Of course Eric Davis would question your information. As a CMS insider they want all the money not part of it. They hate sharing the pot with Charters it keeps them a little accountable. The Chamber does not like it either , because the charters produce they don't have to play chamber games. They care about education not who is lining whose pockets. Ann , try to write more articles were you use facts not CMS PR junkets and it will force more accountability. Imagine?

Anonymous said...

2:13, yeah and we get results now with the ridiculous amount spent per pupil on over 50% of CMS students now?!?!?!

At least charters spend a lot less per pupil. And I know a significant group of students are getting an education CMS refuses to deliver.

Shamash said...

Anon 7:48pm

I didn't say that CMS was better or more cost effective.

But I don't think we should replace "crappy" with "less crappy" just because it is cheaper.

That's what Detroit tried with automobiles (except the "cheaper" part) and it didn't work too well once the Japanese stepped up their game.

I still want a higher standard and not just lower costs.