Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Loretta Haugh's Competing Interests

Akron School Board member Loretta Haugh has a new gig; working for Charter School organizers Summit Academy Management. The BJ story hashed over the arguments about whether this constitutes a conflict of interest, with the weight of opinion appearing to say that it is not. I'll admit to wavering at first. But I believe her duties to the school board conflict with her duties to her new employer because the two are in competition.

It's true that Ms. Haugh's new employment does not conflict with her duties as a school board member in the classic sense. The standard-issue conflicts for government officials are either about self-dealing or some entanglement with a business that the official is charged with regulating. The first of these would not apply unless APS were to hire Summit Academy -- unlikely in the foreseeable furture. The second doesn't apply because the School Board doesn't regulate charter schools. You already knew that because nobody regulates charter schools.

So this is not the sort of conflict that traditionally gets government officials in trouble. But the charter school movement is all about challenging the traditional role of government and subjecting it to competition. Charter proponents -- and education privatization proponents in general -- advocate turning education into a competitive market. They talk about running schools like businesses. Setting aside the questions about whether any of this is a good idea, it surely militates in favor of reframing the debate. The question is not whether Haugh's arrangement violates government ethics, but whether it violates business ethics.

I won't profess to be a business ethicist, but verifying that working for two entities in market competition is a conflict of interests takes only a basic Google search. Summit Academy's niche is educating kids with ADHD and Asperger Syndrome. What happens if APS considers opening a new boutique school for this population? Or expand existing programs in existing schools? What happens if they decide to aggessively market to parents of ADHD or Asperger kids? What happens if nothing like this ever gets on the agenda because Loretta Haugh is able to kill it?

Summit may argue that it is not a business in competition but is a nonprofit. The distinction is significant, but not sufficient. Summit and APS each have vested interests in their continued existence and educational mission. Gaining or losing students is crucial to that continued existence. The peculiar economics of education are such that the marginal cost of adding one more student is extemely low (as opposed to the marginal cost of one more class of 15 or so students, which is the cost of an additional teacher). As a result, adding one more student to Summit Academy is $5000-7000 in free money. Losing one more APS student costs the school district a similar amount, without comensurate savings.

The irony, then -- and it's the sort of PoMo, double-backflip with a twist irony that would make an Ally McBeal writer tingle -- is that the conflict is generated by the new paradigm advocated by charter school proponents. Charter proponents would probably rush in to defend Ms. Haugh, but they should be the first to cry foul.

3 comments:

MAS said...

"What happens if APS considers opening a new boutique school for this population? Or expand existing programs in existing schools?"

Not much chance of that. This is a standard argument from public schools to charter schools with special programs: "we don't need you here. We can do that ourselves." Fact is they don't and won't. They have other priorities for their money (besides kids.) Plus, their big bureaucracies can't handle this population as efficiently.

"What happens if nothing like this ever gets on the agenda because Loretta Haugh is able to kill it?"

You of all people should know she's have to recuse herself from any such vote.

"As a result, adding one more student to Summit Academy is $5000-7000 in free money. Losing one more APS student costs the school district a similar amount, without comensurate savings."

Schools like Summit have 2 teachers for 15 kids. It cost way more for them to deliver services than APS, and they can lose kids too. What's more, they have to prove and count their kids EVERY MONTH to get the student funding. Public schools count ONCE A YEAR, to get their funding. If they never see the kids again, they still get their money. The concept of "Commensurate savings" is ridiculous.

Pho said...

mas:

Thank you for your comments. You are the first to give me a real argument in comments, so thanks for the brain exercise. Sorry for the delay in responding.

As to your first point, APS has boutique programs. They have Barrett Academy for severly behaviorally handicapped, Alternative Academy for dropouts, Stewart Africicentric School, Digital Academy and Miller South for arts. They have also set up the language program at Essex and a number of tech magnet programs. If there is a major urban system in Ohio that is likely to set up a school to directly compete with a Summit school, it is Akron.

Your second point is true, that rhetorical question I through out was not terribly effective in terms of argumentation. I should have said that 1) There may well be some siginificant business that Haugh would have to abstain from and 2) if there isn't, the perception of conflict of interest would be enough to undermine confidence in her and the Board.

I don't see your argument on the third point, aside from your apparent irritation at the disparity in reporting requirements between traditional publics and charters. Whether Summit's per-class costs are higher, the fact remains that the cost of adding one more student into an open slot is negligible. If Summit has a class with 12 students and two teachers, adding three students would add something like $25-30,000 at little cost. And until they lose enough students to fire a teacher, the traditional public school loses that money without any reduction in costs. When you are talking about the competition between charters and traditionals, you have to acknowledge this particularity of the economics.

Anonymous said...

As the parent of a "high functioning" child on the autistic spectrum I don't give a rat's a$$ about who gets the money. The public schools don't have their act together yet for these kids, period.

I want a decent placement for my child, NOW. If public can't provide it, they SHOULD lose the money.

My child will be grown before the school district figures out what to do about this epedimic.

I'm grateful there are places like Summit Academy in the meantime.