I have three things to say about this.
Harmony Public Schools appears to have cracked the code.
The charter school system, with 38 campuses across Texas and more than 23,000 students, regularly produces students who excel at math, science and engineering. And they do it on a shoestring.
Harmony’s five schools in Austin spent $7,923 per student in 2010-11 on operating expenses, almost $1,600 less than the Austin school district and about $800 less than the statewide average.
Harmony’s schools have also consistently beat the rest of the state on standardized test scores even while educating about the same proportion of students considered at risk of dropping out.
Few other charter schools operate as efficiently and effectively as Harmony. But the ability of some charter schools to seemingly do more with less could become a key issue in the mammoth school finance lawsuit that is set for trial in October.
A 2011 study done for the Texas Education Agency found that charter schools spent 15 percent less on operations than did comparable schools in traditional districts. Most of that difference came from hiring less experienced teachers and paying them less.
Lindsay Gustafson of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association said paying teachers less and stripping them of job protections would drive good teachers out of the classroom. Teacher turnover was twice as high in charter schools as in traditional public schools, according to the 2011 TEA study.
“We’re interested in quality, not just what’s cheap,” Gustafson said.
Soner Tarim, Harmony’s chief executive officer, said his schools are methodical about getting the most out of every employee, giving each person multiple jobs to ensure a leaner administrative operation.
One key to Harmony’s low-budget education is hiring teachers — some of whom come from Turkey — with little experience and paying them far less. The pay difference was about $11,000 less than the state average of $48,600 in 2010, though Tarim said teachers have since received a pay raise. Although charter school teachers are not required to be certified by the state, more than 70 percent of Harmony’s teachers are certified.
Harmony’s hiring practices and its ties to Turkey have generated controversy, including an investigation by a committee in the Texas House. House General Investigating Committee Chairman Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, said the investigation has been concluded and its findings turned over to other agencies looking into charter schools.
Tarim said Harmony’s teachers are willing to work for less because of the innovative, safe and supportive environment that produces results. Other savings come from the schools’ minimal spending on athletics, transportation, guidance counseling and social work.
Harmony also must dedicate relatively little to serving students with disabilities and those learning English. Only 6 percent of its program budget went to educating students with disabilities last year compared to 21 percent for the Austin school district. Austin also committed about 17 percent of its dollars to bilingual students while Harmony spent just 1.6 percent.
1. The thought of being able to pay for his tax cuts by slashing teacher salaries is just ambrosia for Dan Patrick, isn’t it? If you listen carefully, you can actually hear him salivate.
2. On a more serious note, while the story doesn’t get into how or why Harmony is successful getting students to perform well, if the secret to their success at doing it efficiently is being able to convince teachers capable of achieving that performance to do so for 25% less than the industry average salary, I don’t know how well that model can be replicated. I can’t think of too many industries where getting above average results for below average pay is a successful long-term strategy. In an era of stagnant wages and a declining middle class, it’s indecent to be talking about it as a way to keep property taxes at artificially low rates.
3. It may be that there isn’t much of anything that can be learned from Harmony’s experience and applied to the public schools. Sometimes it’s just the right combination of people that makes a place special, and you just can’t make it happen the same way anywhere else. By all means, we should study them and the other high-performing charters and try to learn from their experiences, but what works for them may not work for any other school. There’s never just one right way to do something.