COE’s Brittany Larkin national leader in education finance theory and practice

January 11, 2016

Dr. Brittany Larkin, an assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership and Technology, is one of just ten American scholars to be recognized for distinguished research in education finance. She will be presented with an award at the National Education Finance Conference on February 10, 2016, at the Hyatt Regency Riverfront in Jacksonville, Florida.

Dr. Brittany Larkin headshotLarkin will also present three separate papers at the conference, all focused in some way on her research specialty: education finance theory and practice, and the equity and adequacy of such practice.

“Much of the country, and certainly Alabama, is regressive in the way that education is funded,” she said. “In other words, students who need the most resources get the least amount of money for schools. A big part of my research is to develop alternative funding formulas. At the conference I will present a funding formula I have developed for Alabama.”

Larkin’s master’s degree is in special education, which gives rise to her concern about equity and adequacy in education funding.

“It’s important to me to see that ‘the least of these’ are not shortchanged simply because they do not have strong political influence.”

The rise of charter schools

Closely related to Larkin’s focus on education finance is the rapidly-growing influence of charter schools, vouchers, and Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs) in the national education conversation. She states that there is no evidence that charter schools are any better or worse than traditional schools.

“The difference is that the money goes to a different place, and there is often a lack of accountability as to how that money is spent,” she said. “Another unfortunate aspect of the charter school movement is that teachers in traditional public schools are being vilified. That is a big part of the marketing being done by those behind charter schools. My research shows that it is very important for charter school organizers and supporters to paint traditional schools in a bad light.”

Such stark marketing messages are deceiving, Larkin said. Most public schools can already apply for the kind of autonomy that characterizes charter schools, and make adjustments year by year as conditions change. She feels strongly that school leaders should apply for these waivers as there really is no ‘one size fits all’ model in education.

“I am focused on conducting research that drives legislation to be drafted that affects the broad spectrum of education,” she said. “As it pertains to funding, I advocate writing laws that promote accountability and equity. The majority of all charter school litigation across the country centers around funding. Charter schools are suing states saying they do not receive enough funding, and public schools say that charter schools are draining money away from traditional school districts.”

The takeaway, Larkin believes, is that more care needs to be taken in how charter school contracts are written.

“The theory behind charter schools is excellent,” Larkin explained. “Such schools would be established in districts that have kids who are falling through the cracks. These charter schools would receive the per-pupil allocations for those students they serve and hire specialized teachers and develop curricula that would address these shortcomings. This of course helps the school district because these failing students now have someplace to go and it helps the kids make huge gains. So in theory, these are great partnerships and we have many good examples of charters working well within a traditional school district, including one in nearby Newnan, Georgia.”

Greed and cronyism

The problem comes with greed and cronyism. All too often, for-profit management companies come into a district and open up cookie-cutter charters that do not meet specialized needs. This hurts a district because students with specialized needs are not being helped.

“The bottom line is that money follows the student,” Larkin said. “Whether the charter school is good or bad, it takes money from the school district. We have discussed good partnerships, but all too often the for-profits come in and their goal is to make money.  One way they do this is to buy land or a building and receive tax breaks for depreciation of the buildings, and then rent their building to the school. This is on top of the management company billing the school for their services and paying themselves to be the independent board members. Once you scrape those fees off the top of the base allocation, there’s really not much money left to educate students, so the per-pupil expenditure on instruction is often less than the original school district.”

Larkin said most of the large for-profit charter school management companies have little background in education. There are several of these national companies, such as White Hat, which has been involved in controversial funding lawsuits with school districts in Ohio.

School choice in Alabama

The large umbrella of school choice includes both charter schools and Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs).

“Both charter schools and SGOs go under the mantle of school choice,” Larkin explained. “The idea that was originally put forth in Alabama was the students in failing school districts could use an SGO to go to a better school district. In reality, school choice and access to different schools are often limited by geography, transportation, and a family’s financial resources. And many of these schools, whether private academies or public schools in wealthy suburbs, have their own ways of seeing who actually gets into these schools. In Alabama, SGOs are the big issue before us now. We don’t have charter schools yet, although that law has been written. We’ll probably see our first charter schools in 2017.”

The Alabama Accountability Act

Scholarship Granting Organizations, or SGOs, were established in Alabama in 2013 as part of the controversial Alabama Accountability Act (AAA). These SGOs are funded through private contributions, which are tax deductible. For example, if a wealthy donor contributes $25,000 to an SGO, that amount can be deducted from the donor’s taxes. That $25,000 would otherwise have gone to the state’s Education Trust Fund (ETF). The net result is that tax dollars are being circumvented from the ETF and are going instead to SGOs.

“The money and influence behind these SGOs is well known,” Larkin said. “The most prominent SGO in Alabama, the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund (AOSF), is headed by former Governor Bob Riley. The AOSF’s parent company is Florida-based Step Up For Students, Inc. (SUFS). It has been reported that SUFS has over $360 million in net assets, and cleared nearly $50 million in net profit in 2014 alone. The group contributes heavily to political races, and is closely aligned with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which develops ‘model legislation’ funded primarily by corporate partners.”

The AAA originally permitted a $25 million cap on SGO donations. In June that amount was raised to $30 million. The amended law also declares that scholarships can now go to students attending private schools. The 18 Alabama senators who voted in favor of the legislation received over $1 million in campaign donations from PACS and organizations supporting charter schools and vouchers.

Susceptibility to corruption

“Research and experience shows that systems such as these are inherently susceptible to corruption,” Larkin said. “Typically these organizations are headed by the wealthy and powerful political elite. This is the real drawback in what could be an excellent vehicle to help our students.”

For Larkin, it’s all about real accountability.

“I am truly an advocate for school choice, including charter schools and certain voucher programs, but such programs must come with accountability,” she said. “Too many of these operations have large and obvious avenues for personal and corporate profit, as opposed to focusing on the unique needs of a particular school. In fact, hedge funds have even been set up that are betting on pending legislation promoting these policies. In other words, people are building their financial portfolios on these for-profit management companies that depend on state legislatures doing their bidding. The most widely-read commentator on this trend is Diane Ravitch, especially her book Reign of Error.”

Larkin is currently attending meetings of the Charter School Commissioners in Montgomery as they develop standards for our state’s forthcoming charter legislation. She hopes to work with State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice and the commissioners to share her research on the topic.

“Generally, I am advocating to avoid any sort of structure in our charter legislation that would lend itself to corruption or personal profit,” she said. “A strong school leader from a charter school can be a great thing, but there must also be a strong partnership with the local school district. When charter schools open under independent management groups, one must ask whether that organization is still an entity of the state. The answer to that question will drive first the constitutionality of independent groups, as seen recently in Washington State, and second, the accountability of those funds.  Private entities should not receive taxpayer money without being accountable for how that money is spent. That’s the bottom line.”