Tom reminds us that charter schools may not be the best investment our state can make in supporting public education

There is an old riddle that has befuddled people for decades. Three men check into a hotel. They're going to share a room so each guy gives the hotel clerk $10 for a total of $30. (That alone will tell you just how old this riddle is.)

A bit later, the clerk decides that the charge for the room should only be $25. He sends a bellboy up to the room with a $5 refund. After a brief discussion, the men agree to take back $1 each and give the bellboy a $2 tip. That means that each man paid $9 ($10 minus the $1 refund). Three times $9 = $27, plus the $2 that the bellboy got is $29. What happened to the other dollar?

This thing is so insidious that, even after you explain the answer to people, some are still wondering what happened to the other dollar. It actually is just a clever little misdirection, an all-purpose trick that can be used for good or evil.

Here in Arizona, the misdirection employed by a state Legislature that is strangling the life out of the state's public schools involves a dubious focus on "how much money is making it to the classroom." That can mean either classroom instruction (teachers' salaries) or the combination of classroom instruction and classroom supplies. As mentioned last week, real public schools often spend a lot on Student Support Services, including on the educating of special needs students. Charter schools act like the old guy who keeps his porch light off on Halloween, hoping that the kids will just go away.

If a real public school tried to deny certain services that are mandated by the state or the federal government, people would lose their jobs and the lawsuits would start flying. However, if a charter school denies these same services, the claim is made that it is being done so in the interest of streamlining the operation. Thus, the discrepancy between spending on Student Support Services and the resultant misplaced reliance on the "money in the classroom" stat.

Early on in Gov. Ducey's Doug-tatorship, a school official in Mesa dared to speak out about the misleading nature of the statistic and the Koch Brothers crapped out a giant cerrote of dark money that sent the school official scurrying for cover.

The government is required to release data on how much money is spent on (and by) schools. I found the data for the school year ending in 2012. It includes some interesting facts. For example:

•Public schools in Pima County are often maligned for high administrative costs. However, Amphitheater spends $636 on administrative costs per student in the district. (They also spend another $639 per student on Student Support Services.) Other local districts are also in that range. Marana spends $693; Sahuarita is at $625; and Sunnyside spends $627. Everybody's whipping boy, the Tucson Unified School District is not horrible at $827.

The reason that's not horrible is that BASIS—the absolute sweetheart of the anti-public school crowd and the fake-ass tax watchdogs at the Goldwater (Conflict of Interest) Institute—spends a whopping $2,030 in administration costs per student. Nobody else, public or charter, comes close to that figure.

•Oh yeah, while other schools spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, on important Student Support Services, Tucson BASIS spent $0.

•And it's not just in Pima County. The BASIS school in Flagstaff spent $2,096 in administration costs per student (and $0 on Student Support Services), again leaving the rest of the competition in the dust. It is supposed to be about competition, right?

•Since some charters don't spend any money on Student Support Services, I looked at the ratio of the money spent on administration versus that spent on classroom instruction. Amphi spends 6.5 times as much on teachers as it does on administration. For Sunnyside, it's 6.3. At BASIS, it's 1.57. At BASIS Flagstaff, it's 1.47.

That's right. While the percentage of money spent on administration compared to that spent on teachers is generally in the range of 16 to 22 percent, at BASIS, it's around 67 percent!

Nice gig if you can get it (and you have the political friends and clout to cover your backside.)

One of the most puzzling things about BASIS is why the school needs a million dollars worth of administration in the first place. You've got this highly motivated group of parents, and kids who are often more mature than their peers at other schools. (BASIS, shall we say, strongly encourages new students to repeat a grade.) The students themselves are also academically motivated, so there's no need for an assistant principal for discipline.

The school offers a fairly one-dimensional experience. I'm sure that a lot of the kids can play an instrument or chess or even soccer, but there are no sports teams so you don't need coaches or an athletic director. They don't have a director of Special Ed because they don't take Special-Ed students. So where does that million bucks go? We're not sure, because the way the law is written, they can take all that taxpayer money and then not tell us how it's spent. This is in the best interest of ... I'm not sure in whose best interest it is, but it's certainly not in the best interest of Arizona's taxpayers.

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