This past weekend a friend, realizing some of my concerns about charter schools, said, “Look. You should go visit my friend’s charter school. He is doing a terrific job. You shouldn’t write off charter schools.”
Let me take this opportunity to go on record: I realize there are a whole range of charter schools including some that do a fine job of providing opportunities for their students. There are quality charter schools.
But I also know that public school policy must be systemic. Society can never balance the needs of each individual child and the rights of all children one charter school at a time. Nor can we possibly achieve justice by creating a set of “escapes from the public schools,” charter school by charter school. There is a problem of scale for one thing. Public schools in America educate 50 million children. The more promising alternative is to set about improving the public schools that struggle. Struggling public schools are usually located in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, and they are almost always underfunded by their state legislatures.
Let me outline more specifically my concerns about relying on charters for school reform. My first concern is about access. Charter schools serve about 6 percent of our students. Quality charter schools that provide excellent education are doing so for a tiny percentage of the children who need opportunity. The great advantage of public education is that it is systemic. No matter where you live—whatever state, city, suburb, small town, or rural area—you are promised a public school for your child. Yes public schools have reflected the racism and economic inequality of the society in which they are set. But as public institutions, they have been amenable to improvement by those seeking to make our society more just.
Charter schools are not so amenable to reform… which raises my second concern: public ownership, the right of the public to regulate the institutions that depend upon tax dollars. The public has the capacity to improve institutions that are publicly owned, publicly managed, and publicly regulated. But charter schools, while they often call themselves “public charter schools,” are public only to the degree that they receive public dollars to operate. In legal cases when charter schools have been sued, their attorneys have successfully argued that because they are private institutions, they are not publicly accountable.
As institutions funded primarily with tax dollars, charter schools ought to be accountable for protecting the children being educated at public expense, and they should be accountable for careful stewardship of the public dollars being spent. Yet in too many places public oversight is missing. While the federal government has been providing huge incentives for states to expand the number of charter schools through programs like Race to the Top, the federal government has no capacity to regulate charter schools. Regulations must come from the fifty state legislatures, which are affected by politics and the gifts of political supporters. My state, Ohio, is notorious for poor oversight of charter schools. Here is the text of an e-mail blast this morning from William Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding:
“Charter schools sponsor, St. Aloysius Orphanage of Cincinnati, approved eight new charter schools for this school year. St. Aloysius contracted with Charter School Specialists of Pickerington to manage whatever responsibility the official sponsor has under law. These eight charter schools, named Olympus, applied for funding based on 1,600 students. Ohio Department of Education approved funding (deducted from public school district budgets) for 700 students rather than 1,600. These charter schools received $1.17 million of school districts’ money as of the end of October. (It would be interesting to know how much of the $1.17 million went to St Aloysius and Charter School Specialists of Pickerington.) All eight charter schools, with a combined enrollment of 128 students, have closed. Three of the eight schools had a total of 15 students for which these charter schools received $29,200 per student for two months of instruction or the equivalent of over $130,000 per student per school year. The spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) was asked by a Dispatch reporter if any of the funds could be recovered. The ODE response was that he didn’t know if any individual could be held financially responsible for any overpayment.” The details of Phillis’ comment are confirmed by the Columbus Dispatch.
For many of us across Ohio, for years there has been a sense of mystery about St. Aloysius Orphanage. How did this former orphanage get so much power from the legislature to authorize charter schools all across the state? Whoever ensured that organizations like St. Aloysius Orphanage got approved as Ohio’s charter school authorizers continues to ensure that the same favored authorizers continue to operate.
The Washington Post recently examined incoming New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s education platform as a challenge to the education policies of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg. DeBlasio has expressed concern about public stewardship of charter schools. One of the things DeBlasio has promised is to begin charging rent when well-heeled charter schools occupy public school buildings. DeBlasio has flatly stated that “programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent.” Earlier this fall Success Academy charters, which have attracted additional state grants as well as private money, led a protest across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest DeBlasio’s proposal that such charters begin paying rent. Eva Moskowitz, a well-connected former member of the NYC city council, is being paid $475,000 to run Success Academy’s charter schools. According to The Washington Post, that is “more than twice the salary of the city’s schools chancellor.”