School Choice Week was celebrated all over the country last week. Such staged “events” are always congratulatory, which is why it is a good idea to think about what the supporters of school choice forgot to mention.
School choice is the term we use to define an education marketplace in which parents no longer must send their children to the assigned public school but can instead choose a publicly funded charter school or receive a tax-generated voucher to pay tuition at a parochial or private school. So, how’s school choice really going?
In December, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University and Gary Miron of Western Michigan University released a policy brief that warned: “A substantial share of public expenditure intended for the delivery of direct educational services to children is being extracted inadvertently or intentionally for personal or business financial gain…. Public assets are being unnecessarily transferred to private hands, at public expense, risking the future provision of ‘public’ education. Charter school operators are growing… self-serving private entities built on funds derived from lucrative management fees and rent extraction… Current disclosure requirements make it unlikely that any related legal violations… are not realized until clever investigative reporting, whistleblowers or litigation brings them to light.” Professors Baker and Miron conclude that the charter marketplace is enriching charter operators at public expense and that inadequate regulation makes it hard to identify and prosecute violations of the public interest.
Here is what the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) described in an October report, Charter School Black Hole: “The system insulates each element from accountability for what actually happens….” The federal government has relinquished oversight to the states, which have then turned over regulation to charter school authorizers in what CMD calls, “a classic example of ‘industry capture’ of the agencies charged with oversight by the industry they are tasked with overseeing.” “This is due in part to the way laws governing charters have been built by proponents, favoring ‘flexibility over rules’… Charters are policed—if they are policed much at all—mainly by proponents…” “Theoretically, the charters are held ‘accountable’ to charter authorizers. However, enforcement of standards by charter authorizers appears lax in many instances….” The application process for federal charter school funding has never been public; hearings are neither held to share who is making the federal proposal nor to examine what is being proposed. No one has the opportunity to testify publicly on the quality of the application being made by a state agency or a charter management company before the federal grant application is submitted or the grant awarded. “Without calling for broader public input, federal charter school bureaucrats accepted the word of state charter proponents that their charter programs had adequate controls for performance against fraud and waste.”
In September, as part of an in-depth investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer, reporters Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs interviewed Michael Masch, former chief financial officer for the School District of Philadelphia, who is reported to have warned, “The boom in charter expansion could reach a point of implosion, as the demand to finance new school buildings is derived mainly by the transfer of students out of traditional district schools. ‘There are no new students coming into the Philadelphia school district and yet, we’re building all these new schools… At some point, you’re going to have to start closing schools… Whether it’s a plan or a strategy or an unintended consequence, the reality is that you have brand-new buildings for charters while district schools are falling apart. You’re starving one system to fund another.'”
Finally, in June, in a letter to then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools charged the U.S. Department of Education with failure to regulate the charter schools to which the Department of Education had made grants since 2009 totaling $1.7 billion. The letter cited formal audits from 2010 and 2012 in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.” The OIG audits were described as concluding that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools called for a moratorium on the awarding of federal funds to charter schools until federal oversight is improved. So far, however, neither has federal oversight been improved nor has a moratorium on the launch of new charters been imposed by the Department.
Despite these and many other warnings, as we begin 2016 politicians remain ideologically committed to school choice and critics of school choice continue to expose examples of the failure of oversight. Just four examples:
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Education Commissioner David Hespe plan to honor their ideological commitment to school choice by expanding the number of charter school seats across New Jersey from 46,000 to 50,000. The Newark Star-Ledger reports: “The state will also try to encourage the development of more charter schools to serve at-risk students, including those with autism….” That would probably be important, as a study by Mark Weber and Julia Sass Rubin at Rutgers in the fall of 2014 found that while New Jersey’s charters are located primarily in urban communities, they, “educate: a significantly smaller percentage of economically disadvantaged students… one-sixth the percentage of Limited English Proficient students as their host districts, (and) a smaller percentage of Hispanic students (28% vs. 47%) and a higher percentage of Black students (62% vs 40%) than their host districts… Charter schools across the state do not enroll as many students with special education needs as their host districts (9% vs. 15%). The classified students who enroll in charter schools also tend to have less costly education disabilities. This leaves their host districts with the task of educating both higher percentages of classified students and of students with the most costly needs.”
And, in California, the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s Maureen Magee reported last week that, “The San Diego district attorney[s office arraigned (Steve) Van Zant on January 15 on a felony conflict-of-interest charge….” At the same time Van Zant was a school superintendent in Mountain Empire School District and later Sausalito Marin City School District, he launched a shady consulting business and charter empire, EdHive, in partnership with his wife, an interior designer: “The Union-Tribune has tracked a charter empire built by Van Zant by taking advantage of what some call a shortcoming in state law that gives districts a financial incentive to place charters in other school districts. By placing charters outside its boundaries, a district can raise new funds—up to 3 percent of a charter’s revenue—without any threat to enrollment or state attendance funds. More than 80 out-of-district charters have been approved in San Diego County, the vast majority of which were authorized by small East County districts—several with help from Van Zant….”
The Rochester, New York Democrat and Chronicle just published an in-depth investigation of questionable financial dealings of the Education Success Network of charter schools: “A charter elementary school leases space from its landlord, a holding company, and, in turn, sub-leases to a tutoring company. It contracts with an outside group for its administrative services. A charitable foundation with real estate interests of its own infuses cash, doling out benevolences from more than $8 million in assets. In reality, the money isn’t changing hands as much as changing pockets. All those entities and others are part of the Education Success Network, controlled by a group of local education reform advocates with influential business and political connections. Its affiliates have taken in millions of taxpayer dollars with little oversight… ESN’s inherently tangled interests… are an example of the concerns many educators have with the charter school model, in which private entities are entrusted with taxpayer money to do the public work of teaching children—work that, in Discovery’s case has led to little demonstrable improvement by students.”
Finally, there is the state with the ultimate school choice—Nevada. Here is how the Education Law Center described Nevada’s school voucher program when it was enacted last summer: “The new law requires the State Treasurer to transfer public school funding to an ESA (Education Savings Account) for any student who leaves Nevada’s public schools… The ESA law requires the ‘statewide average basic support per pupil’ — $5,100 per student and $5,710 for low-income and students with disabilities—be deposited into each ESA from local district budgets, a process that will divert, over time, substantial resources from the public schools.” In other words any child can get a voucher from his or her public school district to go to a private or parochial school. It is a plan that will break public school districts and potentially the state budget. Here is some good recent news: Nevada vouchers were ruled unconstitutional by a lower court: “Judge James Wilson of the First Judicial District Court of Nevada (Carson City) has ruled in Lopez v. Schwartz that the state’s school voucher law (SB302) enacted last summer by the Legislature violates two provisions of the Nevada Constitution. Judge Wilson issued a preliminary injunction to prevent the State from implementing the law.” This story has not ended, however. Everyone expects the case to be appealed to a higher court.
Supporters of school choice celebrated last week. Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, describes what many of the rest of us worry about: “Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged…. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens… and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 312)