Three recent press reports—from Nevada, Chicago, Illinois, and Massachusetts—document how expansion of charter schools is undermining the public schools that serve the majority of students including those with the greatest needs. The same theory of charter school expansion operates all three locations—competition, innovation, and growing opportunity for students who have been left behind. Instead all three recent articles describe diversion of desperately needed public tax dollars, destabilization of public schools, lack of regulation, and all sorts of ways that students with the greatest needs get left farther behind.
Here is the conclusion of a new report by Hugh Jackson for Nevada Public Radio on Nevada’s fiscal outlay for unregulated charter schools: (T)oday’s charter industry… reflects a chronic civic defeatism. Echoing the perverse social Darwinism of more than a century ago, faith in free-market education is a surrender to pessimism… Some people are doomed to fail, that’s just the way it is, so best to segregate those with promise, the achievers, in separate schools. As for everyone else, well, too bad for them… (C)aptitalizing on politically correct disdain for public institutions and a consumer culture’s visceral embrace of ‘choice,’ and truly impressed by the steady flow of public money through the public-education revenue stream, the private sector is working feverishly… to drain more and more money from that stream.”
In Nevada, enrollment in poorly regulated charter schools has grown by 21 percent over last year—grown by 133 percent over the past five years: “Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately operated. The result is a charter-school industry, encompassing what can be a dizzying array of arrangements and contracts between the schools, their unelected boards, state agencies, property developers, for-profit management companies, nonprofit arms of private companies, hedge funds and investment firms, and myriad consultants, contractors and education-industry vendors. Virtually every dollar everyone in the charter-school industry makes is provided by the taxpaying public.” Lack of regulation—room for all sorts of fraud—and $254 million diverted this year from the state’s public schools.
The biggest recipient of all this largess in Nevada is Academica. While, in theory, citizens come together to recruit a board of directors and launch an innovative, neighborhood-based educational experiment, “Academica is not only relied upon every step of the way, but the instigator. No doubt some charter schools are the result of concerned citizens and parents banding together, from the bottom up, as it were, to fill what they perceive to be a particular educational niche or void. With a new Academica school, the far more likely scenario involves a for-profit company making market-based decisions on location, timing, demographics, and such, not unlike Walmart determining where to open a new Sam’s Club. Upon determining that a new project pencils out, Academica finds the statutorily requisite citizen’s charter school board… Enter the investment funds. To be eligible for state funding to build or improve a charter school facility the school has to have been opened for three years. So it needs financing to bridge the gap…. The Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund is one of several for-profit investment funds in the nation that have attracted capital from a) foundations, institutional investors and individuals who are ‘for’ education; and b) hedge funds, investment banks and other investors drawn to generous federal tax credits on income earned from the public through charter-school profits. Started by Southern California financier Bobby Turner in partnership with long-time Las Vegas charter-school champion Andre Agassi, Turner-Agassi has provided bridge financing for at least four Academica building projects in Nevada and is doing the same for most of Academica’s aggressive expansion in the state.”
Then there is the report from Kate Grossman for The Atlantic that documents how school choice in Chicago has “hollowed out” Chicago’s open-enrollment neighborhood high schools. Austin High School on Chicago’s West Side has only “391 students, including just 57 freshmen across three academies in a building meant for nearly 1700. Austin is one of 35 public high schools that are well under half full. Ten schools aren’t even a quarter full. These schools face a set of woes that make a turnaround all but impossible. A citywide school-choice system leaves these mostly open-enrollment schools with some of Chicago’s most challenging and low-achieving students. Deeply strained budgets fueled by declining enrollment hurt staffing levels, teacher retention, and programming… Chicago has a poor track record of delivering for its weakest students but this latest chapter, arguably an inevitable and predictable consequence of school choice, may be a new low. Students who need the healthiest and most stable schools are segregated in some of the most unstable institutions….”
“School type defines the pecking order in Chicago’s choice system. Open-enrollment neighborhood schools are at the bottom, especially in low-income communities. All rising ninth graders are assigned to one of these neighborhood schools based on their home address, but any student can bypass by applying elsewhere. The options include lottery-based charter schools, selective schools that admit based on test scores, neighborhood schools outside a student’s community with space, or magnet and specialty schools that draw citywide.” ” ‘The school-choice policy idea in Chicago creates a stratified, classist society,’ argues Rita Raichoudhuri, the principal of Wells High School, a neighborhood school that has struggled with declining enrollment despite improvements in the school’s dropout, graduation, and attendance rates in recent years. ‘ The cream of the crop is together at selective enrollment schools. The second tier, with involved families, is at charters and magnets. Then the ‘rejects’ end up in neighborhood high schools.'”
In Chicago, a school’s decline is pretty much guaranteed by a per-pupil budget system: “The lower a school’s enrollment, the smaller the school’s budget… Tilden, for example, lost nearly $200,000 this year because of enrollment declines and other budget cuts in a city grappling with huge deficits… Wells, on the city’s gentrifying Near Northwest Side, lost $450,000 this year when enrollment dropped by 100 students and it has lost more than $3 million over the last three years because of additional enrollment declines, citywide budget cuts and the end of a federal turnaround grant.” Chicago is part of the Portfolio School Reform network of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which promotes the idea that school choice will deliver, “A great school for every child in every neighborhood.” Instead in cities like Chicago, where the overall student population is declining, the result is the attraction of the most able and most aggressive students and their parent advocates to the schools that appear most desirable and the segregation of very poor and disabled students, along with their English-learning peers who also need expensive services that charter schools are less likely to provide, in what quickly become public schools of last resort.
Finally, in the spring issue of The American Prospect, Gabrielle Gurley profiles the fight going on this year in Massachusetts, where public school officials and supporters are organizing to keep a referendum–launched by charter school supporters to lift the cap on the expansion of charter schools—off the November ballot. Gurley, who outlines the financial impact of potential growth of charter schools, warns: “As Massachusetts lawmakers study their options, what is clear is that lifting the cap on charter schools without new revenues (for public schools), or even tinkering with the current tuition-reimbursement formula, is a recipe for further fiscal distress in the school districts.” “(M)unicipal and school officials’ dissatisfaction with charter-school funding is also rooted in frustration with a deeper systemic flaw. The formula that determines how much state education aid flows to school districts has not been updated since 1993, so aid has failed to keep pace with major cost drivers like employee health care and special education.”
Currently in Massachusetts, which has 81 charter schools (and has not yet reached the current cap that permits 120 charters statewide), “When a student leaves a school district to attend a charter, that district transfers a tuition payment based on a district’s average per-student expenditure. To mitigate the financial impact of this transfer, a district receives a 100 percent tuition reimbursement from the state the first year but only 25 percent in each of the next five years… A school district’s payments to these schools are designed to not exceed 9 percent of its net expenditures. In the state’s poorest-performing districts, the amount cannot exceed 18 percent. But that could change with the ballot initiative, and Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, is a big supporter of charter-school expansion.”
Gurley quotes researcher Christopher Lubienski: “Low-income students who attend charters ‘tend to be the advantaged of the disadvantaged. The poorest kids and the kids with the most costly special needs still go to public schools.” “A 2015 Massachusetts Association of School Committees study found that although charters do enroll some challenging groups like English-language learners, they are not doing so at the same rates as traditional public schools. Bay State charters also continue to under-enroll poor students, while children with more profound types of disabilities were also under-enrolled or not enrolled at all.” “Thus the irony: Charters were intended as a gateway to better public education for the poor. In practice, some of them, especially outside large cities, end up as taxpayer-funded, quasi-private schools for the middle class.”
Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh is described as a supporter of charter schools, but, according to Gurley, Walsh “conceded that under the ballot question, the proposed expansion of up to 12 (charter) schools each year would have severe repercussions on the municipal and the school system budgets. ‘If you give us more charter schools without giving us the resources to pay for them, can you imagine what the budget problems will be in the next three, four, five, six, seven years? It will be daunting.”