Yes! Knowledgeable Charter Supporter Worries that Charter School Growth is Flat-Lining

President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have been down in Florida visiting a Catholic school where 291 of the school’s 340 students use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to pay all or part of their tuition. And on Friday, Diane Ravitch reported on her blog that Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools chain has just rented Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center in New York City for her schools’ annual test-prep rally. What Eva is paying to rent the hall isn’t known, although POLITICO New York reported that Success Academies spent $734,000 on their 2015 test-prep rally.

All this hype about privatization makes it seem that those of us who depend on our local public schools—the families of 90 percent of American children who are enrolled in public schools and the rest of us who count on these institutions as the anchors of our neighborhoods and our communities—have cause for despair. And despite that President Donald Trump has told us that public schools across America are “flush with cash,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities informs us that, “At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008.”

But here is a startling piece of good news from Robin Lake, one of the nation’s biggest supporters of the expansion of charter schools and the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Lake is worried. She and her colleagues have concluded that charter school growth is flat-lining.

Lake introduces her new article published in Education Next, a journal that endorses corporate school reform, with this warning: “A recently released annual update from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools included a surprising fact: a mere 329 charter schools opened across the country in the 2016-2017 school year. In no year since the Alliance began tracking new charter openings has the total number of new schools been so low… (I)t appears that it was the early 2000s when we last saw fewer than 350 new charter schools open. When you take closures into consideration, the total additional growth of charter schools last year was just over 100 schools, or nearly 2 percent.”  Lake continues: “Mike DeArmond and I looked back five years and see that, in general, the rate of charter growth has pretty consistently held at 6 to 8 percent until the 2014-2015 school ear, when the rate slowed to around 4 percent.  In 2015-2016, it slowed further to just barely over 2 percent, and then down to the current 1.8 percent.  This year is not an anomaly.  So what is going on?”

Lake offers a range of explanations: “I have a strong suspicion that the slowdown has a lot to do with the maturation of the movement…. Another explanation is that the barriers to starting a new charter school have been increasing. We hear reports that charter authorizers are getting much choosier and often now expect applicants to have a facility secured before the application is approved. This weeds out less-prepared applicants but also makes it increasingly expensive for well-prepared applicants to start a school… What’s clear, though is that the charter movement really needs to rethink its dominant assumption that the only factor limiting growth is access to start-up funds. Continued growth will require much more authentic and sophisticated engagement in local and state politics.”

Lake is not merely tracing a trend. She is clear that the trend alarms her, a strong supporter of charter school growth: “(S)tates may need to take a look at the financial and other incentives embedded in their laws and policies. An economist might say that the supply of charter schools is simply meeting the logical limit of the current funding and political environment. If we want supply to change, we need to change that environment.” Lake concludes that making those adjustments may not even be possible: “Things could start rebounding, but it seems to me that the days of easy, unfettered charter growth may be gone, at least for the near future. It’s time for honest conversations about what that means, especially given the demand and need for more high-quality choices. Clearly, asking funders to just keep bankrolling charter expansion is not enough.”

These are encouraging words for those of us, unlike Lake, who worry about the seeming impossibility of ever effectively regulating charter schools in a state legislative political system awash with money.  Encouraging words for those of us who worry about the outrageous tax dollar ripoffs of the online schools—including the Walton Foundation that has withdrawn support for the online sector after research reports funded by the Walton Foundation itself, reports that confirmed that online schools are not educating their students.

These are encouraging words for reporters and bloggers who have doggedly exposed one example after another of charter schools pushing out vulnerable students or closing suddenly and abandoned their students or paying high salaries to administrators and low salaries to teachers. Encouraging words for those who have pointed out that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has repeatedly warned that the Department’s own Charter Schools Program has not provided oversight of the charter school startup grants it has made to states.

These are encouraging words for the citizens of Massachusetts who voted overwhelmingly last November to defeat Question 2, that would have lifted the cap on the authorization of new charter schools.  Encouraging words as well for the voters of Georgia, who turned down Governor Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity District that would have replaced public schools with charters in the poorest urban neighborhoods. Encouraging words for families in Detroit and Chicago, where rapid expansion of charter schools has undermined the public schools but where, for example in Chicago, the Dyett Hunger Strike brought these concerns into the public consciousness.

Dogged advocacy and reporting have alerted the public to problems in an education sector that was designed to be unregulated—to lack what charter proponents call the bureaucratic straightjacket of public oversight.  Little by little the public has begun to recognize that public regulation is necessary to protect the rights of students and to impose some kind of stewardship of public dollars.

In a study released at the end of November, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University challenged policy makers to judge charter schools and other privatized alternatives not merely by the performance of their own students but by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to function as parasites on their host school systems: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Despite the rhetoric of President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Robin Lake reports a slowing down of the expansion of charter schools. Those of us who believe strongly in the mission of public education must keep on keeping up the pressure.

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