What’s happening here? The leaders of 20 of the nation’s charter school networks, including Achievement First, Aspire, Breakthrough, Green Dot, KIPP, Rocketship Education, Uncommon Schools and YES Prep published a letter in USA Today demanding that the Trump administration must change its budget priorities to be more supportive of traditional public schools. Trump’s proposed budget expands by 50 percent the funding for the federal Charter Schools Program to stimulate the startup of new charter schools. So why are these charter school providers complaining and why are they demanding more money for traditional public schools?
Here is some of what they said in their letter: “(W)e see ourselves as partners, not competitors, with traditional school districts… But to make that broader vision work, we need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in ‘choice’ schools… We realize that expressing concerns about a budget that benefits our schools might seem counterintuitive. But we want to join with all those who are fighting to defend public education as an essential pillar of our democracy.”
What’s behind this attack of altruism? What has caused the CEOs of some of the biggest and best known charter school networks to become advocates for federal funding for the very public schools we’ve been taught by Milton Friedman and Betsy DeVos to believe charters need to improve by competing with them in an education marketplace?
Well, for one thing, even though they rarely admit it, charter schools depend on their host public school systems to survive. Their mission is to provide escapes for some children from what they call “failing” public schools, but they count on their host school district to provide the special education services and English language instruction for the children they don’t serve. Charter schools don’t have to serve all children; they can “counsel out” the students who are not comfortable in their school culture—students whose behavior they struggle to manage—students who are too often truant—students whose low test scores are undermining their school’s ratings. The public school district provides the escape valve for the children the charters won’t or can’t serve. And in lots of places public schools provide really basic services like school bus transportation to charter schools.
Another reality that has suddenly become a concern for the charter ssector is that, after several years of rapid expansion of the number of charter schools, that growth is slowing. Robin Lake, a supporter of the expansion of charter schools at the Center on Reinventing Public Education explains: “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 year, 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?”
Why is growth in the number of charter schools slowing? In a follow-up article, Lake explores the reasons: “There are several plausible explanations for this slowdown. The politics of the charter school movement have taken an increasingly hostile turn of late… Some states, like Massachusetts, took a cautious but high-quality approach to charter school growth. Other states bent to political winds early on and refused to allow anyone other than a school district to approve charter schools. Still others starved charters of funding or access to facilities… It ‘s also true that bureaucratic hurdles have increased even without hostile political pressure. Charter authorizers, the agencies responsible for charter school approval, oversight, and closing, have been getting increasingly choosier. The goal has been to increase the quality of schools—and rightly so—but the result is a much costlier and sometimes prohibitive process for applicants who lack serious financial backing and connections. In many states, applicants are expected to invest a year or more in planning, have a facility secured, and demonstrate strong community support… CMOs (charter management organizations) have relied on Teach for America as their primary labor source, but that well is running dry… CMOs are increasingly asked to turn around low-performing neighborhood schools and address high expulsion and low special education numbers, all while trying to perform well on tougher new Common Core-aligned tests… In short, well-intentioned efforts to address quality and improve equity may be significantly slowing charter school growth, just as fear of increased growth by opponents intensifies. The combination may soon bring charter growth to a halt unless something changes.”
It is heartening to see that a charter advocate like Robin Lake realizes that growing push-back from advocates for strong public schools is having an impact. Charter schools were launched by those who said the schools ought to be free from regulation, but over the years, concern has grown in communities watching unscrupulous charter operators enriching themselves while their schools flounder. States have watched rip-offs on an unprecedented scale as owners of for-profit charter management companies and the e-school charters invest in political contributions to legislators who then fail to provide for urgently needed oversight to prevent fraud and corruption. Public school districts have found themselves trying to catch up students returning to their schools far behind peers who remained in traditional schools. Under pressure, states have been increasing regulation.
And there has been growing push-back against what happens in particular school districts—against the school closures that result when a mass of charters in a neighborhood empty out a neighborhood school while parents try out school choice. The district responds by closing the neighborhood school, but when the charter schools flounder, there is no public alternative to which children can return. Jitu Brown, a Chicago organizer who has watched this process and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance (an organization of grassroots community organizations in 24 U.S. cities) delineates in more detail how charter schools undermine neighborhood public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities. Brown writes: “(T)hese privatization supporters speak about the virtues of charters while failing to address how they have increased segregation, sometimes cherry-picked students, taken funding away from underfunded traditional systems, and operated in secrecy.”
Last October, leaders of the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights organization, ratified a resolution that calls for a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until: “charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools; public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system; charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate; and (charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest-performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”
Charter schools have now been around for over two decades and academic research has finally begun to catch up with the need to understand the impact of charter school privatization, particularly the effect of these new schools on the public school districts where charter schools have been rapidly opened. Some researchers have noted that rapidly expanding charters may be functioning as parasites killing their host. 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 test scores posted by their own students but instead by the effect of these institutions on the entire educational ecosystem in any metropolitan area. Charters should not be permitted to undermine the provision of education by their host public 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.”
With a mass of evidence published in local newspapers about growing academic and fiscal problems in particular charter schools, with reporting by the national press of academic and fiscal abuses by some of the big charter management organizations and the huge online academies, with resistance from community organizers and the NAACP in the very urban communities where charter schools have rapidly expanded, and with growing pushback from the research community, it is not surprising that charter supporters and the CEOs of the chains of charter schools might be worried.
Their letter this week that endorses more federal funding for traditional public schools probably describes an awareness among charter school leaders that, even though they like to believe their schools are independent, their futures are inextricably connected to their host school districts. It also may reflect their own need to present themselves in a positive light at a time when the public is becoming aware that public schools in many places have been hurt by the rapid growth of charter schools.
Those of us who worry about the threat of privatization to the institution of public education need to keep up the pressure.