In his new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, school funding expert, Bruce Baker critiques the rapid expansion of charter schools for siphoning off dollars from state and local public school budgets. Baker also addresses the philosophical contention frequently offered to justify the rapid expansion of school choice—that justice can be defined by offering more choices for those who have few.
Our society now accepts the essential promise of liberty defined as freedom from enslavement and domination. We also would like to believe that our society provides freedom from want, and many argue that school choice offers opportunity to those who have been disempowered by poverty. The wealthy can pay for whatever kind of education they want to choose for their children. So… what about helping poorer people with freedom of choice—at public expense—in an education marketplace? Won’t that result in what the “portfolio school reform” think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, promises: “a great school for every child in every neighborhood”?
Baker argues that more choice will not necessarily result in equal access to quality schooling. Instead, equal opportunity can be better protected systemically: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both. But it’s never that simple. A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another. Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)
Three charter school news reports—this week alone—demonstrate the truth of Baker’s contention that justice can best be served in an education system which protects—by law—students’ rights as well as the public stewardship of tax dollars.
Detroit: Charter School Promises Miracles, Achievement Plummets, School Closes
In the first example, for Chalkbeat, Koby Levin describes the sudden closure of a Detroit charter high school. In late September, only weeks into the 2018-19 school year, while signs on the grass surrounding Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice declared: “Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy… Now Enrolling 9th-12th Grades,” parents and students were told the school would shut down: “On Wednesday, Sept. 26, the charter school’s board held a meeting with a single item on the agenda: the closure of Delta Prep. Parents, students, and teachers piled into the auditorium to demand that their school be spared, but their outpouring of tears and grief was not enough. Two days before the homecoming game, the board voted to shut the school down—effective immediately.”
The idea behind charter schools is that the marketplace will regulate. Parents are expected to demand quality, and the schools they don’t choose will eventually close in what is dreamed to be an ever reinforcing spiral of school improvement. But in Detroit, Levin depicts another reality: “A review of hundreds of pages of documents, and interviews with key leaders involved in the school since its creation, show that the forces arrayed against every school in Detroit had pushed Delta Prep’s chances of survival to nothing within a year if its opening, if not before…” Delta Prep had recruited students who were left without a school when two other charters failed: “We guaranteed that if they came to Delta Prep, we’d correct the wrong of their school closing and keep them together,” comments one of the school’s original founders.
But running a school was much more difficult than Delta Prep’s founders expected, and the management company the board hired couldn’t fulfill the founders’ promises: “Delta officials had promised that ’90 percent of students will attend every class, on time, every day.’ But in the school’s third year, just 20 percent of students came to class with any regularity. Officials said they would boost student achievement… Their goal: ‘85% of students will demonstrate competency in all core subjects via exit tests.’ But within three years, not a single Delta Prep 11th-grader was deemed proficient in math…. Just 10 percent of 11th-graders posted passing scores in SAT English…. Delta Prep had promised that ‘100% of graduates will be accepted to college.’ But in 2016, the only year the state recorded graduation data for Delta Prep, just over half of the school’s graduates enrolled in college. Just six students—10 percent of that first graduating class—went on to complete a year’s worth of college credits within a year of graduating. If the data was concerning, the situation inside the school was even more dire. When Brandi North was hired as principal in 2017, the first thing she did was hire security. The sprawling school was built during an era when Detroit couldn’t find enough classroom space for all of its students, but now it sat mostly unused, and students tended to disappear into vacant classrooms. Teacher-student relations were antagonistic.”
At fault in Detroit? A complicated mix of good intentions and huge problems promises couldn’t solve. Lack of regulation. Well-intentioned founders who hired a management company that spent too little on instruction. A shortage of state funds in Michigan which has failed adequately to fund traditional public schools and charter schools. Students whose needs were greater than the school’s founders anticipated. A competitive marketplace where parents and students lured by advertising and promises were misled in every way. After Delta Prep ended up on the state’s watchlist as a low performing school, only 264 students out of the 350 who were expected showed up this fall. As students and their state funding fell away, the school was forced to close by late September.
Levin concludes: “Delta Prep’s sudden demise added to a two-decade drumbeat of school closures that has left Detroit’s education landscape in turmoil, and has forced thousands of students to endure the serious social and academic consequences of unneccesarily changing schools.”
Perfectly Legal: Arizona Lawmaker Profits from Charter Schools and Helps Make Laws to Enrich Himself
This Arizona story isn’t so much about how charter school expansion has disrupted students’ right to an education. Instead it is about how unscrupulous charter school operators rip off the tax dollars intended for public education and urgently needed by public schools. For the Arizona Republic, Craig Harris profiles Eddie Farnsworth, a member of the Arizona House, and elected to the Arizona Senate on November 6, 2018: “When the Benjamin Franklin charter chain completes the purchase next month of its four East Valley campuses from founder Eddie Farnsworth, ownership will shift to a newly formed nonprofit company. But the $569 million deal, from which Farnsworth will pocket $13.9 million, won’t be the state lawmaker’s last payday from the schools he’s owned for decades. Records show he will loan Benjamin Franklin $2.8 million over seven years, earning himself $478,000 in interest while ensuring the schools have enough cash to keep operating. He’ll collect another $79,600 a year in rent on the building that currently serves as Benjamin Franklin’s corporate headquarters. And Farnsworth, who has been a staunch defender of charter schools at the Arizona legislature, will continue to be paid as a consultant to Benjamin Franklin… Meanwhile. the new nonprofit organization formed to buy the schools will have little cash, requiring it to borrow the $2.8 million from Farnsworth in order to have 60 days of working capital…”
Farnsworth understands how to make money from the unregulated charter sector he has helped create through the legislature’s hands-off stance: “Farnsworth defended the sale, which makes him the latest charter-school owner in Arizona’s loosely regulated industry to receive a multimillion-dollar payday. Benjamin Franklin will have more long-term stability by converting from a for-profit business to a nonprofit company, he said.” There is considerable confusion about whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but always operated by private contractors are private schools or some sort of public schools. It would seem very clear that Arizona legislator, Eddie Farnsworth, best understands the private, marketplace nature of the charter school network he founded.
Advertising, False Promises, and Mythology Too Frequently Distort the Truth in Charter School Marketplace
Finally, there is New Orleans, the city where in 2005, immediately following Hurricane Katrina, school privatizers swooped in to create what they continue to brag is now a model all-charter school district. But the charters in New Orleans were superimposed after the disaster of the hurricane on an already selective and unequal school district. Benjamin Franklin High School, for example, was the city’s most selective. And Fortier High School was transformed from a public high school that served its neighborhood into Lusher Charter High School, where students must submit an application. We hear all about the myth of rising test scores among New Orleans’ charter high schools, but the fact that the top scoring schools are explicitly selective is usually left out of the story. Until this week’s report from Jarvis DeBerry for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. DeBerry exposes the irony that several of these selective high schools recently won an equity award from the state of Louisiana: “Equity is the practice of making sure that everybody—no matter their identity, no matter their background, no matter their whatever—can fully access or participate in a particular thing… If you’re familiar with the concept, it will surprise you to learn that some New Orleans schools have… still managed to be named ‘Equity Honorees.’ These include schools that have eschewed oneApp in favor of deliberately byzantine admissions processes, schools that don’t provide buses to pick up and take home students without transportation and/or schools that only admit the most academically talented.”
DeBerry continues: “Lusher Charter School is selective admission and on top of that, has a notoriously complex application process. Lake Forest Elementary Charter School’s application process is also hard by design. Benjamin Franklin High School is highly selective… Given that these schools are designed to be difficult to access and are only letting in the most academically prepared students and/or those from families that are more well off, how does the state see fit to praise them for modeling equity?”
Equity and Liberty Conflict When It Comes to the Education Market
The Journey4Justice Alliance’s executive director, Jitu Brown understands that an equitable system of public schools—regulated by law to protect students’ rights and the public interest— is likely to be more adequate, stable, and equitable than what a competitive charter school market provides. In his Forward to a report, Failing “Brown v Board,” published in May 2018, Brown addresses Bruce Baker’s concern that in education, the charter school marketplace undermines equity even as it expands freedom of choice: “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”