As we begin a new year, consider that charter schools were first authorized thirty years ago. As this sector of publicly funded but privately operated schools has matured, it has become clearer that a serious set of problems are part of charter schools’ very design. Charter schools were envisioned as free to innovate and less bound by regulation and bureaucracy. In a fine analysis just before the holidays, the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris summarizes some of the most pervasive problems she has noticed as she has traveled through a number of states examining their charter school sectors. The Network for Public Education has published two in-depth, multi-state reports on the impact of charters and school privatization—the recent Grading the States, and the 2017, Charters and Consequences. While charters are established in state laws which may differ from state to state, Burris has been tracking broad trends. She explains:
“Entrepreneurial governance, freed from most of the regulations and oversight mandated for true public schools, was at the heart of the ‘charter school experiment.’ Thirty years later, we have the results. Charter school students generally do about the same academically as their public school counterparts; in some places, they do better, and in others, they do worse. There is no evidence that charters are more innovative than public schools, with many relying on ‘no excuses’ discipline reminiscent of a late 19th-century school. The original idea of a teacher-led school designed to create innovative practices has been lost.”
Burris identifies five pervasive problems:
First: Freedom from regulations and public oversight under law—the kind of protection democratic governance provides public schools —has left charter schools vulnerable to widespread waste and fraud: “When public dollars freely flow without independent oversight, it is all too easy for dollars to find their way into employee pockets and bank accounts, for friends and relatives to get ‘sweetheart deals’ and for school leaders to receive astronomical salaries that would be unheard of in public schools… Every serious legislative attempt to rein in abuse meets opposition from the charter lobby, which makes strategic donations to legislators to avoid accountability.”
Second: Charter schools find sometimes subtle ways to select the students their operators want, even though admission is supposed to be by lottery: “Nearly every charter school admission begins with an application that sometimes serves as a screen.” But there are other ways. Burris describes Arizona’s BASIS charter schools which require that students pass Advanced Placement exams to graduate. And BASIS schools offer no federally funded free or reduced priced lunches and no school transportation. “These policies produce high attrition rates and a student body that does not reflect the demographics of the state.” In New York City, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies accomplish extraordinary attrition rates with “no excuses” discipline. “A first-grade class of 72 became a graduating class of only 16….”
Third: “Charter schools bleed money from the public school system…. Charters are predominantly funded in one of two ways—by ‘backpack’ funding in which state dollars go with the child when he leaves the public school for a charter school, or district’ tuition ‘funding which requires the district to pay tuition to the charter based on district per-pupil spending. Either way, the children in the public school get less.” Stranded costs for public school districts when children leave for charters are very high.
Fourth: “Charter schools eliminate democracy from school governance, and this lack of voice is most acutely felt by parents in disadvantaged communities. Charter schools are run by private boards that choose their members… The Network for Public Education… took a look at the members of the board of 14 of the largest charter chains… The most frequently encountered career of the board members of the 14 chains was finance—hedge fund managers and directors of investment capital dominated several of the chains’ boards… What is crystal clear when you examine the boards of charter chains is that members do not represent the families that their schools serve in lifestyle, wealth and demographics.”
Fifth: State laws that established charter schools fail to prevent conflicts of interest and have resulted in an ongoing succession of scandals when school leaders turn out to be profiteers and swindlers: “Imagine starting a business for which you assume no personal financial risk and you receive taxpayer income from every customer who comes through the door. That is a charter school. Not only is there little or no risk; there are ample opportunities to realize profit.” “Even though few states allow for-profit charter schools, nearly all others (34) allow the charter management company to operate for-profit. Charter management organizations (CMOs) and education management organizations (EMOs) are where much of the profiteering occurs—hidden behind a veil of secrecy. Thirty-eight states have no required transparency provisions regulating the spending and funding by charter schools’ educational service providers or charter management organizations, be they for-profit or nonprofit.”
Burris concisely summarizes a set of serious design flaws that legislators failed to consider as they established an unregulated, privately operated education sector at public expense. Her piece is filled with details and examples omitted from this brief summary. Please take a few minutes to read it.
She concludes: “It is time to acknowledge that what may have begun as a sincere attempt to promote innovation has given rise to fraud, discrimination, and the depletion of public school funding. Thirty years of charters have resulted in an increase in profiteering far more than… innovation… The bottom line is this. It is foolish to fund a parallel system of privately managed schools at the expense of the nation’s public schools.”