Charter Schools at a Turning Point: How to Rein In an Out of Control Education Sector

If you read one article about education this week, you should read Jack Schneider’s column from last week’s Washington Post.  If you have already read it, I encourage you to read it again.  Schneider is an education historian at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  In last week’s column, Schneider shows how charter schools have failed to fulfill the promises of their promoters.

Schneider’s analysis is fair and balanced as he notes that charters have a mixed record.  While some are excellent schools that serve children well, “On the whole… charters have failed to live up to their promises.”

Schneider adds that the public is growing more aware of the problems charter school growth has caused for the public school districts where the charters have been located: “The charter school movement is in trouble.  In late December, the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times observed that the charter movement in the Windy City was ‘in hot water and likely to get hotter.’  Among more than a dozen aspirants for mayor, ‘only a handful’ expressed any support for charter schools, and the last two standing for the… runoff election both said they wanted to halt charter school expansion.  In February, New York City’s elected parent representatives—the Community and Citywide Education Councils—issued a unanimous statement in which they criticized charters for operating ‘free from public oversight’ and for draining ‘substantial’ resources from district schools. A month later, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a parent forum that in the ‘not-too-distant future’ his administration would seek to curtail the marketing efforts of the city’s charters, which currently rely on New York City Department of Education mailing lists. After a six-day strike in January, Los Angeles teachers forced the city’s Board of Education to seek a state moratorium on new L.A. charters, an outcome that reverberated across California and then repeated itself in Oakland.”

“But,” writes Schneider, “much of the movement’s potency was a product of promises, rather then results.”  What were the promises? “The first big promise of the charter movement was, in the words of Barack Obama, that these schools would be ‘incubators of innovation’… The second promise, as George W. Bush put it, was that charters would give ‘families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose someplace better.’ In a competitive marketplace, families would no longer be trapped inside the ‘public school monopoly.’… The third promise was that charters would foster competition among schools in a manner that would lead to systemwide improvement.”

But, Schneider shows that charter schools weren’t really innovative: “Consider, for instance, the lack of innovation in the charter sector.  According to a recent report by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, for instance, charter schools tend toward a particular set of practices: longer schooldays, comprehensive behavioral policies (governing how students dress, when they can speak and where they can move, enforced by a range of punishments) and a focus on academic achievement.”

And, “Charters have also failed to live up to the hype of freeing families from ‘bad schools.’ In large part, that is because the introduction of charters simply creates an opportunity for choice; it does not ensure the quality of schools.”

Neither has competition driven widespread school improvement in K-12 education across the United States: “Theoretically, the introduction of charters and choice would force all schools to get better to maintain enrollment. But schools can attract students for reasons other than superior quality, and the obsession with securing per-pupil funding has in many cases been a distraction from the work of educating students.”

For all these reasons, Schneider concludes, “the long-running consensus that has sustained the charter movement has begun to unravel.”

One of the places where support for charters has been unraveling is California, where former Governor Jerry Brown—himself the founder of charter schools in Oakland, vetoed legislation to increase oversight of the charter sector. California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, has shown himself more willing to consider expanding regulation of what continues to prove itself an education sector out of control.

Just this week, for example, the San Diego Union Tribune has been reporting in-depth on the indictment of eleven people who operated an online charter school scam in San Diego. This was neither a small nor an inconsequential scandal: “Two charter school leaders illegally pocketed more than $50 million of state funds by siphoning the money through a network of 19 online charter schools across California which falsely enrolled thousands of students… San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan said that leaders of the charter schools enrolled thousands of students into their schools, often without their knowledge, and collected millions of dollars in state funds.  Many students were already enrolled in private schools or in youth athletic groups, and the charter school leaders bought their information to claim them as their students….”  The operators of the charter schools claimed to be providing services for the schools through private corporations they owned, “But the two men never provided any services to the charter schools….”

California allows school districts to sponsor charter schools, and it has been reported in the past that tiny elementary school districts have sponsored online or storefront charter schools in strip malls in locations outside their own school districts in order to reap sponsorship and oversight fees from the state to pad their own school district budgets. The Dehesa Elementary School District in San Diego County is one such district. The charter school operators who were indicted, “looked for low-enrollment school districts like Dehesa to authorize their charter schools… because small school districts would likely want to benefit from charter school oversight fees that charters pay to their authorizing districts.” “One of the people indicted last week is Dehesa School District Superintendent Nancy Hauer, “who was indicted for allegedly over-charging charter schools by more than $2 million in oversight fees—which is more than the district’s own payroll budget.”

Researchers in California have also begun calculating the loss from public school district budgets to charter schools.  A year ago, In the Public Interest, a public policy organization in California, published a study by political economist Gordon Lafer which explored the fiscal implications of the unregulated expansion of charter schools for three California school districts—the Oakland Unified School District, the San Diego Unified School District, and the Santa Clara County East Side Union High School District.  When students leave a California public school district, writes Lafer, “all the funding for that student leaves with them while all the costs do not.”

Lafer examines the stranded costs that cannot be managed by public school districts when students leave for charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

In his report last year, Lafer calculated that, “Measured as a per-pupil cost, we estimate the net impact of each student who transfers from a traditional public school to a charter school to be approximately $5,000 in San Diego, $5,700 in Oakland, and $6,600 in the East Side district.

Just two weeks ago, In the Public Interest used the methodology Lafer developed last year to measure the impact of unrestricted charter school growth on the net finances of another school district—the West Contra Costa Unified School District, an urban district in the East Bay near Oakland.  Here are the findings of the new report: “Public school students in California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) are paying dearly for privately managed charter schools they don’t attend… Charter schools add $27.9 million a year to WCCUSD’s costs of running its own schools… That’s a net loss, after accounting for all savings realized by no longer educating the charter school students. As a result, the district has $978 less in funding for each traditional public student it serves.”

During last winter and into this spring, striking school teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland drove home the consequences of California charter schools’ sucking millions of tax dollars out of public school districts. We listened as teachers described their despicable working conditions, the layoffs of desperately needed school nurses, librarians, counselors and social workers, and insultingly low pay that drives many teachers out of the profession. As a result, California’s legislature has been considering four bills to rein in out-of-control charter school growth across the state—a bill to return charter school authorization and oversight to the school districts where they are located; another to cap unregulated growth of charter schools; a third to prevent charter schools from locating outside the district that authorizes them; and a fourth to impose a five-year moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools.

As I write this blog post, Diane Ravitch reports that the legislature is no longer considering two of those reforms—capping the growth of charter schools and establishing a moratorium on the authorization of new charters.  However, still under consideration are two important reforms—a bill that “gives local school districts the sole authority to approve new charter schools and to consider how new schools would impact the districts’ budget in the approval process,” and a bill to close “a loophole in state law that has let some districts boost their budgets by approving charter schools outside their boundaries.”

In 2009, to qualify for Arne Duncan’s $4.5 billion grant program, the Race to the Top, states had to change their own laws by removing caps on the authorization of new charter schools.  We are watching as, one-at-a-time, state legislatures grapple with the consequences of a privatized sector gone wild.

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.

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