Charter Schools: All the Ways They Are Not In the Public Interest

Donald Cohen is the executive director of In the Public Interest. In a powerful statement about his organization’s mission for 2020, Cohen proclaims:

“So much is under attack: public education, water, transit, public parks, public health, libraries, the postal service, air traffic control, and much more.  Where there’s money to be made, there are corporations positioning to take over… What worries us most is when private interests get too much control and influence over fundamental democratic decisions and our ability to provide public goods… We often hear that government is needed when markets fail. We disagree. There are market things and public things. They’re different things, like apples and oranges.  Here’s what we mean by ‘public’ (or, what’s in the public interest):

  • The things we can only do if we do them together…
  • The things we all benefit from regardless of whether we use the specific service or asset…
  • The things that protect and support us all…
  • The things that make us a better, fairer, more compassionate, and more democratic nation.

“We are pro-government because it is the only institution capable of ensuring that public things remain public.”

During the past quarter century, charter schools have come to threaten the public interest as Cohen defines it.  While their sponsors call them “public charter schools,” they are public only in the funding stream of public tax dollars. Their boards are private, and the management companies that operate many of them are frequently for-profits.

In an article she published last fall in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Duke University public policy expert, Helen Ladd explains how charter schools threaten the public interest: “A fundamental problem with charter schools is that in most cases they undermine the coherence and effectiveness of state and local school systems. If charter schools were limited in number to the fringe of the traditional system, as was originally envisioned by some early supporters such as Ray Budde and Albert Shanker, or if elected policymakers take special precautions to ensure that charters and traditional schools work toward common goals, the adverse systemic effects might be contained. But, in areas with relatively large or growing charter school sectors overseen by weak authorizers, the negative systemic effects undermine the public interest.”

While the overall academic quality of charter schools cannot be assessed because each one or each chain of charter schools is unique, two very significant overall problems with charter schools threaten the public interest.  The first overall problem is that charter schools drain tax dollars out of the public schools. Because legislators never add new taxes when they budget money for charter schools, the state education budget is depleted.

Charter schools also drain funds from the school districts where their students live, and over time, this financial loss is unsustainable for the public schools. In a report published in 2018 by In the Public Interest, political economist Gordon Lafer demonstrates that charter schools drain $57.3 million annually from California’s Oakland Unified School District. Why does this happen? “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.”

The second problem is that charter schools are difficult to regulate. The charter sector is well funded, and the coffers of its advocates are fed by the tax dollars collected by the for-profit operators. The money for lobbying and political contributions to the legislators who would have to pass regulations saturates the system with corruption.

It is encouraging that three times since Christmas states or local school districts have taken steps in the public interest to rein in their out-of-control charter school sectors.

In Newark, New Jersey, the Superintendent of Newark Public Schools worries about what he says is 30 percent of the school district’s revenue redirected to charter schools. For Chalkbeat, Patrick Wall explains: “The head of the Newark school system is calling for the closure of four local charter schools and a ban on most new charter schools…. First, he cited the financial impact of charter schools on the district.  Because school aid follows students in New Jersey, districts must hand over most of the funding attached to each student who enrolls in a charter school.  Wall describes the superintendent’s concerns: “Finally, he questioned whether the schools adequately serve a significant number of students with special needs. He pointed to data in the schools’ renewal applications showing that they serve a smaller share of students with disabilities or those still learning English than the district and argued that the schools’ own descriptions of their programs suggest students are not being properly served.”

The state of New Hampshire just turned down a federal Charter Schools Program grant of $46 million.  The Concord Monitor reports: “The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted 7-3… to reject the funds… Democrats have maintained they rejected the money due to a sense of fiscal responsibility.” The newspaper quotes an op ed column by Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, Senator David Watters, and Reps. Mel Myler, Dave Luneau, and Mary Heath: “There are simply too many unanswered questions about the current landscape of charter schools in New Hampshire, and our state’s capacity to support doubling the number of those schools… It would be fiscally irresponsible for the fiscal committee to move forward with this grant, which would double charter schools outside the legislative process, jeopardize the financial health of New Hampshire’s current traditional and charter public schools, and make an end-run around the state budget that commits the state of New Hampshire to millions of dollars in unbudgeted education aid into the future.”

The final story is from Ohio—a story of sort-of protecting the public interest. In Ohio there are all sorts of authorizers of charter schools, and there have been decades of insufficient oversight of charter schools. Ohio is also where one of today’s players is Ron Packard, who started K-12 Inc.—the notorious national online for-profit school—and whose new for-profit education venture is Accel, which has been taking over the management of schools once run by White Hat Management and the infamous David Brennan.

Keep in mind that Ron Packard and Accel manage all the schools described last week by the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell: “East Academy, Cleveland Preparatory Academy and West Park Academy charter schools each scored an F on their latest state report cards. But school leaders are claiming they are ‘quality’ schools, so they can receive new bonus tax money of up to $1,750 per enrolled student from the state. Officials of the F-rated OhDela online charter school of nearly 2,000 students are making the same claim. And Chapelside Cleveland Academy is seeking the ‘quality’ bonus, even though its authorizer—the non-profit that oversees the school on behalf of the state—has given up on trying to fix the school’s F grade and is yanking its support. The fast growing for-profit Accel charter school chain, which runs all of these schools, has applied for more than $15 million in cash from a new $30 million fund that Gov. Mike DeWine and the state legislature created this summer as a boost for Ohio’s best charter schools.”

Thanks to charter school promoters in Ohio, $30 million to reward charter schools was buried in the fine print of the state budget. The fund is supposedly to support quality charter schools, but a school can also qualify if its management company has received a federal Charter Schools Program grant for a school it operates in another state: “Under a provision in the bill, these F-rated Accel schools may qualify for the bonus because a Colorado Springs charter school run by Accel won a federal grant a few years ago.”

O’Donnell reports this week, however, that the Ohio Department of Education blocked Ron Packard’s  swindle: “The Ohio Department of Education has blocked a ‘loophole’ that would have given millions of tax dollars to charter schools with bad grades…. (T)he department today rejected Accel’s application for those schools, citing details of Accel’s corporate registrations in Ohio that fail to connect Ohio operations with those of Accel in Colorado. Because Accel is not registered as a business that also operates in other states, the department ruled it is not eligible for the money… Accel founder Ron Packard said the ruling is unfair and while schools in different states may have different corporate registration, they are all Accel subsidiaries.”

It is definitely not in the public interest that $30 million was secreted in Ohio’s state budget last summer for charter schools when, in the same budget, basic-aid foundation funding for public schools is frozen over the FY 20-21 biennium.  However, it is very much in the public interest that the Ohio Department of Education has just prohibited a windfall award of $1,750 per-pupil to Ron Packer’s academically inferior, for-profit, Accel charter schools.

2 thoughts on “Charter Schools: All the Ways They Are Not In the Public Interest

  1. It occurs to me as I read this piece that, as we witness the battle between the “public goods” proponents and the free market champions, we are living in a time of a world view that is based on a belief in scarcity. Responses to this are essentially a “sum zero” game – i.e. whatever you have I can’t have. It is this tension that has allowed us to define competition as a critically important component in our lives. I realize that the arguments for and against competition will not be resolved in the few lines of this comment.

    But closely a related, some would say unavoidable, response to competition is our tendency to “game the system” whenever the stakes become high enough. One doesn’t need to look too hard to find such gaming examples… professional and amateur athletes using performance enhancing drugs, insider trading scandals, professional sports teams stealing signals, gerrymandering voting districts, etc., etc. Closer to home in the field of education we have seen cheating on large-scale assessments. And now that the market value of private involvement in public education has been recognized, who can be surprised at the ways in which free market proponents have gamed the concepts of ‘for-profit’ and ‘non-profit’ charters, commoditizing our children and their education in the name of competition.

    With the title of his most recent book, Twilight of the American Century, Andrew Bacevich points out that, although not yet universally accepted, we are on the verge of becoming the world’s first poor rich country. Is it coincidence that our journey in that direction coincides with the gaming of our economic system and our growing disenchantment with the notion of “public good”?

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