Are Charter Schools Public or Private? Trying to Have It Both Ways When Federal Emergency Money Is Involved

One reads that a pandemic is likely to inspire greed as people struggle protect themselves and their loved ones.  Right now that theory seems to be confirmed by the behavior of charter school advocates, who want to have it both ways. Such advocates call their institutions “public charter schools,” but when it is convenient, the same prominent advocates insist that charter schools should qualify to benefit from federal funds appropriated for the purpose of shoring up small businesses.  Public and private all at the same time.

Nina Rees is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. On Wednesday, she published a commentary in which she poses as a supporter of the needs of public schools and charter schools alike. She affirms the importance of the $13.5 billion in the emergency federal CARES Act, money to provide relief for publicly funded schools including traditional and charter schools: “First, the $13.5 billion in emergency K-12 funding that Congress passed will be allocated to states and distributed to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) according to the formula that guides Title I funding. Districts and schools that typically receive Title I funds should see around 80 percent more money this year. Charter schools that operate their own LEAs are assured funding. Those that are overseen by school districts will rely on their districts to provide funding. Secretary DeVos and governors should encourage districts to make these decisions solely in the interest of students, without regard to differences in school model.”

The website of Rees’ organization, the National Association for Public Charter Schools, on the other hand, promotes a strategy for charter schools as though they are private businesses and not public schools at all. The organization’s website explains how charter school operators can qualify for loans designed not for educational institutions, but instead for small businesses which have been temporarily shut down: “Some charter schools may be struggling with how to meet current expenses to maintain ongoing operations. The CARES Act, the third and most recent federal relief package, makes two low- or no-cost lending programs available through the Small Business Administration (SBA); these funds are designed to help organizations continue paying employees, utilities, rent, mortgages, and similar operational expenses. Charter schools that have a 501(c)3 status with the iRS, and for- or non-profit education management companies with fewer than 500 employees may be eligible to apply for SBA 7(a) Paycheck Protection Program or SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans… Under the CARES Act stimulus package, it is possible to access a loan valued at up to two-and-a-half months of payroll expenses… As a result of the first COVID-19 relief bill, Economic Injury Disaster Loans is offering up to $2 million in assistance to nonprofits and for-profits to help overcome temporary loss in revenue caused by COVID-19… Click here for details and how to apply.”

For Education Week, Evie Blad reports on the ethical dilemma posed when advocates try to have it both ways by defining charter schools as private businesses and at the same time as public institutions: “The possibility has already stirred discussions in some cities. In the District of Columbia, for example, charter schools say they have racked up unexpected expenses for items like Chromebooks as they helped students quickly transition to online learning, the Washington Post reported last week. ‘We are in an ethical dilemma,’ D.C. Council member and Education Committee Chairman David Grosso told the Post.  ‘The challenge is digging deep inside of yourself and seeing where you see yourself in the pecking order of needs in our community.'”

Examining the controversy as it is unfolding in Washington, D.C., the Washington Post‘s Perry Stein explores why there seem to be serious conflicts of the public interest when the needs of charter schools are elevated over other schools by claiming access to two different streams of relief funding—the first being provided for public schools and the second for private businesses: “D.C. charter schools get most of their funding from the government, a revenue stream that continues to flow as the coronavirus grinds the District’s economy to a halt… Charter schools, which educate 47 percent of the city’s nearly 100,000 public school students, are publicly funded and privately operated. The city spends a base of about $11,000 to educate each public school student in both sectors.  Though some charter schools receive private donations, the bulk of their funding comes from the government… Under federal law, the District is required to set up a uniform formula to fund charter and traditional schools equally on the basis of enrollment. The city provides buildings to the traditional public school system and allocates additional money to each charter student so their schools can acquire and maintain their facilities. The traditional school system would not qualify for the federal small-business loans.”

The executive director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris condemns charter school advocates’ efforts to get whatever they can for their own education sector—privately operated and publicly funded—at the expense of public schools and at the expense of struggling small businesses which have been closed temporarily due to the pandemic: “I have great sympathy for small businesses that are devastated by COVID-19.  And I am glad that the Small Business Administration is giving these businesses low-interest loans to cushion the blow.  It is shocking, therefore, that the National Alliance for Pubic Charter Schools is actively encouraging its members to take advantage of those taxpayer funds intended for small businesses, although… (charter schools’) income has not been interrupted at all… Charters claim to be public schools—except when being a ‘business’ is to their advantage. Charters claim to be public schools when that’s where the money is. But when the money is available for small businesses, they claim to be small businesses.”

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