Politicians Are Discovering They Can No Longer Ignore Charter School Outrages

In Wednesday’s Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler traces fading support for charter schools among Democrats who are running for President:

“Democrats have long backed charter schools as a politically safe way to give kids at low-performing schools more options… The presidential contest is proof that’s no longer the case. If the candidates say anything about charter schools, it’s negative… Instead, the Democratic candidates are pitching billions of dollars in new federal spending for schools and higher pay for teachers, with few of the strings attached that marked the Obama-era approach to education. It adds up to a sea change in Democratic thinking, back to a more traditional Democratic approach emphasizing funding for education and support for teachers and local schools.”

Except that major political change is excruciatingly slow and difficult.  And, in education, the policy that most directly affects schools happens in state legislatures, where the American Legislative Exchange Council wields the power.

Just this week in West Virginia, for example, the state legislature passed an omnibus bill which combines added state investment in public schools with the launch of charter schools.

Nearby in Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a scathing critique of the state legislature’s ongoing debate of bills that would supposedly regulate charter schools: “Last week, the Pennsylvania House passed a set of bills proffered to ‘fix’ Pennsylvania’s charter school law. Yet the bills fail to address necessary charter school funding reform, and two of the bills… specifically allow charters to expand without adequate oversight… Statewide, in 2016, state school districts paid $1.5 billion… in charter school tuition payments.  Charter schools receive this funding regardless of whether their students are making the grade. Worse yet, in 2012-13 they were paid over $200 million more for special education services than they spent on these services for our students.”

Jeff Bryant explores in more detail just how Pennsylvania charter school funding is destroying local school districts’ capacity to fund their public schools.  Bryant quotes the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials: “‘Charter school tuition is one of the largest areas of mandated cost growth for school districts.’ With the current cost of charter growth at 10 percent annually, PASBO calculates at least $0.37 of every new dollar raised in property taxes in 2017-18 went directly to charters… Because the state does virtually nothing to help alleviate these costs, school districts are forced to turn to property taxes… To stave off the decimation, ‘school districts shifted resources from other areas of the budget, cut programs, and raised property taxes to cover the difference’ created by rising charter school costs.”

Meckler is correct, however, that the tide seems to be turning against charter schools. She quotes Democratic candidates for President who, once enthusiastic supporters of charter schools, have carefully been changing their message—Cory Booker especially, and also Joe Biden.  After the Network for Public Education released a scathing report on the appalling absence of oversight in the federal Charter Schools Program, Bernie Sanders increased the pressure on other candidates by “calling for a halt to all federal funding for charter schools.”

So… what is shifting public opinion away from support for charter schools and forcing Democratic candidates to recalculate their messaging?

  • Meckler names a year of teachers’ strikes and wildcat walkouts as an important factor: “The shift was reinforced last year by teacher strikes that focused public attention on educators’ low pay.”  But it is not only attention to the collapse of teachers’ salaries that we have have been watching. Teachers have drawn attention to the implications of  their low salaries—teachers leaving for states where salaries are better supported, teachers unable to find housing in the communities where they work. Teachers have also shown us their despicable working conditions and school districts forced to lay off nurses, counselors, librarians and social workers.
  • Academic research economists like Gordon Lafer and Bruce Baker have documented that charter school expansion leaves school districts with very significant fixed costs when children carry away their funding to a charter school—fixed costs that are large enough to devastate public school services and eliminate enrichments that are needed for the majority of children who remain in the public schools.
  • Teachers’ unions are deliberately working with candidates—encouraging them to talk with local school teachers who help them understand the damage test-and-punish school reform policies and the expansion of charter schools have inflicted on the public schools where teachers cope with the consequences day after day.  Meckler explains: “The American Federation of Teachers has been hosting candidate forums throughout the country, inviting contenders to spend a day with teachers and then answering questions town hall-style.”
  • Finally, the press along with advocates for investing in the public schools have relentlessly exposed the theft of public dollars by unscrupulous charter operators and for-profit charter management companies; the violation of students’ rights when charters push out vulnerable students or neglect to provide services for English language learners or children with special needs; the failure of state governments to regulate charter schools in the public interest; and the outrageous mismanagement of the federal Charter Schools Program, which has made grants totalling over a billion dollars since 1994 but without sufficient oversight.  The U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General has condemned the management of this program in biennial reports for years, but nothing has been done to improve regulation of the schools which were seeded or expanded with large federal grants.

The Network for Public Education (NPE) has done some of the most notable work to expose the abuse of the public interest in the federal Charter Schools Program. Three months ago, NPE released Asleep at the Wheel, a major report documenting that over a billion in federal Charter Schools Program dollars has been wasted since 1994, when the program was launched, on charter schools that never opened or subsequently shut down. NPE has been updating that report by digging deeper into the state-by-state problems with charter schools that were started up or expanded with the federal grants.

On Monday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss  published the newest findings from Carol Burris, the Network for Public Education’s executive director and one of the authors of the Asleep at the Wheel report: “The Network for Public Education… continued investigations, going state by state, documenting the failed and never opened charter schools that received grants. To date, we have analyzed the lists of grants given from 2009 to 2014 in 15 of the 40 recipient states.  Some of the states received multiple grants, others few.  We have found 1,203 charter schools in those 15 states alone that either never opened or have closed.  This represents 40 percent of the total grantees… It appears we underestimated the waste in the report—the percentage of failed schools is higher than the 30 percent that we reported, and given the limited number of states and years analyzed so far, it is likely that waste will exceed our estimate of $1 billion.”

In Michigan, Burris reports the Asleep at the Wheel report caused the Michigan Board of Education to slow down on dispersing the federal funds: “Just this spring, based on the history of failed grants, the Michigan Board of Education voted to stop the disbursement of funds from a new federal $47 million dollar grant while it investigates what happened to the funds given to charter schools that never opened or quickly failed.”  Burris adds: “Eighty percent of Michigan charter schools are run by for-profit companies.”

Deeper investigation by NPE has revealed that, “Maryland had 54 schools in the 2009-2014 federal data set that never opened.  Overall, the percentage of Maryland charters that received federal grants but never opened or failed is an astounding 55 percent.  Those schools, together, had received $7,901,164 in federal Charter Schools dollars. Forty-two percent of the Pennsylvania charter schools that received grants either never opened, closed or may not have ever been a charter school at all… Other states with grantee failure rates above 50 percent are Delaware (57 percent), Arkansas (52 percent) and Georgia (57 percent).”

The National Center for Education Statistics assigns a name and a 12 digit code to all public and charter schools and has updated its school-locator tool through the 2017-2018 school year.  Burris reports: “Most of the time, the charter schools that received grants but never opened had not been assigned an NCES number in the database. However, we found numerous cases in two states where the school not only did not have a NCES number, it did not even have a name. Tennessee, which has a 49 percent grantee failure rate, gave 38 (federally funded) grants of $10,000 each to schools that not only did not have a NCES number, they also did not have a listed name. Where did that $380,000 go? Apparently, the Department of Education has no idea. Nor do they (or taxpayers) know where 18 grants to Arkansas ‘no name and no NCES ID’ charter schools went. Two of those grants were for $50,000.”

Burris further explores outrageous scandals in several charter schools and charter school chains seeded originally with federal Charter Schools Program grants. In California, 11 people associated with the online  Academic, Arts and Action Charter Academies, known as A3 Education, were indicted a few weeks ago on criminal charges of grand theft, conspiracy, personal use of public money and financial conflict of interest. (This is the scandal involving Steve Van Zant, Jason Schrock, Eli Johnson, and Sean McManus). It is alleged that over $50 million was stolen. “And who gave the seed money to start this adventure? The U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program did.” Burris further explores scandals in charters originally set up with federal Charters Schools Program dollars in Pennsylvania and Texas.

Burris concludes: “It appears that Sean McManus of the California online A3 charter scam has left the country.  But the multimillion-dollar heist of federal and California taxpayers’ funds for which he allegedly is responsible pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars in waste we are finding in our investigation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program.”

Thanks to this kind of investigation—along with the outcry from public school teachers and the work of economists showing that charters steal essential dollars from public school districts—politicians are beginning to realize they can no longer ignore the problems with charter schools.

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