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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Charter School Sector Cannot Be Reformed or Effectively Regulated

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.”

More on the Public Purpose of Our Public Schools and the Role of Public Governance

There has recently been a debate among guest writers in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” column in the Washington Post. The Network for Public Education’s  Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch published a defense of public governance of public schools, a column which critiqued a new report from the Learning Policy Institute.  The Learning Policy Institute’s Linda Darling-Hammond responded with a defense of the Learning Policy Institute’s report, which defends school choice including privately governed and operated charter schools. Finally Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris responded to Darling-Hammond’s response. This blog weighed in here last week.

As it happens, Stanford University emeritus professor of education, David Labaree enhances this conversation with a new column on the public purpose of public education at Phi Delta Kappan: “We Americans tend to talk about public schooling as though we know what that term means.  But in the complex educational landscape of the 21st century… it’s becoming less and less obvious….”

A spoiler: There is no equivocation in Labaree’s analysis.  He is a strong supporter of public education, and he worries that by prizing the personal and individualistic benefit of education, our society may have lost sight of our schools’ public purpose: “A public good is one that benefits all members of the community, whether or not they contribute to its upkeep or make use of it personally.  In contrast, private goods benefit individuals, serving only those people who take advantage of them. Thus, schooling is a public good to the extent that it helps everyone (including people who don’t have children in school). And schooling is a private good to the extent that it provides individuals with knowledge, skills, and credentials they can use to distinguish themselves from other people and get ahead in life.”

Labaree traces the history of public education through the 19th and early 20th centuries, but he believes more recently: “Over the subsequent decades… growing numbers of Americans came to view schooling mainly as a private good, producing credentials that allow individuals to get ahead, or stay ahead, in the competition for money and social status.  All but gone is the assumption that the purpose of schooling is to benefit the community at large. Less and less often do Americans conceive of education as a cooperative effort in nation-building or collective investment in workforce development.”

Labaree does not explicitly address growing school privatization, but he generalizes about the growing individualistic American ethos that accommodates privatization: “At a deeper level, as we have privatized our vision of public schooling, we have shown a willingness to back away from the social commitment to the public good that motivated the formation of the American republic and the common school system. We have grown all too comfortable in allowing the fate of other people’s children to be determined by the unequal competition among consumers for social advantage through schooling. The invisible hand of the market may work for the general benefit in the economic activities of the butcher and the baker but not in the political project of creating citizens.”

Labaree holds the education of citizens as among the central purposes of our grandparents and their forebears as they envisioned public schools: “The goal of these schools wasn’t just to teach young people to internalize democratic norms but also to make it possible for capitalism to coexist with republicanism. For the free market to function, the state had to relax its control over individuals, allowing them to make their own decisions as rational actors. By learning to regulate their own thoughts and behaviors within the space of the classroom, students would become prepared both for commerce and citizenship, able to pursue their self-interests in the economic marketplace while at the same time participating in the political marketplace of ideas… But when the public good is forever postponed, the effects are punishing indeed. And when schooling comes to be viewed solely as a means of private advancement, the consequences are dismal for both school and society.”

Beyond Labaree’s philosophical defense of public education’s communitarian purpose and his condemnation of our society’s love of individual competition today, there are other concerns with the abandonment of public purpose and the abandonment of public governance of education.  We can no longer ignore the failure of our state legislatures to protect the tax dollars raised by the public but ripped off by unscrupulous edupreneurs who build mansions and take lavish trips with the money they steal in states which have failed to prevent conflicts of interest and outright fraud by operators of privatized schools. We can no longer ignore the instability for students when privately governed charter schools suddenly shut down without warning—often in the middle of the school year. And we can no longer ignore the impact of the rapid authorization of charter schools and growth of voucher programs as they suck money out of states’ already meager public education budgets and at the same time destabilize their host school districts.

Labaree connects the growth of school privatization with our society’s competitive individualism which reserves a spot at the top for able children of the privileged and settles for cheaper alternatives for the children we have always left behind. I once heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson poignantly describe the ethical lapse in a system featuring individualism: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Another perfect formulation of Labaree’s concern is from the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Barber adds another important component of public governance, however: the protection of the rights of students and families by law in public institutions: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Drilling Down into the “Grading the States” Report on School Privatization

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  I have been posting  reflections about what I learned at this important meeting.

One of the most fascinating workshops at the conference explored the complexity of researching the groundbreaking, June 2018 report, Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools, and the importance of the report, the first comprehensive effort to track and compare the growth of privatization and the characteristics of state vouchers and charters. The report, a collaboration of the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education, defines its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers.  This is not an assessment of the overall quality of the public education system in the state—rather it is an analysis of the laws that support privatized alternatives to public schools.” (emphasis in the original)

The primary assumption of a report about the privatization of education but whose title incorporates these words, “a report card on our nation’s commitment to public schools,” is that the growth of several privatized education sectors at public expense—charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits and education savings accounts—reflects diminishing commitment to the inclusive mission of public education.  Sure enough, the report confirms that assumption, most clearly in the diversion of tax funds away from public schools: “Vouchers and charters do not decrease education costs, but instead divert tax dollars ordinarily directed to public schools thus limiting the capacity of public schools to educate the remaining students.”

Last weekend’s workshop featured three speakers: the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE), Dr. Carol Burris, who was one of the report’s researchers; Tanya Clay House, the report’s primary author and researcher—also an attorney and consultant who has previously served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, the Director of Public Policy for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Public Policy Director at People for the American Way; and Derek Black, an attorney and professor of school finance law at the University of South Carolina.

At last weekend’s workshop, Tanya Clay House and Carol Burris recounted the story of their plan nearly a year ago for a two or three months’ research project that grew and grew until more than half a year had passed.  Both are sophisticated researchers, and Clay House has connections within the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. They discovered, however, as they explored the enabling legislation across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, that even in instances when requirements for transparency and record-keeping were clear in the laws states had passed, a number of states had not complied with their own rules requiring documentation. They also discovered that much of the state-by-state legislation enabling charters and vouchers does not require transparent, longitudinal record-keeping.

After looking at data kept by the National Conference of State Legislators and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, Clay House and Burris found some of the most comprehensive records kept by organizations whose mission is the expansion and promotion of school privatization, for example: the Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ Charter Law Database; the (libertarian) Institute for Justice; the EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation for School Choice) School Choice Constitutionality Database; EdChoice’s School Choice in America Dashboard; and the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization) School Choice in America: Interactive Map.  Take a look at the Appendix of the Grading the States report. When the report was released in June, I looked at its conclusions, but until I was directed there by Burris and Clay House, I had had not explored the implications of the extensive Appendix that describes the sources for the data.

As a participant in last weekend’s workshop, I was fascinated, as Burris and Clay House described the difficulties they faced as they tried to collect the most basic data about what is now nearly 20 years of expanding school privatization. The two women told of one data set they had assumed the report would cover only to be forced to omit that issue from the report because the the records had not been kept by enough states to make it possible to draw any comprehensive or meaningful conclusion.  What became clear to me as I listened is that the promoters of school privatization trusted their own ideological belief that the marketplace would provide its own accountability. They assumed that as parents voted with their feet, parents themselves would identify high quality schools and seek them out; then schools of poor quality would not be marketable. Of course we know from research in Chicago and New Orleans  and elsewhere that parents choose schools for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with school quality—a site near home or work, the presence of a childcare or after-school program, the reputation of the football team, the advertising on the side of the bus, the incentive of the gift of a computer upon enrollment.  Several years ago, Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO),  shocked listeners at the Cleveland City Club by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

The third presenter in the NPE workshop was Derek Black, a civil rights attorney and school finance professor who explored what he believes is the overall significance of the Grading the States report. I was unable to capture verbatim Derek Black’s comments at the workshop, but in a blog post when the Grading the States report was published in June, Black made the same points in eloquent detail: “The report is, in many respects, the one I have been waiting for.  It fills in key facts that have been missing from the public debate and will help move it in a more positive direction.  In my forthcoming article, Preferencing Educational Choice: The Constitutional Limits, I also attempt to reframe the analysis of charter schools and vouchers, arguing that there are a handful of categorical ways in which states have actually created statutory preferences for charters and vouchers in relation to traditional public schools.  I explain why a statutory preference for these choice programs contradicts states’ constitutional obligations in regard to education… My research, however, analyzes the issues from a relatively high level of abstraction, highlighting problematic examples in particular states and districts and synthesizing constitutional principles from various states. This new report drills down into the facts in a way I have never seen before.  It systematically examines charter and voucher laws in each state with a standardized methodology aimed at identifying the extent to which each state’s laws represent a de-commitment to public education.”

Black continues: “Each year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) releases a report detailing charter school laws, with the frame of reference being the extent to which states have laws that promote the expansion of charters. The report normatively assumes that charter schools are good and state laws that overly restrict them are bad… Because there hasn’t been any systemic response to NAPCS’s reports, it has been able to skew the conversation.  This new report brings balance.”

When the Grading the States report was released in June, this blog summarized its conclusions. Needless to say, I came home from last weekend’s conference in Indianapolis and explored the report in more depth.  Here is what jumps out at me as an Ohio citizen this fall, after I’ve been watching the fallout across Ohio all year since the state’s final closure of the giant online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, after it ripped off Ohio taxpayers and students for 17 years. The report examines charter schools. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to permit charter schools. Of those 38, including my state, earned F grades. The report explains they are “states that embrace for-profit charter management, weak accountability and other factors that make their charter schools less accountable to the public.” “Twenty-eight of these states and the District of Columbia fail to require the same teacher certification as traditional public schools… Thirty-eight of the states and the District of Columbia have no required transparency provisions regulating the spending and funding by the charter school’s educational service providers… Of the 44 states and the District of Columbia with charter school laws, students with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged in 39 states and the District of Columbia, which do not clearly establish the provision of services. Twenty-two states do not require that the charter school return its taxpayer purchased assets and/or property back to the public if the charter school shuts down or fails.”  The details on the various voucher programs are equally alarming.

Thank you to the Network for Public Education, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Tanya Clay House and Carol Burris for digging up and reporting the alarming realities of school privatization. We must hope Derek Black and other legal scholars and litigators will be able to frame winning legal strategies to bring it all under control.

New “Charters and Consequences” Report from Network for Public Education Is Essential Reading

The Network for Public Education’s just-released investigative report, Charters and Consequences, paints a picture of corruption and the needless destruction of one of our society’s long-prized civic institutions. You’ll read about “charter schools gone wild” in California, where barely staffed storefront resource centers—sponsored by school districts 50 or 100 miles away—accrue state tax dollars to their sponsors’ operating budgets even as the sponsors do very little for the charter schools they supposedly oversee.  And you will read about Pennsylvania, where by state law, the charter gets every dollar—state and local—that would have been spent on the child in her public school, on the assumption that the local school district can reduce its expenses child-by-child, ignoring stranded costs for buildings and transportation and a school district’s inability instantly to resize its teaching staff.

The new report was researched and written by Carol Burris, the retired, award-winning NYC high school principal who now serves as Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE).  Burris not only explored research and news reports but traveled to interview the superintendents, teachers and parents affected by rapid charter school expansion.

Burris’ stories of visits to various locations ground the report’s conclusions—what Burris learned as she looked at the operation of online charters, for-profit charters, and the impact of charter school expansion on host public school districts. Here are some of her conclusions:

“When cash is flush, and regulations are thin, those who seek to profit appear, and they ensure reform is thwarted.”

“Pennsylvania’s politicians, like those in so many states, have neither the stomach nor the will to curb the abuses of charter schools as they drain the public school coffers. America must choose either a patchwork of online schools and charters with profiteers on the prowl, or a transparent community public school system run by citizens elected by their neighbors. A dual school system with the private taking funding from the public simply cannot survive.”

And what about the way charter school operators persist in dubbing their schools “public” charter schools?  “Most charter school advocates are quick to point out that they are not part of the school privatization agenda. They place the adjective ‘public’ in front of ‘charter school’ to distinguish themselves from voucher schools. This branding effort has been somewhat successful—especially with politicians and the press. But simply saying charters are public schools does not make it true… Democratically elected school boards govern most public schools.  Nearly all charter boards are appointed and not accountable to parents or the community. Charters control the number of students they have, and they do not have to take students mid-year. The transparency laws, especially in spending, that public schools must follow can be ignored by charter schools… And in some cases, when the school shuts down, the school building and property is not returned to the public who paid for them, but is retained by the charter owners themselves.  And, by the way, charters can walk away and shut their doors whenever it suits them.”  “Many are governed by larger corporations known as CMOs.  Some are for-profit; others are not-for-profit, yet still present financial ‘opportunities’ to vendors and those who run the school.”

Burris identifies the very different consequences for the students enrolled: “The differences between public schools and charter schools go well beyond issues of governance. One of the strengths of a true public school is its ethical and legal obligation to educate all. Public school systems enroll any student who comes into the district’s attendance zone from age 5 to 21—no matter their handicapping condition, lack of prior education, first language, or even disciplinary or criminal record. Not only will empty seats be filled at any grade, but also if there is a sudden influx of students, classes must be opened… The neighborhood public schools have greater proportions of students who are poor, and who need special education services. Digging deeper you will find stark differences in the handicapping conditions of students who attend charter and public schools, with public school special education students having far greater needs. Even after initial enrollment, charters lose students through attrition…. The public/charter difference is that even as students leave, (in public schools) they are replaced throughout the school year by new entrants, who are welcomed by their principals and teachers… It has long been suspected that high attrition in the ‘no excuses’ charters results in part from codes of discipline that rely heavily on excluding students for what public schools would consider to be minor infractions.  The strict code of discipline also serves as a screen—only parents who want a regimented and highly disciplined environment need apply.”

The Network for Public Education concludes its report with recommendations adopted by its board of directors: “For all the reasons above and more, the Network for Public Education regards charter schools as a failed experiment that our organization cannot support… We look forward to the day when charter schools are governed not by private boards but by those elected by the community, at the district, city or county level. Until that time, we support all legislation and regulation that will make charters better learning environments for students and more accountable to the taxpayers who fund them.” NPE calls for a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until laws are changed to protect students and protect tax dollars.

Please read the Network for Public Education’s Charters and Consequences report, circulate it, and discuss it—along with the short policy briefs NPE has included in its toolkit on school privatization.

False Claims and Fraud Keep on Surfacing in the Charter School Sector

The Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are fans of the marketplace. Privatizing education is their thing.  That is why it is so useful to consult some experts—in this case Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, political scientists who, in their newest book American Amnesia, warn about problems with marketplace thinking:

“That markets fall short under certain conditions has been known for at least two centuries. The eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith wrote enthusiastically about the ‘invisible hand’ of market allocation. Yet he also identified many cases where rational actors pursuing their own self-interest produced bad outcomes…. Economists have been building on these insights ever since to explain when and why markets stumble and how the visible hand of government can make the invisible hand more effective. The visible hand is needed, for example, to provide key collective goods that markets won’t (education, infrastructure, courts, basic scientific research); reduce negative spillover costs that parties to market exchanges don’t bear fully…. encourage positive spillover benefits that such parties don’t take fully into account such as shared knowledge; (and) regulate the market to protect consumers and investors….”  (American Amnesia, pp. 4-5)

Trump and DeVos extol the free hand of the market despite what we learn week after week about negative spillover costs and self-dealing when charter operators are tempted by pots of government money and inadequate oversight. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss introduces a new report from Carol Burris, of the Network for Public Education, with this bit of background: “President Trump’s first federal budget proposal seeks a $168 million increase for charter schools, which is a 50 percent funding increase from the current level set by the previous Obama administration… A 2016 audit by the Education Department’s Inspector General’s Office found that the department—which awards multi-million-dollar grants to states for the creation and expansion of charters—had failed to provide adequate oversight of some of its relationships with charter management organizations.”

Burris’s report, which Strauss then reprints in full, examines a chain of charter schools well-known for its high test scores. But, as we learn, there is something fishy going on: “One of the best illustrations of the ‘non-public’ nature of charters is the much heralded BASIS charter schools that began in Arizona, a state with extremely lax charter laws. A close look at BASIS provides insight into how charter schools can cherry-pick students, despite open enrollment laws. It also shows how through the use of management companies profits can be made—all hidden from public view.”  BASIS schools were started up by two economists in Tucson, expanded to Scottsdale, and later to Texas and Washington, D.C. Boasting a curriculum based on Advanced Placement classes and tests, they have been highly acclaimed for their rigor.

Hacker and Pierson use the economist’s term—negative externalities— for negative spillover costs or negative side-effects which are costs to society that may not be noticed or may be forgotten, whether the charter is launched by the visionary educator or by the crafty profit-maker seeking to educate children privately at public expense. The test scores of the students at a particular charter school are the yardstick society most commonly uses to judge the school, but what about the side-effects on society that may be much broader than the experiences of one group of children inside the school?  As Trump and DeVos seek to privatize more schools, what are some cautions that ought to be considered due to the negative externalities associated with the charter sector as it stands today?

One negative externality at BASIS is that the schools do not serve all children, as public schools are required to do.  BASIS schools have managed to imbalance their student populations to ensure that their students are very high test-scorers: “The proportional over-enrollment of Asian-American students and under-enrollment of Latino students at BASIS charter schools is startling. But differences in the students served do not end with race and ethnicity.  In 2015-16, (in Arizona) only 1.23 percent of the students at BASIS had a learning disability, as compared to 11.3 percent of students in the state. BASIS schools had no English Language Learners.  And in a state in which over 47 percent of all students received free or reduced-priced lunch, BASIS had none…. (I)t chooses not to participate in the free or reduced-priced lunch program… Because BASIS provides no transportation, where it places schools—along with the lack of a free-lunch program—discourages disadvantaged students from applying.”

Another  negative externality  is that the school shapes its student body by failing to admit enrollees after middle school: “The ‘rigorous’ curriculum of BASIS prevents prospective enrollees from transferring in after middle school. Students must take six Advanced Placement exams and pass at least one with a score of 3 or above in order to graduate. However, they are required to take more AP classes than that, beginning in middle school. There are comprehensive tests that must be passed or students are retained (in grade)… Even after getting into BASIS, however, there is less than a 50 percent chance the students will stay to graduate. During each successive year, students leave when they cannot keep up with excessive academic demands. Like the ‘no-excuses’ charter schools found in cities, the attrition rates at BASIS middle and high schools are extraordinarily high. Of a cohort of 85 students who began eighth grade in BASIS Flagstaff during the 2011-12 school year, only 41 percent (35) remained to enter twelfth grade in 2015-16. In the flagship school, BASIS Tucson North, a seventh-grade class of 130 became a class of 54 by senior year. The same pattern exists in every BASIS charter high school in the state.”

Burris also explains a third negative externality—the profits being made (at public expense via the tax dollars BASIS schools collect) by Olga and Michael Block, who started BASIS and then turned management over to the for-profit, limited liability company that they now own and that operates BASIS. Because the company is private, their salaries cannot be discerned, but there is some indication of profits being made. As Burris reports: “According to a 2015 study by the Grand Canyon Institute and Arizonans for Charter School Accountability, BASIS schools spent an average of $2,291 per pupil on administration while the average public district spent just $628 per pupil.”

Beyond correcting for mere side-effects of running separate systems side-by-side for educating children—the public system and then systems of charters and vouchers—there is the danger of fraud and self-dealing when privatized schools operate without adequate oversight and regulation. This week’s example is, finally after years’ of investigation, the arrest of Benford Chavis, who operated a charter chain—the American Indian Model Schools—in Oakland, California. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Chavis “faces six felony counts of mail fraud and money laundering, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco. Chavis allegedly applied for and received more than $1 million in federal grant funding from 2006 to 2012 that he said would be used for the charter schools.  The money was instead used for lease payments on properties Chavis owned… Chavis faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the three counts of mail fraud and 10 years for each count of money laundering.” Chavis has been under investigation since 2013,  is no longer associated with the schools, and now lives in Lumberton, North Carolina. He is said to have been a controversial presence in the schools he operated: “Students were often publicly humiliated and forced to attend Saturday school and detention. Chavis drew both national scorn and praise for his tactics.”

Michelle Rhee coined the attack on public school teachers and administrators—that they prioritize adult interests and fail to put students first. Benford Chavis is an example of a more common phenomenon: charter operators who put profits first. He is said to have engaged in overtly criminal behavior. But in too many cases, self-interested operators stay just inside the law or prevent adequate oversight by investing in contributions to the legislators who would have to enact regulations to prevent both negative externalities and self-dealing.

Unlike Trump and DeVos, the political scientists Hacker and Pierson believe government itself is best suited to educate our society’s children: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic and civic outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive (attracting residents, responding to voters) and the means (tax financing of public schools, compulsory attendance laws) to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.” (American Amnesia, p. 65)

How Can Schools Be Voucherized? Let Us Count the Ways… and the Consequences

School privatization via vouchers has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. Private school vouchers are also a favorite cause of Vice President Mike Pence and the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Most of us are not particularly familiar with vouchers in general because they have until now been a project of state governments. We are likely to know about what’s happening in our own state, but perhaps be unaware about trends across the states. Did you know, for example, that school vouchers are called by a number of names?

5 Names Politicians Use to Sell Private-School Voucher Schemes to Parents is a short resource that clarifies how all these programs work: “(V)ouchers divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools—starving them of the critical funding needed for students to thrive—only to use these funds to subsidize private and/or religious schools.  However, voucher proponents, like (Betsy) DeVos and politicians found in your state almost never call them vouchers. Instead, they attempt to mislead parents, taxpayers, and voters by re-branding these plots to drain and defund public education with some pleasant-sounding, flowery name plucked from the school-choice lexicon—Opportunity Scholarships—Parental Choice Scholarships—Tuition Tax Credits—Charitable Tax Credits—Education Savings Accounts.”

NEA explains that Opportunity and Parental Choice Scholarships give parents public money to use for tuition (and sometimes transportation, fees, and equipment) at private and parochial schools.  Because these vouchers are insufficient to pay for tuition at a great many traditional private schools which charge as much as private colleges, vouchers are frequently used by parents of students at religious schools.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only federally funded voucher scholarship program is the one in the District of Columbia. Congress has never been able to muster the support to enact vouchers federally—only in Washington, D.C. where, perhaps not coincidentally, the residents lack a voting Congressional representative. Vouchers, which began in Milwaukee back in 1989, have grown steadily as statehouses have tipped toward domination by the far right. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have plain old voucher (scholarship) programs in which students are given a publicly funded coupon to cover tuition at a private or parochial school: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin, along with Maine and Vermont which have both had longstanding tax scholarship programs for children in isolated rural areas lacking public school districts.

Tuition Tax Credits are also a kind of vouchers. Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188) For parents in states with tuition tax credits, the pet project is the education of their own children, but some states also have broader Charitable Tax Credits for education—tuition tax credit programs that allow individuals and corporations to contribute to state school tuition organizations that then make scholarship grants to students to pay for their tuition at private schools.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of December 2016, 17 states offered different types of tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

The National Education Association defines another—the newest—kind of vouchers: Education Savings Accounts: “Education Savings Accounts (ESA) are the latest trend in publicly subsidized private school education… (T)he common factor is that these programs pay parents all or a large portion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children in exchange for an agreement to forego their right to a public education. Funds deposited into such accounts may be used for any number of expenses, including private school tuition, fees, textbooks; tutoring and test prep; homeschooling curriculum and supplemental materials; special instruction and therapeutic services; transportation; and management fees. These programs also permit parents to roll over unused funds for use in subsequent years and to invest a portion of the funds into college savings plans.” In Education Savings Account voucher plans, the state itself deposits funds in parents’ accounts, and the parents can shop around for particular services, perhaps split among a number of vendors.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as December 2016, only 5 states had such programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, though Nevada’s program is on hold because the state supreme court found its funding system unconstitutional.

Vouchers of all forms have arrived in the 50 state capitols in the form of bills cooked up elsewhere and then introduced by sympathetic legislators who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, a membership organization, pairs member state legislators with corporate lobbyist members and with members who represent special interests—in the case of vouchers, the ideologues from the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization), and the Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice—to create model laws that can then be handed to member state legislators to be introduced in any state. ALEC is often dubbed a bill mill.  ALEC’s model bills for various kinds of vouchers include a Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, Opportunity Scholarships, the Smart Start Scholarship Program, the Education Savings Account Act, and the Great Schools Tax Credit Act.

Here is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, in a recent column commenting on what vouchers do to public school funding. This time the example is Mike Pence’s home state, Indiana: “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases. When Indiana started its voucher program, it claimed it would save taxpayers money. Not only did that not happen, the state’s education budget is now in deficit, and the millions shelled out for vouchers grows each year. Last year, vouchers cost the taxpayers of Indiana $131.5 million as caps and income levels were raised. Indiana now gives vouchers to families with incomes as high as $90,000 and to students who never attended a public school.” Burris adds that while the program was passed, “promising that it would help poor and lower-middle class families find schools they like for their children… as it turned out, five years after it began, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended Indiana public schools and many vouchers are going to wealthier families, those earning up to $90,000 for a household of four.”

Last week, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee journalist, Barbara Miner shared her insights after observing the Milwaukee voucher program since its beginning: “For more than a quarter-century, I have reported on the voucher program in Milwaukee: the country’s first contemporary voucher initiative and a model for other cities and state programs, from Cleveland to New Orleans, Florida to Indiana.  Milwaukee’s program began in 1990, when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing 300 students in seven nonsectarian private schools to receive taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. It was billed as a small, low-cost experiment to help poor black children, and had a five-year sunset clause. That was the bait. The first ‘switch’ came a few weeks later, when the Republican governor eliminated the sunset clause. Ever since, vouchers have been a divisive yet permanent fixture in Wisconsin.” “Since 1990, roughly $2 billion in public money has been funneled into private and religious schools in Wisconsin, and the payments keep escalating.” “Today, some 33,000 students in 212 schools receive publicly funded vouchers, not just in Milwaukee but throughout Wisconsin. If it were its own school district, the voucher program would be the state’s second largest. The overwhelming majority of the schools are religious.”

A serious problem, reports Miner, is that voucher schools are not required to protect the civil rights of their students, including the rights guaranteed by federal law in all public schools: “Because they are defined as ‘private,’ voucher schools operate by separate rules, with minimal public oversight or transparency. They can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech. They do not have to provide the same level of second-language or special-education services. They can suspend or expel students without legal due process. They can ignore the state’s requirements for open meetings and records. They can disregard state law prohibiting discrimination against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status.”

Miner warns, “Wisconsin has sunk so deep into this unaccountable world that our voucher program not only turns a blind eye toward discrimination in voucher schools, it forces the public to pay for such discrimination… Privatizing an essential public function and forcing the public to pay for it, even while removing it from meaningful public oversight, weakens our democracy.”