On Monday, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker published a column in the NY Times to announce his support for charter schools. I’ll give Booker credit for being honest. Until now, as an active candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, Booker has tried to hedge this issue, even though support for charter schools—and at one time even vouchers—has been among his primary priorities in public life for two decades.
I’ll also give Booker credit for endorsing, in this week’s column, better support for traditional public schools: “As a party, we need to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes for children who are underserved and historically disadvantaged. That must mean significantly increasing funding for public schools, raising teacher pay, fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, investing in universal preschool, eliminating child poverty—and yes, supporting high-performing public charter schools if and when they are the right fit for a community, are equitable and inclusive, and play by the same rules as other public schools.”
Booker bases his argument on his own life story. His parents struggled with racism and segregation and fought to move into a school district where they could be sure their children would be well educated. He believes charter schools provide an escape from struggling public schools for children whose parents cannot move out of communities where they believe the schools fail to serve their children. For Booker, charter schools are an escape route for families who feel trapped by racism, as his parents did.
It is on one level an appealing argument, which was bluntly articulated when the far-right Thomas Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli argued that charter schools are a solution for poor strivers. Betsy DeVos adopts the same argument for school choice when she says that, because parents know what is best for each of their children, we should provide universal school choice.
However, the essential point to remember about school choice—whether it is a system of private school tuition vouchers or privately operated but publicly funded charter schools—is that school choice privileges the few at the expense of the many.
The scale of the provision of K-12 education across our nation can best be achieved by the systemic, public provision of education. Rewarding social entrepreneurship in the startup of one charter school at a time cannot possibly serve the needs of the mass of our children and adolescents. In a new, September 2019 enrollment summary, the National Center for Education Statistics reports: “Between around 2000 and 2016, traditional public school… enrollment increased to 47.3 million (1 percent increase), charter school enrollment grew to 3.0 million students (from 0.4 million), and the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled to 1.7 million. Private school enrollment fell 4 percent, to 5.8 million students.”
Booker argues for well-regulated and high-performing charter schools. The problem he fails to acknowledge is that charter schools were established beginning in the mid-1990s by state legislatures smitten with the idea of innovation and experimentation. None of these legislatures, to my knowledge, provided adequate oversight of the academic quality of the schools, and none imposed protections to guarantee the stewardship of public tax dollars. Malfeasance, corruption, and poor performance plague charter schools across the states. Charter schools have now been established by state law across 45 states where stories of outrageous fiscal and academic scandals fill local newspapers. The Network for Public Education tracks the myriad examples of outrageous fraud and mismanagement by charter schools. Because advocates for school privatization and the entrepreneurs in the for-profit charter management companies regularly donate generously to the political coffers of state legislators—the very people responsible for passing laws to regulate this out-of-control sector—adequate oversight has proven impossible.
And while some predicted the expansion of charter schools would improve academic achievement on a broad scale, children in traditional public schools and charter schools perform about the same. According to the new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Academic Performance: In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools.”
In his NY Times column this week, Booker neglects to address perhaps the most worrisome of the problems with charter schools. Charter schools are parasites sucking essential dollars from the public school districts where they are located. The political economist Gordon Lafer explains that the expansion of charter schools cannot possibly be revenue neutral for the host school district losing students to 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.”
Lafer documents that during the 2016-17 school year, “charter schools cost the Oakland Unified School District $57.3 million.” Because none of the states has created a separate funding stream for privatized charter schools or vouchers, the funding always comes out of state and local public school budgets.
In his NY Times column this week, Booker explains that, like many of the other Democratic candidates for President, he opposes for-profit charter schools. But opposing for-profit charter schools misses the point. In most states, charter schools themselves must be nonprofits, but the nonprofit boards of directors of these schools may hire a for-profit management company to operate the school. Two of the most notorious examples of the ripoffs of tax dollars in nonprofit-but-managed-for-profit charter schools were in Ohio. The late David Brennan, the father of Ohio charter schools, set up sweeps contracts with the nonprofit schools managed by his for-profit White Hat Management Company. The boards of these schools—frequently people with ties to Brennan and his operations—turned over to White Hat Management more than 90 percent of the dollars awarded by the state to the nonprofit charters. These were secret deals. Neither the public nor the members of the nonprofit charter school boards of directors could know how the money was spent; nor did they know how much profit Brennan’s for-profit management company raked off the top. Then there was Bill Lager, the founder of Ohio’s infamous Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—technically a nonprofit. All management of the online charter school and the design and provision of its curriculum were turned over to Lager’s privately owned, for-profit companies—Altair Management and IQ Innovations. ECOT was shut down in 2018 for charging the state for thousands of students who were not really enrolled. The state of Ohio is still in court trying to recover even a tiny percentage of Lager’s lavish profits.
Booker wants to have it both ways—to strengthen the traditional public schools that serve the mass of our children and at the same time allow charter schools, which he believes can be regulated to serve the public interest. He fails to recognize that nobody yet has figured out how to regulate these schools which were created intentionally without what was said to be the straightjacket of bureaucratic regulation and which are now very often producing outrageous profits for their operators. The idea was to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, but what has emerged is a privatized education sector saturated with out-of-control corruption.
Booker insistently uses the term “public charter schools.” But charter schools are a form of school privatization. They are an example of private contracting by which a public school district or state approved authorizer contracts with a private nonprofit or for-profit operator to run the school without an elected school board and without the guarantee of transparency. The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains why Booker is wrong to imagine that privately operated charter schools can protect the children whose educational opportunity is curtailed by poverty and racism: “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)
Booker is right that our society urgently needs to address child poverty itself as well as the overwhelming challenges for the underfunded traditional public schools which serve children in urban communities where racism persists and poverty is concentrated. However, a relatively small privatization scheme to create escapes for a few children cannot be the answer. Public schools are far from perfect. They are, however, the only institution where our very complex society can balance the needs of each particular student and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of nearly 50 million children and adolescents. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all students. While our society has not realized justice for many children and adolescents in the public schools, it is by striving systemically to improve access and opportunity in the public schools that we have the best chance of securing the rights of all of our young people.