Charter Schools Undermine the Public Schools Which Serve the Very Children Cory Booker Worries About

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.

Why Democratic Candidates for President Need to Stop Waffling About Charter Schools

On Monday morning, Diane Ravitch sent around what I believe is an urgently important post from Michigan’s Nancy Flanagan.  Flanagan, a retired, National Board Certified Michigan public school teacher and 1993 Michigan Teacher of the Year, previously blogged regularly at Education Week.  She now blogs personally at Teacher in a Strange Land.

In the post Ravitch highlights this week, Flanagan regrets that Democrats running for President continue to waffle about charter schools and too few people are holding them to account on this issue.  At a recent gathering with women discussing politics in her community, Flanagan tried to protest when someone supported Cory Booker’s candidacy: “I interrupted the happy talk: ‘His record on education is terrible. He’s an avowed charter school supporter who nearly destroyed the Newark Public Schools.  He’s a big fan of school choice, even vouchers.’ I looked around the table at a lot of blank faces.  One voice spoke up: ‘So? Why is that so bad?'”

Flanagan explains her own strong opposition to charter schools: “I believe charter schools have done untold damage to public education, and I’ve had twenty years to observe the public money/private management ideology establish itself in Michigan. First, a scattering of alternative-idea boutique schools, another ‘choice’ for picky parents. Then go after the low-hanging fruit, the schools in deep poverty—and then the healthier districts. There is now agreement with an idea once unthinkable in America: corporations have a ‘right’ to advertise and sell education, using our tax dollars.” (emphasis in the original)

Why are so many people complacent when it comes to considering the complex issues around charter schools? Flanagan believes: “Our citizenry is trained in consumerism—promoting education as just another choice to be made was easy, like FedEx or Blackwater instead of the USPS or the US Military.  Got a problem with the local public school? Don’t invest your time and money in fixing what’s already there.  Pick a new school. It’s the American way.”

Flanagan challenges such consumerist complacency: “Let’s invest more in fully public education…. Let’s acknowledge the places where (public schools have) crumbled and rebuild them, instead of abandoning them.  Let’s work toward more economically and ethnically diverse schools, making them places where building an informed citizenry and developing individual talents—not test scores—are our highest goals”

Reading Flanagan’s column caused me to consider what I would say if somebody asked me why it matters so much that the Democrats running for President refuse to take a courageous stand.

I’d begin by explaining that by waffling—trying to have it both ways about the issue of school privatization—the candidates are refusing to provide strong leadership.  A strong leader would demand that citizens consider all the reasons for protecting America’s most important civic institution.

Here are my seven reasons for believing Democrats running for President ought to express strong support for public schools and opposition to charter schools:

First:   The scale of the provision of K-12 education across our nation can best be achieved by the systemic, public provision of schools.  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, public charter school, and homeschool enrollment increased, while private school enrollment decreased… 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.”

Second:   Public schools are our society’s most important civic institution. Public schools are not perfect, but they are the optimal way for our very complex society to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. 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 children. While our society has not fully realized justice for every child 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 children.

Third:   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.” “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.”

Fourth:   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.”

Fifth:   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 (managed-for-profit) charter schools were in my state, 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 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.

Sixth:   Malfeasance, corruption, and poor performance plague charter schools across the states. Because charter schools were established by state law across the 45 states where charters operate, and because much of the state charter school enabling legislation featured innovation and experimentation and neglected oversight, the scandals fill local newspapers. The Network for Public Education tracks the myriad examples of outrageous fraud and mismanagement by charter schools.  Because neoliberal ideologues 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.

Seventh:   The federal Charter Schools Program should be shut down immediately. Here is a brief review of the Network for Public Education’s findings in last spring’s Asleep at the Wheel report.  A series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated the federal Charter Schools Program (part of the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education) as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start up or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools across the country. The CSP has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants. The Network for Public Education found that the CSP has spent over a $1 billion on schools that never opened or were opened and subsequently shut down: “The CSP’s own analysis from 2006-2014 of its direct and state pass-through funded programs found that nearly one out of three awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015.”

Last June in The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner defined the political philosophy known as neoliberalism and showed how this kind of thinking has driven privatization across many sectors previously operated, for the public good, by government: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

For three decades, neoliberalism has reigned in education policy. The introduction of the neoliberal ideal of competition—supposedly to drive school improvement—through vouchers for private school tuition and in the expansion of charter schools has become acceptable to members of both political parties.

The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains elegantly and precisely what is wrong with neoliberal thinking in general. I think his words apply directly to what has been happening as charter schools have been expanded to more and more states. The candidates running for President who prefer to waffle on the advisability of school privatization via charter schools ought to consider Barber’s analysis:

“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)

It Will Take Years to Recover from What’s Been the Matter in Kansas—and Lots of Other States

Governing Magazine just published an extraordinary profile of Kansas state government—what was left of it after Sam Brownback’s tenure.  Last November when a Democrat, Laura Kelly, took office, the new governor found herself assessing the damage from two terms of total austerity. Reporter, Alan Greenblatt describes a state unable to serve the public:

“To students of state politics, the failed Kansas experiment with deep cuts to corporate and income tax rates—which GOP Gov. Sam Brownback promised would lead to an economic flowering, and which instead led to anemic growth and crippling deficits—is well known.  What is not as well understood, even within Kansas, is the degree to which years of underfunding and neglect have left many state departments and facilities hollowed out…. All around Kansas government, there are stories about inadequate staffing…. Staff turnover in social services in general and at the state prisons has led to dozens of missing foster children and a series of prison uprisings… During the Brownback administration, from 2011 to 2018, prison staff turnover doubled, to more than 40 percent per year, while the prison population increased by 1,400 inmates, or 15 percent.  Guards have been burned out by mandatory over time and by pay scales that have failed to keep pace with increased insurance premiums and copays, let alone inflation. With inadequate and inexperienced staff, the prisons began employing a technique known as ‘collapsing posts,’ meaning some areas were simply left unguarded.”

The Brownback era ended, but the damage has not yet been repaired: “By the time Kelly took office, legislators recognized the hole the state was in.  Coming hard on the heels of the recession, state revenues plunged $700 million during the first year following Brownback’s tax cuts.  Missing revenue targets became a monthly sport in Kansas for years after.  With schools shutting down early and Brownback looking to raid funding for other children’s programs, the Republican controlled legislature finally rolled back most of Brownback’s tax cuts in 2017, over his veto… Largely as a result of the 2017 rollback of Brownback’s program, Kansas tax receipts are now expected to exceed $7 billion annually through 2022.”

Public education funding shortages were an issue even before Brownback entered office. In fact, many legislators have blamed the schools, not Brownback’s tax cuts, for funding reductions to other agencies. The need for adequate and equitable school funding has been kept in front of the public and in front of the legislature by Gannon v. Kansas, a lawsuit filed in 2010.  The legislature even tried—unsuccessfully—to pass a law making school funding non-justiciable.  Greenblatt counters with a reminder: “Getting education spending back as high as it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, is expected to take four more years.”

The Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker traces the history of Gannon v. Kansas, the school finance lawsuit which has forced legislators in Kansas to reckon with the constitutional right of the children of Kansas to a public school education. There was an earlier lawsuit, Montoy v. State, in which a 2005 decision demanded that the state invest more in its public schools: “The Montoy case ended in 2006, when the Court ruled that new legislation substantially met constitutional requirements.  In 2008, however, before the State fully implemented the Montoy remedy, it began making significant reductions in school funding. The Gannon lawsuit was filed in response… In its initial Gannon decisions, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s rulings that the State’s actions resulted in inadequate and inequitable funding levels and ordered reforms. The plaintiffs were forced to seek relief from the Supreme Court several times after the Legislature and Governor failed to enact the required reforms. In 2018, the Court ruled that additional funds provided by the State addressed funding equity but did not ensure adequate funding levels.”

Finally just two months ago, on June 14, “(T)he Court found the State had finally substantially complied with the constitutional requirement for funding adequacy. The Court noted the plaintiffs’ agreement that a $90 million increase was adequate for 2019-2020… Most important, the Court is retaining jurisdiction over the Gannon lawsuit to ensure the State follows through with the required funding increases.”  In an earlier report, Lecker adds that the state will need to appropriate another $363 million annually by 2023 to remain in compliance.  Ongoing court oversight will be needed to ensure the legislature honors its promise of additional appropriations.

The slow recovery in Kansas is mirrored in other states.  In Wisconsin, where last November, Democrat and former state school superintendent Tony Evers was elected governor to replace the far-right Scott Walker, the same battle to restore state services and the public education budget is being fought—this time without the pressure of a court case.  Evers creatively used his line item veto to increase public education funding on top of the appropriations sent to him by an extremely conservative Republican legislature.  For the Appleton Post-Crescent, Samantha West reports: “The state’s biennial budget will pump an additional $570 million into K-12 education over the next two years, but parents and students shouldn’t expect to see noticeable changes… While the increased funding is encouraging, Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said there’s a long way to go…. ‘Anything that’s not a cut feels like a victory to Wisconsin schools… but how sad is that?'”

In The One Percent Solution, an excellent book on the fiscal impact across the states of the 2010 election, Gordon Lafer begins a chapter called “Wisconsin and Beyond” by describing nearly a decade of fiscal collapse in many states: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign… (T)he 2011 legislative sessions (also) opened in the midst of record budget deficits, creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible. Any one of these things—a dramatic swing in partisan control, the suddenly heightened influence of moneyed interests, or a nationwide fiscal crisis—would be enough to change the shape of legislation.  Having all three come together in one moment produced something akin to a political perfect storm. For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.”  (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)

A key strategy of the state-by-state corporate agenda to reduce the size of government was tax slashing. In Kansas and Wisconsin, we see the deep and lasting consequences. There is, of course, a very simple moral to this story: The taxes we pay ensure we can have the public services we take for granted until they are gone. Corporations and individuals have a civic responsibility to pay taxes—which should be progressive, with those who have the most paying their fair share.

With Tony Evers’ New Budget, Wisconsin Begins Long Journey to Shed Scott Walker’s Legacy

In Gordon Lafer’s 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, in the first chapter entitled  “Wisconsin and Beyond: Dismantling the Government,” Lafer makes Wisconsin the emblem of what happened in the 2010 election, as corporate lobbies, the Tea Party, and the collapse of state revenue following the Great Recession converged to fuel a Red-state wave that took over state governments:

“Critically, this new territory included a string of states, running across the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, that had traditionally constituted labor strongholds… Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions, or, where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain.  At the same time, the overall size of government has been significantly reduced in both union and nonunion jurisdictions. The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states.  All of this—deunionization, sharp cuts in public employee compensation and the dramatic rollback of public services—was forcefully championed by the corporate lobbies, who made shrinking the public sector a top policy priority in state after state.”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 44-45)

In his fine book, Lafer describes a wave of tax cuts that followed the 2010 election, plus anti-teachers’ union battles and efforts to expand school privatization through enabling charter schools or adding state voucher (and neo-voucher tuition tax credits or education savings accounts).  Lafer points to public schools as one of the institutions targeted by the corporate reformers from state to state:  “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority. As a result, in recent years there has been more legislation adopted related to education than to any other area of social or economic activity. From 2011 to 2015, at least eight states passed laws limiting the union rights of schoolteachers; nine states increased the use of student test scores for teacher evaluation; seventeen expanded online instruction; and twenty-nine passed laws encouraging the privatization of education through vouchers or charter schools. This unprecedented rush of legislation is not a response to (a) sudden educational crisis; American students’ reading and math scores have remained largely unchanged for forty years. Rather, it represents long-held ambitions that became politically possible following Citizens United, project RedMap, and the Great Recession-induced fiscal crisis.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

For Gordon Lafer, Scott Walker’s Wisconsin epitomized the corporate takeover of state government. As we enter July of 2019, almost a decade later, Wisconsin has been swept by a significant pushback against the corporate agenda. Walker is now gone, and Wisconsin’s new governor, Tony Evers just signed his first budget. Evers, who served Wisconsin as the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction from 2011 until he was elected governor in November, 2018, promised to undo Scott Walker’s record on public education.

It is becoming clear in Wisconsin and many other states, however, that overcoming the corporate takeover of state government and the attack on public education will be neither quick nor easy. Wisconsin’s new Governor Evers is a Democrat, but both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature are dominated by large Republican majorities.  At the end of June, the members of Wisconsin’s legislature presented Evers with a budget reflecting Governor Walker’s—not Governor Evers’—priorities.

Eventually, Evers signed the budget presented to him last week by the Wisconsin Legislature, but he said he had considered vetoing the whole thing.  Finally he used what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel identifies as, “the strongest veto powers in the country. This stems from a 1930 state constitutional amendment granting Wisconsin governors partial veto authority that allows the governor to strike individual words and numbers from legislation that appropriates money. That lets governors surgically remove words here and there to get results that are at odds with what legislators wanted.”

Wisconsin Public Radio’s Laurel White explains: “Gov. Tony Evers used his veto pen Wednesday to boost K-12 education funding in Wisconsin by about $65 million in the next two-year state budget. The change was one of 78 partial vetoes Evers made to the $82 billion budget approved last week by Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled Legislature… The boost to education funding means the state will increase K-12 education spending by about $570 million over the next two years.  The budget approved by the Legislature had already slated a roughly $500 million increase. Evers accomplished the spending bump by increasing per-pupil aid in Wisconsin by $64 per student in each of the next two years… However, the governor also eliminated an $18 million technology grant program within the K-12 budget.  In his veto message, the governor said the funds ‘could more effectively be spent on programs that close achievement gaps.’  His increase and cut combined result in a net increase of about $65 million to K-12 schools from his veto pen.  Even with that $65 million boost, the $570 million schools spending increase is still dramatically less than the $1.4 billion bump he proposed earlier this year.”

For the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Annysa Johnson quotes Heather DuBois Bourenane, director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, expressing disappointment in the budget Evers signed into law: “The increases are appreciated.  But they’re modest at best…  And they do nothing to move the needle on the radical revisioning of our education crisis that the (Legislature’s) Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding called for a year ago.”  Bourenane represents an encouraging statewide push by parents, teachers, and community advocates for the rejection of Walker’s education policies.

In his 2017 book, Gordon Lafer reminds us just how deeply Scott Walker cut taxes and, subsequently education funding: “Indeed, Governor Walker… (twice chose) to create budget deficits where none previously existed by instituting new tax cuts devoted primarily to corporations and the wealthy. As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per student than it had in 2008—the second-steepest education funding cut in the country. (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)

Evers has persisted throughout the budget debate, however, in working to change the narrative—to define again and again what sort of state investments will provide essential support for the most vulnerable children and their schools. He did so again in his explanation of his use of Wisconsin’s veto powers to adjust the Legislature’s budgetary priorities. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s, Johnson quotes Evers describing his reason for signing the budget, which even after his vetoes fails to fulfill his goals for the state’s public schools: “This is only a down payment on the progress we must make in the next biennial budget… There’s still more that we need to do. I will not stop fighting for our kids, meaningful investment in our schools and school finance reform.”

Johnson describes additional comments from Evers’ signing statement: “Despite its shortcomings, Evers touted the education budget as significant. In addition to the per-pupil aid, he said it: increases state special education funding by $95 million, the first increase since 2008-09; includes the first substantial increase in revenue limit authority in a decade, meaning districts can raise more money from state and local taxpayers; doubles state support for… mental health programs in schools; and provides nearly $330 million, the largest nominal dollar increase in state general aid since the 2005-07 biennium.”

Wisconsin’s army of public school supporters are justified in their disappointment that Evers was unable to undo Scott Walker’s damage this year. The most recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Wisconsin’s combined state and local funding for K-12 public schools remains 4 percent below what was being spent in 2008 before the Great Recession. But while Evers has persistently worked to frame a new narrative about the public’s responsibility to lift educational opportunity for the state’s most vulnerable children, Evers and his supporters will have to keep up the pressure for considerably longer than this year.

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.

Backing Gov. Tony Evers’ Education Budget Priorities, Wisconsin Protesters Will Walk 60 Miles to Madison

Parents, teachers, and concerned citizens from all over Wisconsin will walk 60 miles to Madison beginning tomorrow. They’ll be demonstrating all weekend to protest the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Legislature’s state education budget and to support Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ effort to overcome years of Scott Walker’s budget cuts to the state’s public schools.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Annysa Johnson reports: “Public school advocates from across the state will embark on a 60-mile march to Madison… hoping to persuade Republican lawmakers to boost funding for K-12 education…. The goal, organizers say, is for the lawmakers to reinstate key components of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ education budget, particularly his nearly $600 million boost to cover special education costs, $58 million more for mental health services, and $40 million more for bilingual-bicultural programs.”

Gov. Evers, formerly Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, knows about the needs of public schools.  After the Legislature—still dominated by Walker’s kind of small government Republicans—rejected his budget proposal and countered with less investment in what Evers believes are necessary programs, the new Governor has repeated his demands for more money, particularly to help school districts serve disabled children in special education and support school districts serving concentration of children living in poverty.

In late May, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Molly Beck reported: “The Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted… to put in the next state budget a $500 million increase in funding for schools that provides $97 million in new funding to help cover schools’ special education costs… But Evers made clear the Republican plan for special education funding wasn’t adequate. ‘We’ve had school districts across the state going to referendum for many, many years now, and passing referenda because the state hasn’t done their share… I don’t believe that what is proposed… deals with the issue of students with disabilities in more comprehensive way… I don’t think it’s enough.'”

Beck explains in more detail: “(Luther) Olsen, vice chairman of the budget committee, said the package would raise the percentage of special education costs the state covers from 25% to 26% for the current school year and to 30% in 2020.  Evers, the former state schools superintendent, proposed raising the reimbursement rate to 60%—which would cost $600 million.  Either would be the first increase in state funding for special education in more than a decade… A recent study by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum showed school districts across the state spent more than $1 billion in district funds to cover special education costs that otherwise would have been spent district-wide.”

Another of Evers’ priorities, a significant increase for school districts which serve concentrations of children in poverty, was not part of the legislators’ budget as of June 17, when Molly Beck updated the details of the Legislature’s education budget negotiations: “Removed from Evers’ K-12 plan—built largely off proposals he made as state schools superintendent—was a plan to overhaul the state’s education funding formula to provide money to schools with high numbers of students who live in poverty.  Evers wanted to increase funding for schools by $1.4 billion, which included a $600 million increase in funding for school districts’ special education costs.  Republican lawmakers also removed (Evers’) proposal to freeze enrollment in the state’s private voucher school systems.”

A Wisconsin Education Association Council update on June 7, 2019 explains the Republican Legislature’s determination to continue supporting school privatization with ample funding for the state’s large voucher program, which uses tax dollars to pay students’ tuition at religious schools: “Analysis of the education budget passed through the Joint Finance Committee… shows that students enrolled in private voucher schools would again receive higher per-pupil payments than public school students. Public schools would be capped at increasing per-pupil spending by approximately $200 in 2019-20 and $204 in 2020-21, while payments for voucher school tuition would increase by an estimated $229 in the first year of the budget, and $275 in the second year.”

In his important book, The One Percent Solution, about the 2010 Red-Wave election that flipped so many states to far-right, anti-government Republican leadership, political economist Gordon Lafer describes Scott Walker’s Wisconsin as emblematic of the anti-tax, anti-public services agenda. Lafer explains: “The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the agenda…. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system.  (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

Lafer describes exactly how this has all played out in Wisconsin: “Indeed, Governor Walker… (twice chose) to create budget deficits where none previously existed by instituting new tax cuts devoted primarily to corporations and the wealthy. As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per student than it had in 2008—the second-steepest education funding cut in the country. (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)

It is worth examining carefully what Wisconsin’s new Gov. Evers is prioritizing as a way to challenge the narrative about public spending. His budgetary priorities emphasize what are among every public school district’s most expensive and essential programming challenges—addressing the needs of very poor children and educating children with disabilities.  Traditionally it has also been the role of state governments (with the help of targeted federal Title I and IDEA funding) to equalize and compensate for the fiscal incapacity of property-poor local school districts to serve these populations. And when the state fails to do its part to fund mandated public school services, local school districts must raise their own taxes if their residents can afford it or cut other essential services. Tax cuts and the reduced services that inevitably follow are one of the reasons we have been watching school teachers across the country on strike this year to protest impossibly large class sizes and the layoffs of nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers.

It is refreshing to watch Gov. Evers be strategic as he redefines Wisconsin’s challenges. And it is wonderful that parents, teachers and public school supporters have organized to stand with their new governor to demand that Wisconsin stop starving its public schools. The budget debate in Wisconsin won’t end until the Legislature produces a budget Gov. Evers believes he can sign.

To keep up the pressure, the Wisconsin Public Education Network is organizing across the state for this weekend’s 60 Mile Walk to Madison. Executive director Heather DuBois Bourenane explains the urgency behind the group’s effort to support Gov. Tony Evers as he redefines the public’s obligation to invest in the state’s system of public education: “We’re not above begging… We have been on our knees, begging for our kids for the past 10 years, but we’re sick of begging for crumbs, and we’re here to demand more than that this time around.”

One State Sets Out to Rethink Public Oversight of Charter Schools

I am encouraged by the findings, released last Friday, of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s California Charter School Policy Task Force.

Newsome set up the group to consider recommendations to the Legislature for reining in an out of control charter school sector. He proposed the task force earlier this spring after massive teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland brought attention to the amount of money flowing out of public school budgets into the charter schools whose location and authorization has been pretty much beyond the control of the public school districts where charter school have been able to locate.

EdSource‘s John Fensterwald reminds us that the mere size of California’s charter sector—1,300 charter schools, more than any other state—makes oversight and regulation a poignant issue. One reason the issue of charter school oversight has drawn attention this year is that Governor Gavin Newsom has shown himself willing to consider the need for increased regulation. Former Governor Jerry Brown, himself a founder of charter schools in Oakland, was known to veto charter school oversight laws on the occasion they did reach his desk. Gov. Newsom assigned State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond—elected last November on a pro-public schools platform—to facilitate the Task Force.

The issue of the cost for public school districts of a rapidly expanding charter school sector in California was further elevated a year ago by a report published by In the Public Interest. The report’s author, Oregon economist Gordon Lafer documented very sizeable losses of public dollars to charter schools in three school districts during the 2016-2017 school year: Oakland Unified School District lost $57.3 million; San Diego Unified School District lost $65.9 million; and Santa Clara County East Side Union High School District lost $19.3 million.

The Task Force released its findings last Friday, June 7. Before one even considers the consensus recommendations and majority recommendations of the Charter School Policy Task Force, however, one must recognize that it is surprising the Task Force report contains any consensus recommendations at all. The Task Force was not made up of academic researchers; neither was it a collection of experts on good government and public finance. It is one of those groups carefully balanced to provide a forum for both sides of what has become a contentious debate about whether or not there ought to be a charter school sector.  Actually whoever recommended the appointments seems to have accepted the idea that the fight is between unions and charter schools—an assumption I believe is wrong, because the debate is not limited to the fact that fewer teachers in charter schools belong to teachers unions.

Several members of the Task Force represent public schools, educators’ professional organizations, and organized labor: the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association; the California Teachers Association (the state’s NEA affiliate); the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99; the California School Employees Association; the Association of California School Administrators; the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 57; the El Dorado County Office of Education, and the San Diego Unified School District.  Four members represent charter school chains or charter school advocacy organizations: the California Charter Schools Association; Green Dot Public Schools California; Aspire Public Schools; and Fortune School of Education.

The Task Force lists a number of consultants from whom its members received input. On the one side, they heard from: The Alameda County Office of Education; the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, the California Department of Education Fiscal Services Division; the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team; the Legislative Analyst’s Office;  and the Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego Unified School districts—along with economist Gordon Lafer.

On the other side, the Task Force members considered the views of the California Charter Authorization Professionals; the California Charter Schools Association; the California Department of Education Charter Schools Division; the Charter Accountability Resource and Support Network, and Green Dot Charter Schools—along with Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and designer of the theory of Portfolio School Reform—which envisions running a school district like a business portfolio with investments in traditional public and charter schools alike.

Across the divided points of view of the group’s participants and advisers, the Task Force’s members were able to reach consensus on four needed reforms. Although these consensus recommendations don’t seem particularly earth shaking, they do highlight that in California, according to the way things operate right now, a local school district doesn’t have much control at all about who opens a charter school within the boundaries of the district, what kind of school opens, and how much money students carry away from the public schools on the day they exit.

Here are the consensus recommendations: (1) The length of time must be extended from 60 to 90 days for an authorizer to consider a charter schools petition for authorization.  (2) A new statewide entity must be created to develop standards for the authorization and oversight of charter schools.  And the new statewide entity must train authorizers to more carefully investigate the schools they are sponsoring and to increase oversight of schools once they are authorized.  (3) The state must continue to provide a student’s state funding to the public school district for one year after a student transfers to a charter school. (4) Public school boards must be given greater capacity to consider the impact on the public schools when the school board is asked to make a decision to approve or deny a petition for a new charter school.  Further,  the California Department of Education cannot any longer be the sole oversight body for the 39 charter schools currently authorized by the State Board of Education, because the schools are geographically so far apart that the three current staff people have been unable to provide adequate oversight.

Additionally, the California Charter School Task Force reports seven other “proposals discussed” by members of the Task Force and “supported by the majority.”  EdSource‘s John Fensterwald clarifies what this “majority” designation likely really means: “The report includes seven additional recommendations, supported by an unnamed majority of the task force—presumably without some or all of the four charter school-affiliated members—that urge more severe restrictions on charter school growth.”  Here are the seven proposals discussed and supported by the majority:

  1. “There has been growing concern that virtual charter schools are operated without appropriate academic rigor and oversight, providing a sub-par education for their students.”  “Enact a one-year moratorium on the establishment of new virtual charter schools.”
  2. “Remove the California State Board of Education from hearing appeals of charter petition denials.”  Currently in California, charter schools turned down by the school board of the district where they are to be located or the County Board of Education can appeal to the State Board of Education to override their rejection at the local level.
  3. “Limit the authorization of new charter schools to local districts with an appeals process that takes place at the County Board of Education only when there was an error by the district governing board.” This provision would increase the local control of the elected board of education in the school district where charters seek to open.
  4. “Prohibit districts from authorizing charter schools located outside district boundaries.”  “Current law allows a charter school to open one site outside of the authorizing district only if the charter school has attempted to locate within the authorizer’s boundaries, but an appropriate site was unavailable.” The Task Force explains that the rule here has not been enforced and that, “such a prohibition would limit the potential for the detrimental practice of using oversight fees as a revenue stream, while incurring only limited expenses associated with authorizing the charter school.”
  5. “Allow authorizers to consider fiscal impact as part of the authorization process.”  Here the Task Force provides considerable explanation: “Presentations from Oakland,… Los Angeles,… and San Diego Unified School District(s) to the Charter Task Force demonstrated significant fiscal impact to school districts due to the cost of charter schools located within district boundaries. In addition to the oft-cited loss of ADA funding, other costs may include, but are not limited to: inability to reduce expenses proportionally without direct harm to student programs and services (utilities, staff, daily maintenance, etc.); obligations to keep schools open and facilities available; increased liability and litigation; disproportionality of special education costs, competition for state, local, and other funds; thorough oversight; and marketing in a newly competitive environment.  Allowing authorizers to consider fiscal impacts of a charter petition enables them to evaluate the impact on the entirety of their local educational system.”
  6. “Establish clear guidelines for use by authorizers and by charter applicants for new charter petitions.”  The Task Force’s report explains: “Current law requires charter petitions to include a description of 16 elements. Beyond these elements, there are no standards that provide guidance on the level of detail an applicant should include. As such, applicants submit charter petitions of varying quality… Clear guidelines, such as rubrics or handbooks, for applicants to follow would standardize the quality of new charter schools.”
  7. “Update Education Code requirements to reflect current state accountability.”

Members of California’s state legislature have been considering a package of bills to increase regulation of the charter school sector. For Capital Public Radio, Ricardo Cano reports that, after the winter’s teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, “In the Democratic-controlled Legislature, proposals to regulate charter schools quickly followed. But many lawmakers made it clear in recent weeks that they wanted the report to factor into their decisions, though they are not bound to take up any of its recommendations. Though a bill to regulate so-called ‘far-flung’ charters has moved easily through the process, another to give districts more authority over charter authorizations and remove appeals at the state and county level, barely made it out of the Assembly, as some lawmakers expressed hesitance in moving forward without the recommendations from the Charter Task Force.  And two others, to cap the number of charters and enact a temporary moratorium on new ones, stalled before coming to a floor vote.”

The two bills still being considered are addressed in the proposals which a majority of the Task Force approved. Cano explains: “For instance, the majority supported prohibiting districts from authorizing charter schools outside of their geographic boundaries, a key aim of the ‘far-flung’ charter’ bill, Assembly Bill 1507.” (majority proposal #4)  Cano adds: “A majority of the Task Force also seemed to support some aspects of Assembly Bill 1505, the sweeping proposal that would tighten appeals for denied charters, including prohibiting appeals to the State Board of Education. A majority also supported limiting the authorization of new charter schools to local school districts and limiting appeals to the county education boards.” (majority proposals #2 and #3)

We must further hope that the Task Force’s majority proposal #5—on the damaging fiscal impact of charter school growth on the budgets of the public school districts where charters are located—continues seriously to be considered by the Legislature, by Tony Thurmond, and by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The reality, considered and agreed on by the majority of the Task Force, that charter schools are operating as fiscal parasites on their host school districts is the very heart of the problem in California and across the states.

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.