Let Us Count the Ways that Charter Schools Rip Off their Students and the Taxpayers

The National Association for Public Charter Schools, one of the big lobbying organizations for charter schools, proclaims that these institutions operate as public institutions to promote the public interest. But charter schools are a classic example of private contracting. They operate with public tax dollars, but they are governed (often without transparency) by private boards, which themselves operate under state regulations that tend to be extremely lax and poorly enforced. Here are two excellent examples of prominent advocates for traditional public schools and against school privatization dissecting, in depth, the ways that charter schools continue to rip off the public.

New Book Exposes How Charter Schools Regularly Find Ways to Select Students Who Will Be a Credit to the School

On September 10, Teachers College Press published a new book by Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner, of the University of Colorado at Boulder: School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape EnrollmentMommandi and Welner explore a topic that has emerged again and again in local examples of injustice over the years: Charter schools somehow manage to select their students despite that they advertise themselves as public schools, which are required by law to serve every student who comes through the door.

Back on January 20, 1960, when my family moved to the small town of Havre, Montana, my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School to the office of Wilbur Swenson, then the school principal.  As the law required, Mr. Swenson assigned me to the 7th grade, and I began school immediately that morning. Despite that today most people must formally enroll at the school district’s main office, the requirement for universal enrollment still works the same way in public schools across the United States. Public schools are required by law to provide programming to serve the needs of all students and must protect their rights. Public schools are not permitted to choose their students.

Over the years, we have read story after story of charter schools that call themselves “public” but somehow cheat on this requirement and get away with it. Now Mommandi and Welner have summarized and explored all the ways charter schools cheat on this requirement, and the reasons why they do: “Our research… taught us that such philosophies about limiting access are not uncommon among charter school administrators. In fact, we discovered that the charter school system has in place a variety of incentives and disincentives that actually penalize charter schools if they pursue broad public access. By contrast, charter school administrators inclined to limit public access find their schools rewarded with more prepared students who are less expensive to educate and who generate plaudits from politicians and media looking for feel-good stories about schools with unusually high test scores.”

In the publicity Teachers College Press released about the new book, Mommandi and Welner provide a table of “13 broad categories containing the many different ways that charter schools shape their enrollment.” Charter schools have especially found ways to exclude students who require expensive special services: “(W)e found that students with special needs are harmed by several… types of practices including: school design and marketing that signals that these students are unwelcome; steering away parents during enrollment in part by explaining that the school has few resources or services that meet the needs of special education students; counseling out enrolled special-needs students, or telling them that if they remain they will be retained in grade; and of course, extreme and burdensome discipline.”

New Story Exposes For-Profit  Management Companies with “Sweeps Contracts” Reaping Huge Profits from Shady Real Estate Deals at the Expense of the Nonprofit Charter Schools They Manage

The Network for Public Education’s executive director Carol Burris reports:  “National Heritage Academies (NHA), the third-largest for-profit charter chain in the nation, is selling 69 of its more than 90 schools to a new corporation created just for the purchase. Charter Development Co., the real estate arm of NHA, will receive the payout from a sale that requires nearly $1 billion to finance. This massive transfer of public dollars into private wealth is running into some roadblocks, however, in NHA’s home state of Michigan. Both Charter Development Co. and National Heritage Academies are owned by J.C. Huizenga, an education reform entrepreneur… The sale of the 69 NHA campuses in seven different states, like the operation of Huizenga’s charter schools, is wrapped in secrecy, even though taxpayers have paid the mortgages for years.”

Most state laws require charter schools to be nonprofits. But many small private nonprofit boards turn over the operation of their charter school to a for-profit management company. Sweeps contracts are commonplace—contracts under which the nonprofit board turns over more than 90 percent of the school’s revenue to the for-profit management company without any transparency about how the management company will spend the funds. National Heritage Academies manages its 90 schools under sweeps contracts. “Other examples of sweeps contracts include the contract between the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy and the for-profit chain Accel Online Ohio, a Nevada limited liability company; the contract between the Northeast Raleigh Charter Academy, and its for-profit management Torchlight Academy Schools; and the contract between Ohio Virtual Academy and K12 Virtual Schools.”

Burris continues: In most cases, for-profit management is an attempt to get around Title 20 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which requires (charter) schools to be nonprofit organizations to be eligible to receive federal funding. The nonprofit school is a facade for the for-profit corporation… Ultimately, Huizenga’s charter school cash-out financed by the taxpayers will probably go forward.  Unless Congress acts and closes the loophole, the 139 for-profit corporations that manage more than 1,100 charter schools in the United States will continue to put profits before taxpayers and kids.  And more cash-outs funded at taxpayers’ expense will occur.”

Charter schools have been operating now for a quarter of a century, and we have watched their abuses city by city.  But the stories of violations of the public interest and and fraud and corruption have only become more complex as their operators figure out new ways to rip off public tax dollars and violate core principles of public education by quietly selecting their students and leaving students with expensive needs in the public schools.

Will the President Say Something Meaningful in SOTU about Inequality and Public Education?

Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist has extensively documented the impact of neighborhood inequality on school achievement.

In a report released last fall, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, Reardon describes residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 in 2009).  These metropolitan areas are, according to Bischoff and Reardon, “home to 197 million people.”

Bischoff and Reardon study the segregation of families, not households, because, “Segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area.  Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”

Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime.

While the research report is dense, the conclusions demonstrate clearly that in America we are increasingly raising our children in pockets of extreme poverty or pockets of extreme affluence:

  • By 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income, although, “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor.”
  • Income segregation has grown significantly over four decades for black and Hispanic families, but particularly in the years since 2000.  While income inequality among black families did not grow significantly in the two most recent decades from 1990 to 2009, residential segregation by income did grow considerably among black families.  “Low-income black and Hispanic families are much more isolated from middle-class black and Hispanic families than are low-income white families from middle- and high-income white families.  The rapid growth of income segregation among black families has exacerbated the clustering of poor black families in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates.  And while middle class black families were less likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income black families, this does not mean that middle-class blacks gained access to middle-class white neighborhoods…”  Racial segregation continues even for the black middle class.

In an earlier 2011 study, Reardon demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The inequality achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

During the George Bush and Barack Obama administrations, support has been bipartisan for a political agenda that fails to address child poverty and that ignores growing economic inequality and accompanying isolation of the poorest children in urban neighborhoods defined by their concentrated poverty.  The bipartisan agenda, established in the 2002 federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and perpetuated in ongoing policies like Race to the Top, has operated through sanctions for the schools and teachers struggling to raise test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities. Today’s bipartisan public school “reform” philosophy is dominated by the principles of competition (ranking and rating schools), creative disruption (closing schools and firing principals and teachers), and privatization (assuming that charter schools  and even on-line schools can magically address the needs of children who struggle).  There has been little conversation about addressing inequality, ameliorating poverty, or even bringing school funding up to a level of equity between wealthy and poor school districts.

In a recent guest post published as part of Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column, Kevin Welner, the director of the  National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, asks those who listen to President Obama’s State of the Union Message on Tuesday night, which is expected to address the issue of income inequality, to look for substantive plans to address inequality and not merely  “unproven and ineffectual treatments.”  Welner decries the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations:  “We heap demands on those schools, deprive them of the resources they urgently need, and then declare them to be ‘failing schools’ when they don’t perform miracles.”

Welner suggests our nation’s children living in poverty (an alarming 22 percent of all children in the United States) deserve a serious answer to this question: “How do I design, pass, and implement a package of policies that have been shown to be effective at addressing wealth inequality and the damage caused by that inequality?”  He suggests that strategies aimed to lift families out of poverty are, in reality, policies to improve school achievement.  “We should honestly consider policies like a guaranteed minimum income, increases in the minimum wage, and a tax structure that shifts the burden toward the extremely wealthy.  The way to reduce wealth inequality is to do just that: reduce wealth inequality.  Our public schools can help, but they cannot do it alone.”