Last summer the Schott Foundation and the Network for Public Education’s published a fine report on the privatization of public education. Grading the States begins with a reminder that charter schools educate the few at the expense of the many: “The ability for every child, regardless of race, income, disability, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other immutable characteristic, to obtain a free quality public education is a foundational principle in American society. This principle is based on the belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to learn…. Although the public school system is not perfect and has continual room for improvement, it is… the cornerstone of community empowerment and advancement in American society. In fact, the overwhelming majority of students… continue to attend public schools with total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 projected to increase by 3 percent from 50.3 million to 51.7 million students. This compares with a 6% enrollment in charter schools….”
Wooed by the ideology of freedom of choice, however, the public has not been willing to demand that government rein in what the Network for Public Education’s Carol Burris has called “charters gone wild.” However two recent news analyses highlight growing public skepticism and even outrage about charter schools destroying local public school districts.
For The American Prospect, Rachel M. Cohen summarizes what she calls “the washout” in the past month of charter schools in California: “Following the United Teachers of Los Angeles’ six-day strike, where opposition to charters was a central point of the teachers’ advocacy, the L.A. school board approved a nonbinding resolution in support of an eight-to-ten month moratorium on new charter schools, pending a study on California’s charter laws… A public opinion survey of Los Angeles County residents taken during January and the first two weeks of February found that 75 percent of respondents said they wanted to focus on improving existing public schools, and just 25 percent said the focus should be on giving families more school choices… Further north in California, teachers in Oakland went on strike in late February, ending with an agreement that included among other things, (a resolution for) a moratorium on charter schools… Last week, the California Assembly approved a bill that would subject all charter schools in the state to the same open meetings, public records, and conflict-of-interest laws that traditional public schools are subject to… And that’s likely not all. Other bills that have been introduced would place a cap on charter schools, limit where charter schools could open, and create new ways to deny charter school applications.”
Cohen adds that a pro-public school candidate, Jackie Goldberg, was the leader—with 48 percent of the vote—in a field of ten candidates for a position on the Los Angeles school board. The run-off election will take place in May. And Governor Gavin Newsom and California state superintendent Tony Thurmond have established a select committee to consider further regulation and report out by July. The path to reform may not be smooth, however: Diane Ravitch points out that the committee is loaded with representatives of the charter sector.
Penn State University school finance expert, Matthew Gardner Kelly examines the same issue that became apparent during the teachers’ strikes in California. Charter schools do more damage than many people have realized by siphoning public funding dollars out of the public schools: “From California to Wisconsin, efforts to stop charter school growth are gaining momentum. In the April 2019 mayoral election in Chicago, both candidates say they want to halt charter school expansion. Financial issues lie at the core of these efforts. Schools were hit particularly hard by the 2008 recession. Many states cut education funding. As a scholar of school finance, I would argue that charter school expansion is making this bad situation worse… The details of how school funding is structured differ by state, and even by districts within a given state. Despite this variation a number of studies have shown that charter school growth hurts the finances of nearby public school districts. Recent studies from New York and North Carolina have found that charter expansion negatively impacts local districts’ finances above and beyond simply losing per pupil revenue because of declining enrollments. In Pennsylvania, the local district makes a tuition payment to the charter school enrolling each student from that district. The payment is based on per-pupil spending for similar students. For example, if a fourth grader leaves a public school in the Pittsburgh School District to attend a charter, the Pittsburgh School District is required to pay the charter school $16,805.99—which is the average amount the district spends on a student in the district.”
Kelly describes how charter schools have contributed to a financial crisis in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: “Bethlehem Area School District paid $25 million in charter school tuition payments in 2017. It was not possible to save $25 million with the students gone, however, because of the way the students were distributed across the district. The students enrolled in charter schools came from 13 different grades in 22 different schools. Since students moving to a charter were rarely all of the students from a single school, grade or class, the district was not able to reduce staff or close classes to help cover the charter tuition payments… When (charter tuition) payments are repeated and distributed unevenly across schools and grades, it adds up to millions of dollars… Bethlehem Area School District had 1,900 students, about 12 percent of the districts population, enrolled in charter school in 2017.” Kelly concludes: “Charter school expansion drains dollars from local districts in other ways as well. For example, charters enroll far fewer students with characteristics that require additional financial resources, including students with disabilities and English language learners. These dynamics compound the financial difficulties for traditional public schools, which are required to educate all students.”
Then there are the shocking charter school scandals. The scandals happen regularly, although they are usually reported in local newspapers—which makes it hard to realize the nationwide scale of fraud, conflicts of interest, and corruption. (Check out the Network for Public Education’s list of charter school scandals in 2018 alone.)
This past week’s scandal made the NY Times, because the nonprofit whose operators were profiting from Texas charter school dollars is Southwest Key, the same contractor that has been warehousing migrant children at the border. Kim Barker reports: “At East Austin College Prep in Texas, raccoons and rats invade offices and classrooms. When it rains, the roof of the main building leaks. Room 106 was so rickety a chair leg fell through the floor. Yet for all this, the secondary school pays almost $900,000 in annual rent. It has little choice: Its landlord is also its founder, Southwest Key Programs, a charity that is the nation’s largest provider of shelters for migrant children.”
Barker continues: “The nonprofit says it formed the charter school and three others to help disadvantaged students get to college, but Southwest Key has financially benefited from the schools. Not only does it collect rent, but it has forced them to hire its for-profit companies, which have charged high fees for everything from maintenance to school lunches… The operations of the charter schools, serving about 1,000 students, show how Southwest Key profits off public money, boosting compensation for charity leaders and stockpiling tens of millions of dollars… A dozen years ago, Southwest Key decided to open charter schools and for-profit companies, including a florist, that ended up funneling money into the charity. The charters, called Promesa Public Schools, pay almost $1.4 million in rent annually to Southwest Key… Money from the schools and for-profits helped raise salaries for charity officials, letting them collect pay far beyond the federal cap for migrant shelter grants—$187,000 in 2017. Mr. Sanchez (Juan Sanchez, Southwest Key’s founder) was paid $1.5 million that year….. His wife, Jennifer Nelson, earned $500,000 as a vice president, and Melody Chung, the chief financial officer, was paid $1 million. Mr Sanchez resigned on Monday (March 11).”
Grading the States, last year’s report from the Schott Foundation and the Network for Public Education, summarizes the absence of academic and financial regulations in the laws that established charter schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Here are just some of the problems: “Of the 44 states and District of Columbia with charter laws, 28 of these states and the District of Columbia fail to require the same teacher certification as traditional public schools…. Thirty-eight (38) of the states and the District of Columbia have no required transparency provisions regulating the spending and funding by the charter school’s educational service providers…. Of the 44 states and the District of Columbia with charter school laws, students with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged in 39 states and the District of Columbia, which do not clearly establish the provision of services. Twenty-two (22) states do not require that the charter school return its taxpayer purchased assets and/or property back to the public if the charter school shuts down or fails.”
Fortunately teachers on-strike in California—a state which provides school districts virtually no control over the expansion of charter schools within their boundaries and a state where regulation has been extremely lax—have strengthened the political will to rein in an out of control charter sector. We must hope that the fervor for regulation continues in California and that it becomes contagious enough to drive the political will for stronger oversight across other states as well.