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.