Jeb Bush’s Pitiful Attempt to Defend Federal Funding of Charter Schools Managed by For-Profit Companies

It’s clear that the charter school lobby is upset about the House of Representatives’ effort in its proposed budget resolution to curtail abuses in the federal Charter Schools Program and to reduce the program’s appropriation by $40 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

Jeff Bryant explained last week: “The top lobbying group for the charter school industry is rushing to preserve millions in funds from the federal government that flow to charter operators that have turned their K-12 schools into profit-making enterprises, often in low-income communities of color. The group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), objects to a provision in the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed 2022 education budget that closes loopholes that have long been exploited by charter school operators that profit from their schools through management contracts, real estate deals, and other business arrangements.”

The executive director of National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Nina Rees went on C-Span to try to defend the program, and now it’s clear that the organization is calling on old allies to push Congress to cancel the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed elimination of all federal funding for charters operated for-profit by Charter Management Organizations. Bryant reminds us that Nina Rees was the deputy assistant for domestic policy for former Vice President Dick Cheney.

This week Jeb Bush, the ultimate old advocate for school privatization, came out of the woodwork with an op-ed circulated all over the country by the Tribune News Service. Bush’s piece appeared in our Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer. Toward the end of his article, Bush gets to the point and protests the proposed House Budget Resolution: “Not only does it specifically cut $40 million in education funding (from the Charter Schools Program), but the House budget bill also includes alarming language that would prevent any federal funds from reaching any charter school ‘that contracts with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school.'”

Bush thinks that the U.S. Department of Education ought to be allowed to make grants to charter schools whose operators are, in many cases, collecting huge profits at the expense of our tax dollars and at the expense of children whose education programming is reduced to ensure operators can make a profit. I guess he isn’t bothered by the charter management companies that have managed to negotiate sweeps contracts that gobble up more than 90 percent of the state and federal operating dollars and manage the school without transparency.

The Network for Public Education (NPE) just published a major report, Chartered for Profit, that details how all this works. Recently NPE’s executive director, Carol Burris was interviewed about the extent of the problem: “The original charter is secured by the nonprofit, which gets federal, local, and state funds, and then the nonprofit turns around and gives those funds to the for-profit company to manage the school… Now, some of these for-profits only provide a limited amount of services. But an awful lot of them, especially some of the big chains like National Heritage Academy, operate using what is known as a ‘sweeps’ contract. The reason they’re called that is the for-profit operator sweeps every penny of the public money that a charter school gets into the for-profit management company to run the school. The for-profit then either directly provides services, from management services to cafeteria services, or they contract out with another for-profit company to provide services.  Either way, the goal is to run the charter school in such a way that there’s money left over. And the more money they save by doing things like hiring unqualified teachers and refusing to teach students with special needs, the more money is left at the end of the day.”

In his recent commentary, Bush buries his defense of for-profit charter school management companies near the end of an article packed with tired, meaningless rhetoric. He begins by alleging that our system of public schools derives from an “outdated mentality”—a factory model dating from the 1890s that won’t work in the “21st century economy (which) is vastly different.” I guess he means that public schools haven’t kept up with the times, or maybe he is implying that something is wrong with what kids are learning in public schools.  When he explains that public schools serve 56.6 million students and charter schools serve 3.3 million students, one wonders why he fails to recognize that investing federal dollars to improve the nation’s public schools would be the best strategy for serving the mass of America’s students. After all, in a well known study, economist Gordon Lafer has explained how charter schools in just one school district, Oakland, California, suck $57.3 million every year out of the public schools that serve the majority of Oakland’s children and adolescents.

Next, Bush references a litany of studies, based, he says, mostly on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  He claims this research proves that charters are better academically. Without specific references, it is hard to know which studies he is citing, although he does name one source—from the University of Arkansas, where the Department of Education Reform is a think tank funded by the Walton Foundation.

In her recent book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch, who served for several years on the NAEP Governing Board, refutes Bush’s argument that charter schools are academically superior: “Charter schools on average get about the same results when they enroll the same demographic groups of students. Those charter schools that report outstanding test scores typically have high rates of attrition and do not enroll the most difficult to educate students, such as English language learners and students with disabilities. Charters have the freedom to write their own rules about suspensions and discipline and some have used this freedom to push out the students they don’t want, those who are discipline problems, and those who can’t meet the school’s academic demands, who then return to public schools.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 135)

Next, in an argument that would be funny if it were not so sad, Bush claims that critics of for-profit charter schools are captives of the money-grubbing teachers unions. “(U)nions fear that choice will lead to fewer students attending schools that fund their private coffers… It’s a feedback loop without a soul.”

And finally, Jeb Bush explains that, by defunding for-profit charter schools, members of the House of Representatives want to eliminate federal support for the education of “millions of students, especially our nation’s special-needs students who qualify for funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and our students living in poverty.” Has Bush not read President Biden’s budget proposal, whose public school investments are copied in the House of Representative’s proposed budget resolution? The President and the House Appropriations Committee propose to increase funding for wraparound Full-Service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million, double Title I funding for schools serving concentrations of poor children, and significantly increase funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, now called ExcelinEd, have been advocating for charter schools and school privatization for years. To promote these very ideas, Bush and ExcelinEd spawned Chiefs for Change (which has since become an independent organization) in order to promote school privatization and corporate school accountability among state school superintendents and commissioners and local school superintendents.

Betraying his long alliance with our former education secretary, Betsy DeVos, Bush condemns public schools because, he writes, they are a system which is not designed to serve individual students. The move to privatize public education is merely an expression today’s wave of libertarian individualism (at public expense) and consumerist, market-place thinking.

It is useful to keep in mind the warning of the late political theorist Benjamin Barber: “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)

Are Charter Schools Public or Private? Trying to Have It Both Ways When Federal Emergency Money Is Involved

One reads that a pandemic is likely to inspire greed as people struggle protect themselves and their loved ones.  Right now that theory seems to be confirmed by the behavior of charter school advocates, who want to have it both ways. Such advocates call their institutions “public charter schools,” but when it is convenient, the same prominent advocates insist that charter schools should qualify to benefit from federal funds appropriated for the purpose of shoring up small businesses.  Public and private all at the same time.

Nina Rees is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. On Wednesday, she published a commentary in which she poses as a supporter of the needs of public schools and charter schools alike. She affirms the importance of the $13.5 billion in the emergency federal CARES Act, money to provide relief for publicly funded schools including traditional and charter schools: “First, the $13.5 billion in emergency K-12 funding that Congress passed will be allocated to states and distributed to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) according to the formula that guides Title I funding. Districts and schools that typically receive Title I funds should see around 80 percent more money this year. Charter schools that operate their own LEAs are assured funding. Those that are overseen by school districts will rely on their districts to provide funding. Secretary DeVos and governors should encourage districts to make these decisions solely in the interest of students, without regard to differences in school model.”

The website of Rees’ organization, the National Association for Public Charter Schools, on the other hand, promotes a strategy for charter schools as though they are private businesses and not public schools at all. The organization’s website explains how charter school operators can qualify for loans designed not for educational institutions, but instead for small businesses which have been temporarily shut down: “Some charter schools may be struggling with how to meet current expenses to maintain ongoing operations. The CARES Act, the third and most recent federal relief package, makes two low- or no-cost lending programs available through the Small Business Administration (SBA); these funds are designed to help organizations continue paying employees, utilities, rent, mortgages, and similar operational expenses. Charter schools that have a 501(c)3 status with the iRS, and for- or non-profit education management companies with fewer than 500 employees may be eligible to apply for SBA 7(a) Paycheck Protection Program or SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans… Under the CARES Act stimulus package, it is possible to access a loan valued at up to two-and-a-half months of payroll expenses… As a result of the first COVID-19 relief bill, Economic Injury Disaster Loans is offering up to $2 million in assistance to nonprofits and for-profits to help overcome temporary loss in revenue caused by COVID-19… Click here for details and how to apply.”

For Education Week, Evie Blad reports on the ethical dilemma posed when advocates try to have it both ways by defining charter schools as private businesses and at the same time as public institutions: “The possibility has already stirred discussions in some cities. In the District of Columbia, for example, charter schools say they have racked up unexpected expenses for items like Chromebooks as they helped students quickly transition to online learning, the Washington Post reported last week. ‘We are in an ethical dilemma,’ D.C. Council member and Education Committee Chairman David Grosso told the Post.  ‘The challenge is digging deep inside of yourself and seeing where you see yourself in the pecking order of needs in our community.'”

Examining the controversy as it is unfolding in Washington, D.C., the Washington Post‘s Perry Stein explores why there seem to be serious conflicts of the public interest when the needs of charter schools are elevated over other schools by claiming access to two different streams of relief funding—the first being provided for public schools and the second for private businesses: “D.C. charter schools get most of their funding from the government, a revenue stream that continues to flow as the coronavirus grinds the District’s economy to a halt… Charter schools, which educate 47 percent of the city’s nearly 100,000 public school students, are publicly funded and privately operated. The city spends a base of about $11,000 to educate each public school student in both sectors.  Though some charter schools receive private donations, the bulk of their funding comes from the government… Under federal law, the District is required to set up a uniform formula to fund charter and traditional schools equally on the basis of enrollment. The city provides buildings to the traditional public school system and allocates additional money to each charter student so their schools can acquire and maintain their facilities. The traditional school system would not qualify for the federal small-business loans.”

The executive director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris condemns charter school advocates’ efforts to get whatever they can for their own education sector—privately operated and publicly funded—at the expense of public schools and at the expense of struggling small businesses which have been closed temporarily due to the pandemic: “I have great sympathy for small businesses that are devastated by COVID-19.  And I am glad that the Small Business Administration is giving these businesses low-interest loans to cushion the blow.  It is shocking, therefore, that the National Alliance for Pubic Charter Schools is actively encouraging its members to take advantage of those taxpayer funds intended for small businesses, although… (charter schools’) income has not been interrupted at all… Charters claim to be public schools—except when being a ‘business’ is to their advantage. Charters claim to be public schools when that’s where the money is. But when the money is available for small businesses, they claim to be small businesses.”