This week’s news has brought additional evidence for growing public condemnation of the charter school sector—the abysmal record in Louisiana of the federal Charter Schools Program, along with the operation of charters in two states where the sector has rapidly grown: Michigan and Pennsylvania. These investigations by the press explore financial waste along with disappointment for families whose charter schools promised more than they could deliver.
This week Jeff Bryant explores the role of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) in Louisiana, and most particularly, post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, where federal money helped underwrite the Shock Doctrine eradication of a public school district as it was turned over to a mass of privately operated charter schools. The Network for Public Education (NPE) has been tracking alarming lack of oversight over two decades in the federal CSP, which since its inception has awarded $4 billion to underwrite the startup and expansion of charter schools across the states. NPE’s report earlier this spring explored the CSP’s overall record: a third of the schools it has funded never opened or eventually shut down. Since the report was published, NPE has been releasing the state-by-state record of the CSP grants. Here’s what happened in Louisiana.
Bryant examines some of the now-closed charter schools opened in 2006 with a $24 million Charter Schools Program grant from Margaret Spelling’s U.S. Department of Education, followed in 2009 with a grant by Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education for $25,576,222. In Louisiana, 110 charter schools opened with federal CSP funding between 2006 and 2014. Fifty-one of those schools (46 percent) are now closed. In Louisiana alone, $23,819,839 of in federal CSP money has been spent on schools that either never opened or have shut down.
In biennial investigations dating back to at least 2012, the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) has condemned oversight of the the federal Charter Schools Program. Bryant describes the OIG’s 2018 investigation of CSP grants to Louisiana: “This time Louisiana was included in the audit because it was the state with the highest ratio of closed charter schools to total charter schools. The audit found charter schools in Louisiana that received federal money and then closed likely had widespread violations of federal laws and regulations for closing out their grants, disposing of property purchased with federal funds, and ensuring student information and records had been protected and maintained.” Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education responded to its own OIG report by claiming additional oversight would interfere with the purpose of the grant—to stimulate innovation in which some schools would naturally fail—and would be an intrusion into the state’s right to oversee its own federal grant: “(T)he Department… stated it ‘did not consider charter school closures to be a risk to federal funds’ and that OIG’s recommendations ‘would be inconsistent with the federal role in education.'”
This week For Chalkbeat, Koby Levin explores the absence of operational transparency in Detroit’s charter school sector. Many of Detroit’s charter schools operate for-profit in a state where the charter school sector is poorly regulated: “(I)n Detroit, a city with an infamously troubled school landscape, dozens of charter school board meetings are hard to find or poorly attended—if they happen at all. Even finding the meeting times can be difficult. When a Chalkbeat reporter called to inquire about the board meeting at Covenant House Academy, the person on the other end of the line said, ‘I don’t have that information,’ and quickly ended the call. David Ellis Academy did post its meeting schedule online, but the April meeting was set for Easter Sunday. It was canceled without notice. These schools had not broken the law. But critics view such incidents as proof that charter schools in Detroit, which bring in more than $350 million from taxpayers for the 36,0000 students they serve each year, aren’t doing enough to engage the community… A Chalkbeat review of charter school meetings in April found that they often aren’t well-publicized, that citizens who show up often find that the meetings have been canceled; and that few families and other members of the public attend… Unlike traditional districts, charter schools don’t have to hold a minimum number of annual meetings.”
Do open school board meetings really make a difference? With an elected board of education in a public school district, citizens can ask questions, and when problems arise, the potential for democratic oversight is built into the system. Charter school governance and operations are less accessible, especially when boards are contracting with management companies whose purpose is to make a profit. And the board meetings also might give parents a clue when serious problems exist. Levin reports on Detroit’s Delta Academy, for example: “The sessions can be dry, but they are critically important: Last June, a charter school board approved a nail-biter of a budget for the coming school year despite the school’s empty coffers and numerous signs that it was failing its students. No one sounded a public alarm, and the school—Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice—closed abruptly in September, forcing students to scramble for new schools three weeks after the school year began.”
Steven Singer, a teacher-blogger in Pennsylvania’s Steel Valley Schools, details exactly how Pennsylvania’s mechanism for funding charter schools is decimating his local school district’s budget—and depleting public school district budgets across the state. Pennsylvania law prescribes that a child leaving for a charter school carries away from the public school budget the entire amount that district spends per-pupil. Singer adds that, “the state used to reimburse each district for 30% of its costs to charter schools,” but that former Governor Tom Corbett cut out the reimbursement as part of a 2011 state budget cut. Without tying special education funding to the real costs for serving children with a range of special needs, Pennsylvania also subtracts from the public school budget and sends to charter schools a flat amount for each special education student. The incentive is for charter schools not to accept students with the most serious disabilities and to leave those expensive-to-educate students in the local public schools.
Singer explains: “I work in a little suburban school district just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is slowly being destroyed by privatization. Steel Valley Schools have a proud history. We’re located (in part) in Homestead—the home of the historic steel strike of 1892. But today it isn’t private security agents and industrial business magnates against whom we’re struggling. It’s charter schools, vouchers schools, and the pro-corporate policies that enable them to pocket tax dollars meant to educate kids and then blame us for the shortfall… Do we have a mass exodus of children from Steel Valley to the neighboring charter schools? No… It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.” While Steel Valley lost $9,731 for each non-special education student exiting for a charter school in the 2013-14 school year, in the current 2018-19 school year it lost $14,965. For a student in special education in 2013-14, the district lost $16,803 per student exiting to a charter school, in the current 2018-19 school year, it lost $32,809 per student. Singer adds: “Furthermore, for every student we lose to charters, we do not lose any of the costs of overhead. The costs of running our buildings, electricity, waster, maintenance, etc. are the same. W just have less money with which to pay them.”
Singer concludes: “All of this has real world consequences in the classroom. It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. it means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children—just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top… This nonsense has to stop. The only schools that should be receiving public tax dollars are the authentically public ones.”
We cannot afford to destroy our publicly owned, publicly regulated, and publicly operated system of education by diverting public tax dollars to a charter school sector that is privately operated, inaccessible and unregulated.