Momentum Grows for Desperately Needed Regulation of Charter Schools

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.

Donald Trump Comes to Cleveland, Steps Right into Charter School Regulation Mess

As you may have read, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for President, showed up in Cleveland last Thursday to announce his education plan—to make $20 billion in federal block grants to the states to expand school choice. The Washington Post reports that it is unclear where that money would come from: “Trump’s plan to add ‘an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice’ would be accomplished by ‘reprioritizing existing federal dollars’….”

Trump’s choice of venue for staging his announcement is fascinating. Maybe he hasn’t been paying close attention, because he stepped right in the middle of Ohio’s big mess: the state legislature has persisted all year in proving that its members are beholden to the campaign donations that are ensuring they don’t regulate for-profit charter schools. And yet, to make his big announcement, Trump went straight to a for-profit charter school. And the for-profit charter school Trump visited is owned by Ron Packard, the former CEO of the notorious national K12 Inc. chain of online charter schools, where Packard was paid a salary of $5 million per year.  Here is what education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell explained about Ron Packard in Friday’s Plain Dealer:

“Trump’s appearance at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy (CASSA) is drawing attention to a charter school that usually escapes notice. But its owner Ron Packard has been a major figure in the national charter school community for years as the founder and former CEO of online school powerhouse K12 Inc… Packard helped build K12 into the largest provider of online classes, with e-schools in multiple states. Those include Ohio Virtual Academy, the second-largest online school in Ohio, with 13,000 students. But Packard left K12 in 2014 and founded Pansophic Learning to create the new ACCEL Schools charter school network. Last year, he bought management rights to 12 schools from controversial charter operator White Hat Management and several schools, including CASSA, from the financially struggling but higher performing Mosaica network… ACCEL schools now has 27 schools in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, with the majority here in Ohio.”  Packard came to Cleveland with Donald Trump and, before Trump spoke on Thursday, O’Donnell reports that, “Packard moderated a panel discussion on school choice and the value of charters.”

I wonder if Donald Trump is aware that the lack of regulation of an out-of-control, for-profit charter school sector has, in Ohio, recently risen to the level of a scandal?  This blog has extensively covered the campaign contributions, lawsuits, and obfuscations of another for-profit charter operator, William Lager of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, in his attempt to ensure that Ohio’s legislature does not crack down to prevent billions of dollars in profits flowing to Lager and other for-profit charter operators.

Trump’s full blown support for school choice comes at a time when Ohio’s ECOT scandal is among many reports of the diversion of public dollars, and of civil rights violations and academic malpractice as states have failed adequately to regulate the charter school sector.  In August, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, “highlighted more than $2.5 million in lease reimbursements to nine charter schools, including the Propel Charter School System in Allegheny County, the Chester Community Charter School in Delaware County, and School Lane Charter School in Bucks County… ‘What we found in some of our audits is that the same people who own and operate charter schools, they themselves create separate legal entities to own the buildings and lease them to charter schools.’ DePasquale said.”

Then last week there was Jeff Bryant’s report, Who Gains Most from School Choice? Not Low-Income Students of Color.  Bryant features Laura Barr, a Denver, Colorado, school choice consultant who charges a steep fee to help parents figure out their choices in that city’s education marketplace and then position their children to be admitted to the school of their choice: “Laura Barr has operated her school choice consultancy for several years. Business is good. Her thriving practice has five employees and frequently contracts with various specialists. Her fee scale varies depending on the needs of the family and the time pressures involved, but charges can range as high as $2,750…. Clients come to her, she says, ‘because they really care about their children’s education but don’t understand all the options and the buzzwords that are used in describing various education practices.’… What about parents in Northeast Denver, an area generally populated with low-income families of color? ‘If anyone from Northeast Denver tries to get into a popular school in another part of town for the fall semester next year, they’re going to have a hard time,’ she replies.  ‘It’s just kind of segregated.'”

And finally there is California, the subject of a blockbuster expose by Carol Burris, the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education. Burris’ report was published by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post column. Burris explains: “California has the most charter schools and charter school students in the nation. In 2000, there were 299 charter schools in the Golden State. Last year there were 1,230. Twenty-percent of the students in San Diego County attend its 120 charter schools… How many is enough when it comes to charters, given the scandals and the problems and the lack of evidence of overall success? It appears as if there are more charters than California needs, but there are certainly not as many as charter advocates want. Eli Broad, who made his fortune building tract housing and selling insurance, is a Los Angeles multibillionaire who has given a fortune to charterize the city and the state. His involvement drew national attention when his foundation’s plan for charter school expansion in Los Angeles was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. It proposed the following goals: ‘(1) to create 260 new high-quality charter schools, (2) to generate 130,000 high-quality charter seats, and (3)to reach 50 percent charter market share.’  The term, ‘market-share’ refers to children.”

Burris describes the role of the California Charter Schools Association and traces funders who contributed to the organization’s $22,120,466 income in 2014. CCSA and its 501(c)(4), CCSA Advocacy, “work together to thwart legislative efforts that would increase charter oversight, such as AB 709 that would make charter board meetings public, allow the public to inspect charter school records, and prohibit charter school officials from having a financial interest in contracts that they enter into in their official capacity…. AB 709 is on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk awaiting action.”  Burris adds: “Brown, who has been a supporter of charter schools, has not indicated what he will do….”

Burris describes some seemingly egregious practices by California charter schools, practices that, according to Burris, have merely become the way the charter sector works in that state: “You can find a charter in a mall right near a Burger King, where students as young as 12 meet their ‘teacher on demand.’ Or, you can make a cyber visit to the ‘blended learning’ Epic Charter School, whose students are required to meet a teacher (at a convenient, to be determined location) only once every 20 days. There is an added bonus upon joining Epic: Students receive $1,500 for a personal ‘learning fund,’ along with a laptop computer. The enrollment site advertised that students could boost that fund by referring others to the charter chain.”

And, “A superintendent can expand his tiny rural district of 300 students to 4,000 by running ‘independent study’ charters in storefronts in cities miles away, netting millions in revenue for his district, while draining the sometimes unsuspecting host district of students and funds.”

I urge you to read carefully the report from Pennsylvania as well as the critiques from Bryant and Burris. And I invite you to consider with me what Donald Trump can be thinking when he says he will redirect billions of federal education dollars—presumably Title I and IDEA funds—to increase the “market share” of children who leave their public schools for such morally questionable, and very lucrative, enterprises.