(Part 1 here.)
Nothing critical or negative that I ever write about the charter/privatization movement in education is directed at charter school students, teachers, or staff. Their interests need to be best dealt with, first and foremost, during the transition away from charters, if and (hopefully) when that happens.
Maybe charter schools do have a place. My understanding is that the original intent was for them to supplement public schools by using special techniques with really challenging kids. And that they would therefore be relatively few, carefully regulated, completely non-profit, and accountable. But if indeed that was ever really the plan, it has for the most part long since been lost, at least in a large majority of cases. One thing that I have not done in the past, and should have, is emphasized the distinction between small community-based charters, which is what I mean by the ones that may “have a place,” and the charter chains.
But in any case, overall, the results of the charter movement, in its current form, have been bad and are getting worse. The Center for Media and Democracy released a comprehensive report late last year, that has been widely cited and shared because it pretty much lays it all out there.
Over the past year, CMD submitted nearly four dozen open records requests to the U.S. Department of Education’s “Office of Innovation and Improvement” and its counterparts in a dozen states to determine how much money was spent on charters, how agencies were monitoring the spending of American tax dollars, and how charters spent monies.
Our in-depth investigation reveals that the public is being denied crucial information about how their money is being spent on charters by federal and state governments, even though at least $200 million in fraud and waste by charters has been documented.
(Note the key qualifier “has been documented.” CMD didn’t investigate everything, everywhere. The actual amount of fraud and waste is almost certainly far higher. Incidentally, the newest federal education budget has a big chunk of cash for charters.)
Of course, it would be worth it if charters were really doing a great job, overall.
In general, as concluded by the nonpartisan Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda, “There is very little evidence that charter and traditional public schools differ meaningfully in their average impact on students’ standardized test performance.” Another report from Data First, part of the Center for Public Education, stated that “the majority of charter schools do no better or worse than traditional public schools.”
But there’s a lot of data that leans toward “worse” rather than “better.” A Brookings report showed underperformance in Arizona’s charter schools. An In the Public Interest group found that an analyst for the District of Columbia “could not provide a single instance in which its strategy of transferring a low-performing school to a charter management organization had resulted in academic gains for the students.” The Minnesota Star Tribune reported that “Students in most Minnesota charter schools are failing to hit learning targets and are not achieving adequate academic growth.” Over 85 percent of Ohio’s charter students were in schools graded D or F in 2012–2013. In the much-heralded New Orleans charter experiment, the Investigative Fund found that “eight years after Hurricane Katrina…seventy-nine percent of RSD charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education.”
And what’s behind it all? From last December:
“What we found is that there are a host of real estate and tax laws that were not put in place with charter schools in mind, but that the owners of charter school enterprises are using in order to profit,” NEPC Director Kevin Welner said. “I think that understanding the nature of the charter school gravy train, as I call it, is extremely important for the public and policymakers.”
For example, charter schools are sometimes able to purchase publicly owned real estate for their school facilities through a private, third-party entity. The report highlights how charter operators can make these purchases with taxpayer money, thus acquiring formerly public property at public expense. The third-party purchaser pockets overhead costs associated with arranging the sale…
The report also contends that labor costs at charter schools tend to be unusually top-heavy, as EMO executives conserve funds by hiring young, relatively inexpensive staff — and then add the savings to their own salaries.
Here are some more, if you like.
– The reality of full school privatization in New Orleans.
– A growing rift within:
But the remarks appear to reflect a new public relations and lobbying strategy, where allies of non-profit charter operators are blaming their for-profit brethren as a way to duck political fallout, avoid scrutiny for many of the same practices and to boost their market niche.
“National for-profit charter school operators have increasingly been in the press lately and not for good reasons,” begins a January column by lobbyist-consultant Alex Medler on EducationPost.org. “Based on how often for-profit operators embarrass the charter sector, many are willing to say it’s time to ban them.”
The charter movement, assuming that one grants that it does have a place at all, is in powerful need of a huge downsizing and a reboot. Based on the conclusive weight of evidence as presented above, the last thing anyone needs is for it to be allowed to expand any further. The Minnesota legislature, and Governor Dayton, should set a strong, positive example by blocking any and all state funding for new charters.