The problem with charter schools isn’t that they have been implemented badly.
Nor is it that some are for-profit and others are not.
Put simply: charter schools are a bad idea. They always were a bad idea. And it is high time we put an end to them.
I am overjoyed that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to hear the criticisms leveled against the charter school industry in the face of the naked greed and bias of the Trump administration and its high priestess of privatization, Betsy DeVos. However, I am also disappointed in the lack of courage displayed by many of these same lawmakers when proposing solutions.
Charter schools enroll only 6 percent of students nationwide yet they gobble up billions of dollars in funding. In my home state of Pennsylvania, they cost Commonwealth taxpayers more than $1.8 billion a year and take more than 25 percent of the state’s basic education funding. That’s for merely 180 schools with 135,000 students!
Charter schools are privately run but publicly financed. They are what happens when the public abrogates its responsibility to run a school and signs that right away (in a charter agreement) with another entity, usually a business or corporation.
As such, these schools are not held to the same standards as authentic public schools. Unlike your neighborhood school, charters are not required to be run by elected boards, to have public meetings, to have open records, or to spend all their money in the service of their students. Nor do they have to provide the same standard of services for students – even children with special needs. Nor do they have to accept all students within their coverage area who enroll. And that’s to say nothing of how they increase racial segregation, are susceptible to fraud and malfeasance, often produce much worse academic results, close without notice, hire many uncertified teachers, trample workers rights and destabilize the authentic neighborhood public schools.
These are not problems that can be solved by fiddling around the edges.
We cannot simply constrain them from stealing AS MUCH from authentic public schools and consider it a victory.
We need to address the issue head on – and that issue is the very concept of charter schools.
Why would the public give up its schools to a private entity? Why allow someone else to take our money and do whatever they want with it behind closed doors? Why allow anyone to give our children less of an education than we’re already providing at our own schools?
We must end this failed experiment. Nothing less will do. It will only provide more breathing room so that this unjust situation can drag on for another generation.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed sweeping reforms via executive order that would make real progress toward holding charter schools accountable. He has asked that the state senate and house take the next step with legislation to finish the job.
Just this past week, Wolf visited Twin Rivers Elementary School in McKeesport along with state Senator Jim Brewster and state Reps Austin Davis and Jake Wheatley to listen to resident and teachers’ concerns and propose solutions.
Such a move is unprecedented and represents a seismic shift in the political landscape. However, I am concerned that lawmakers are too timid to fix the real problem here.
No one has the bravery to come out and say what I’ve said here.
Consider this statement from Brewster, my state Senator:
“I have legislation to address some of these issues, but it’s not an indictment on charter school teachers. It’s not an indictment on the charter school concept. It’s an indictment on the process that was put in place 20 some years ago that has put in a playing field that’s not level. Together I believe if we get the charter school folks to the table we can iron this out, we can fix several things that need to be fixed – the funding formula, the capacity, the cap and those sort of things – and when we do that, then the mission statements of the charter schools and the public schools are the same – educate our children, bring their skill sets out, help them achieve their dreams.”
I am deeply grateful for Brewster’s support and willingness to take on the charter industry. And he is right about many things. But not all of them.
He is right, for example, about the financial impact of charter schools on authentic neighborhood public schools.
At the same meeting, McKeesport superintendent Mark Holtzman said, “Charter schools are depleting our resources with no accountability or without being financially responsible. Taxpayer money is being used to flood the media with commercials and billboards right before the start of school so that they can take our students.”
There are roughly 500 students living in the McKeesport district enrolled in brick-and-mortar charter schools and 100 students enrolled in cyber charters. The district spends about $7 million — or 10% of its budget — on charter school payments, according to Holtzman.
It’s roughly the same at other districts in the Mon-Valley. Steel Valley Schools, where I work as a middle school teacher, has budgeted a $6 million payment to charter schools this year – 16% of our spending plan.
Again, I am extremely grateful that Wolf and other state Democrats recognize this fact and are willing to take measures to make matters more fair. I hope many Republicans will join them in this.
However, fixing the way charters are funded alone will not correct the problem.
Charter schools are a parallel service to authentic public schools. If you’re suggesting we fund them both, you’re asking taxpayers to pay for two complete and separate school systems.
Why should we do that? Why should we waste our money on it? I don’t think the people of Pennsylvania – or any state of the union – have money to spare on a pointless duplication of services.
It is a politically impossible position that has zero justification – especially when you consider all the inequitable practices charter schools are allowed to get away with.
In his executive orders, Wolf proposes putting a stop to some of this.
For example, he wants to require charter schools to stop turning away students based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, intellectual deficits, or other factors. He wants to make charter schools as transparent as authentic public schools. He wants to stop conflicts of interests for charter school board members and operating companies so that they can’t make decisions on behalf of the school that would enrich themselves, their families and/or friends.
These are excellent suggestions and I hope he is able to make them a reality.
However, these “fixes” are all things that authentic public schools already do. They don’t discriminate in enrollment. They are financially accountable and transparent. They aren’t allowed to engage in conflicts of interest.
Why bother making charter schools act like authentic public schools when we already have authentic public schools? That’s like genetically engineering your cat to have a longer snout and say “woof.” Why bother when you already have a dog?
The same could be said about for-profit and non-profit charter schools.
Apologists want to pretend that the former is the “bad” type of charter and the latter is the “good” type.
As Jeff Bryant, an editor at Education Opportunity Network, puts it, this is a “Distinction without a difference.”
These terms only define an organization’s tax status – not whether it is engaged in gathering large sums of money for investors.
With a knowledgeable accountant or hedge fund manager, almost anyone can claim nonprofit status while still enriching yourself. It happens all the time.
For instance, take the use of management companies.
A for-profit charter school can simply cut services to students and pocket the savings as profit.
A nonprofit charter school can do the same thing after engaging in one additional step.
All they have to do is start a “nonprofit” charter school and then hire a for-profit management company to run it. Then the management company can cut services and pocket the profits!
Yet we call such a school “nonprofit.” It’s meaningless.
It doesn’t even matter who owns the for-profit management company. It could even be the same people who own the nonprofit charter school.
The law actually allows you to wear one hat saying you’re nonprofit and then put on a different hat and rake in the cash! The only difference is what hat you’re wearing at the time! You get to claim to be a nonprofit while enjoying all the advantages of being for-profit.
You can even buy things with public tax dollars through your for-profit management company and then if your “nonprofit” school goes bankrupt, you get to keep everything you bought! Or your management company does.
So the public takes all the risk and you reap all the reward. And you’re still called a “nonprofit.”
If I own property X, I can sell it to my own charter school and pay myself whatever I want. And I can do the same thing with a nonprofit charter school, I just need to sell it to my for-profit management company which will still buy my property for whatever I decide to pay myself.
Face it – charter schools are a scam.
They are a failed policy initiative.
It’s time they were ended.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we simply throw away the people who work there or the students who are enrolled there.
We need to look at each charter on a case-by-case basis and decide how best to transition them to an authentic public school system.
In some cases, it may make sense to rehabilitate charters into fully public schools with all the transparency and regulations that means. However, in most cases it will mean eventually closing them.
If there are any charters that actually provide valuable services for students and their families wish to keep children enrolled there, we should allow these students to finish their academic careers there. But let the present classes be the last.
In schools that do not offer better outcomes than the neighborhood public school (i.e. the overwhelming majority) students should be transitioned back to the neighborhood schools.
If there are any charters that do not wish to abide by such changes, they should have the opportunity to become what they already are except in name – private schools. The only difference is that taxpayers will no longer take up the tab.
And when it comes to charter school teachers, they should not be punished for having worked in the industry. In fact, we should find ways to bring them into the authentic public schools.
Our public schools need more teachers. Charter teachers who are fully certified should be given first chance to fill some of those vacancies. And charter teachers who are not certified should be given the opportunity to go back to school and complete their education degrees.
Any sane solution to the charter school mess would include these measures with the ultimate goal of ending school privatization in all its forms financed at public expense.
We don’t want privatized prisons. We don’t want privatized mercenary armies like Blackwater. We don’t want privatized schools.
Tax dollars should go to our authentic neighborhood public schools so that we can make them even better than they already are.
Our students deserve the best we can give them – and we can’t give them the best when we’re needlessly paying for two separate school systems and passing legislation with more of an eye on private investors than the welfare of the next generation.
It is my sincere hope that this push for real charter school reform becomes an effort to solve this problem once and for all.
Are we brave enough to do it?
Do we have the courage and conviction to take that on?
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