When members of the U.S. House of Representatives consider, beginning today, a bill to incentivize the expansion of charter schools, you can expect there to be a lot of heat but not very much light in their discussion of the need for more of these institutions.
The bipartisan bill, HR 10, is "likely to pass," according to the experienced observers at Education Week. And "amid lots of cross-aisle fist-bumping," there is apt to be "a much glitzier rollout, with lots of floor speeches about the power of charters to help disadvantaged kids. Debate is also expected to begin Thursday and final passage could happen Friday."
In today's climate of trumped up political truisms (remember "deficit hysteria?"), the supposed necessity of charter schools is just the latest one to hit The Hill.
In even the most casual treatments of education, charter schools are now regarded by many as a given "improvement." New York Times columnists David Leonhardt illustrated this intellectual nonchalance the other day, writing for the paper's magazine, that our nation's "once-large international lead in educational attainment has vanished," but "there are some reasons for optimism in education" – principally, "charter schools" that "offer some lessons about what works and doesn’t in K-12."
Echoing Leonhardt in the halls of Congress, Senator Mary Landrieu (D, LA) recently harangued U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a Senate committee meeting for not giving enough federal financial support to charter schools. According to the report from Education Week, she "chided Duncan for proposing level funding for the federal charter program." Said Landrieu, "We gave you billions of dollars for traditional public schools. You've given a very small amount of money for public high performing charters. The evidence is in, they work."
Even the President himself declared this week National Charter School Week in a proclamation claiming charter schools "show what is possible."
The fact that the House vote on the HR 10 coincides with the president's designation of a special week for charters tells you the marketing campaign for these schools has been very carefully orchestrated.
But upsetting the ad campaign are a number of recent revelations showing that among "what is possible" from charter schools is a lot of bad education, ridiculous hype, wasted resources, and widespread corruption.
For sure – and let's get this straight from the get go – there are always a few "charter school success stories" that can be cherry picked from the tree, but that's not the point. After all, imagine an advocate for traditional public schools pleading his case saying, "But look at this great public school over here." He'd be mocked in the media and shamed by politicians. The point is that after years of studies about charter schools, there is not really any definitive proof of any "charter magic" they bring to the field.
In the meantime, look at what's being introduced . . .
Spreading Bad Education
Opening the truth telling about charter schools was a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute on a call for public schools to be replaced by charter schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee, you should note, is the city that has experienced the nation's longest running experiment, more than 20 years, with charter schools and vouchers as replacements for traditional public schools. The consensus view is that charter schools in Milwaukee do no better than the public schools they replace, and many of the charter schools that perform the worst are never held accountable and continue to remain open after years of failure.
Despite this humble track record for charters in Milwaukee, the EPI report "Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin," explores the latest demand from state officials who are for "enamored with a new type of charter school represented by the Rocketship chain of schools."
The study's author, Gordon Lafer, looked closely at Rocketship's practices and found "everything is built around the tests." However, tests scores for students in the Rocketship programs – as measured by California’s Academic Performance Index (where Rocketship is primarily based) – have declined by just over 10 percent from 2008–2009 to 2012–2013. "Indeed, in 2012–2013, all seven of the Rocketship schools failed to make adequate yearly progress according to federal standards."
Despite this poor performance, Rocketship executives are bent on an "unshakeable pursuit of large-scale growth." But instead of good education practice, what drives the Rocketship model is profit. As the report explained, along with a test-driven instructional method, the Rocketship model relies heavily on substituting extensive online instruction for personal instruction from teachers. However, this model leads to clear conflicts of interest when the charter network partners with its own for-profit providers of curricula, and two leaders of the charter venture both sit on Rocketship’s Board and are primary investors in a for-profit company that provides the math curriculum used by Rocketship.
Thus, as Lafer concluded in his report, "Rocketship promotes itself as a dynamic learning organization, and indeed the company is continually experimenting. However, its innovation appears to be restricted within specific boundaries: It seems that it will not adopt education reforms that have no potential to make money for investors."
This profit over pedagogy mentality "would likely be prohibited as illegal conflicts of interest if they took place in a public school system," but, "Rocketship is not bound to uphold the same standard of ethics demanded of public officials."
Is this really a model of schooling we want spread across America?
Engaging In Marketing Hype
Another outcome of the push for charter schools is the circulation of unfounded and unwarranted rhetoric to support them. Demands for more charter schools, and more money for charter schools, are often justified by suspect information masquerading as "research" and inflated arguments about their financial needs.
Two recent examples of the hype machine behind charter schools were, first, a new report arguing for more money for charter schools and, second, the annual ritual of circulating figures representing a charter school "waitlist."
The report calling for more funds for charter schools found that in 2011, charter schools received $3,059 less per student than traditional public schools. "Shocking," wrote one of the report authors on his personal blog.
But as education journalist Joy Rosmovits noted at The Huffington Post, the report came from a University of Arkansas endeavor "funded by the Walton Foundation, a group associated with Walmart that aggressively uses its philanthropy to spur the creation of new charter schools. (The foundation also funded the report, which contains a disclaimer that its findings "[do] not necessarily reflect" the group's views.)"
Further, as charter schools expert and Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron explained to a blogger for Education Week, "This is not research that's helping draw good policies." As it turns out, based on the data, charter schools often get less money because they don't provide many of the services traditional public schools do, in particular, special education services, student support services such as counseling and health, vocational education, and transportation.
In fact, according to the writer, "Miron found that charters have a cost advantage," especially when there is a thorough accounting of "considerable money that comes into charters from private sources."
And about that extensive charter school wait list? Like clockwork, the numbers were indeed released, showing, supposedly, over a million students champing at the bit to get into charter schools. Fortunately, just prior to the release, a report from the National Education Policy Center warned, "While there are undoubtedly many students who wish to enroll in popular charter schools and are unable, the overall waitlist numbers are almost certainly much lower than the estimates."
The report, " Wait, Wait. Don’t Mislead Me! Nine Reasons to Be Skeptical About Charter Waitlist Numbers," caution that the methods for obtaining the waitlist data are not transparent, there's no means of verifying the results, and waitlist record-keeping is chronically unreliable – for instance, charters often count as “waiting” applicants who apply to enter into grade levels for which charters provide no entry. Also, a small number of very popular charters disproportionately account for the charter waitlists, while traditional public schools – which are not allowed to turn away applicants or, as with popular magnet schools, offer selective enrollment – are not given a "meaningful comparison" in the charter school data.
So as charter proponents continue to inflate their cause, the facts continue to deflate it. Maybe we've had enough of this shameless hype?
Wasting Resources, Spreading Corruption
Last but hardly least, a blockbuster report released by Integrity in Education and the Center for Popular Democracy revealed, "Fraudulent charter operators in 15 states are responsible for losing, misusing or wasting over $100 million in taxpayer money."
The report, “Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud And Abuse,” combed through news stories, criminal records, and other documents to find hundreds of cases of charter school operators embezzling funds, using tax dollars to illegally support other, non-educational businesses, taking public dollars for services they didn’t provide, inflating their enrollment numbers to boost revenues, and putting children in potential danger by foregoing safety regulations or withholding services.
"Despite rapid growth in the charter school industry," the report contended, "no agency, federal or state, has been given the resources to properly oversee it. Given this inadequate oversight, we worry that the fraud and mismanagement that has been uncovered thus far might be just the tip of the iceberg."
In a write up of the report at Bill Moyers and Company, Joshua Holland wrote, "The report looks at problems … with dozens of case studies. In some instances, charter operators used tax dollars to prop up side businesses like restaurants and health food stores — even a failing apartment complex."
At her blog at The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss cited some of the most egregious examples including a Washington, DC-based charter that used public tax dollars to cover travel-related expenses, membership dues and dinner tabs at an exclusive club, and slew of bills from sources as diverse as wine and liquor stores, Victoria’s Secret, and a shop in France frequented by the charter school operator and his wife.
A state auditor in Ohio found nearly $3 million in unsubstantiated expenses amassed by a charter in that state. Another operator in Milwaukee "spent about $200,000 on personal expenses, including cars, funeral arrangements and home improvement." And yet another in California pleaded guilty to "stealing more than $7.2 million worth of computers from a government program."
The report concluded with recommendations for policy makers to adopt to curb these abuses, including
- Rigorous oversight from officials solely dedicated to charters and an annual auditing process.
- Increased transparency through public access to records, meetings, and documents and required disclosure of finances and vendor relationships.
- Stricter governance from board members who live in reasonable proximity of where charter schools operate and who are accountable to the public.
Given the situation, these recommendations seem all too reasonable.
Time For This Truism To Die
Despite these urgent and well-founded calls for a change in direction on charter schools, public officials still seem intent on pursuing bad policy.
In New York, new changes in state laws allowing an unfettered charter industry to expand are leading to a "charter school gold rush."
In Pennsylvania, credit-rating agency Moody's has warned that charter expansions promoted by the state endanger the financial livelihood of Philadelphia Public Schools, the state's largest school district.
And inside the Beltway, Members of Congress, U.S. Senators, and state governors are feted by the well-financed backers of charter schools as being "champions" of good education.
But with these recent disclosures, and others that are sure to come, about the reality of charter schools, there's every reason to believe that a tipping point in the debate over their fate is drawing nigh.
Jeff Bryant is Director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America's Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Jeff owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written extensively about public education policy.