When any issue is framed as ‘good vs evil’, one has to wonder if truth is just inconvenient and ignored. In this Slate article, the authors call the charter vs public school debate a ‘false binary’.
Today’s New York Times urges the NAACP to oppose a moratorium on charter schools. The NAACP does not want to settle for second best. The Times argues that while some charters are mismanaged, well run charters are a better option for struggling students. This is a weak argument and one wonders if it is really a political one. Who benefits?
In charter schools, parents may have choice but no rights. What does this mean? In this brief from the American Bar Association, the rights that parents assume they have are valid for public schools but not charters. According to recent court decisions in a California Appeals Court and a U.S. District Court in Hawaii, charters have the right to dismiss students in a manner that would be unconstitutional in a regular public school.
As the number of charters grows, charter parents need to beware.
Charter schools represent 7% of New York City’s school population but 42% of all student suspensions. Of the top 50 schools with high suspension rates, 48 were charters. These schools are clustered in the heart of black communities in Harlem, Crown Heights, Brownsville and Brooklyn. The problem extends far beyond New York. Parents are pushing back.
I just read an exceptionally candid lament from the charter school industry. In response to a summer of miserable news about the charter movement, Steve Zimmerman, Co-Director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools states:
The truth is that there have been a slew of scandals…..concentrated in states that, in their haste to provide market-based reforms, did not provide strong charter oversight and failed to keep foxes out of the proximity of chickens.
But my greater concern is…
In a new brief, William Mathis, head of the National Education Policy Center, argues that market based accountability for charter schools just does not work. At first glance, Florida’s policies are better than in some states. There are, however, some fatal flaws.
He makes the case for better oversight and regulation. His recommendations take a national perspective and include these general process requirements:
authorizers, those who approve charter contracts, control the criteria for granting charters and the length of time charters are in effect. Authorizers (in Florida, are the local school boards) must also specify the accountability mechanism for charters, and the state should fund oversight.
The basic difference between Florida’s policy and this recommendation is that in Florida, districts are the authorizer of charters, but they have little control over the criteria charters must meet and little access to information about charter fiscal policies and practices. The State legislature defines criteria for granting charters which are so broad that districts are not able to designate which charters are needed and actually are innovative.
The Florida Department of Education and the State Board of Education hold the reins of power. Thus, oversight is by design, minimal. No one ‘close to the store’ is watching what is going on behind the scenes. Even many charter school oversight boards have little knowledge of school practices. The press and whistleblowers ferret out problems that fester.
The brief also addresses operational policies i.e.:
Governance including budget, admissions procedures, discipline practices, and civil rights protection should be transparent. Annual reports and audits must be publically available and facilities must meet building codes and inspections. Staff background checks should be required.
Again, these recommendations, on the surface, are mostly met in Florida’s charter school policies. Annual audits are required. Admission lotteries for vacant seats are mandated. Monthly budget reports are available. What is missing? Basically two loopholes, aa mile wide, exist. The first problem is that there is no corrective action for fiscal mismanagement that does not reach a crisis level or for lapses in operations that impact which students enroll, retention of teachers, or suspension or dismissal of students.
The second problem is the lack of transparency that for-profit charter management firms enjoy. Budgets of their charter schools lack the detail of where and how money is spent. These companies control the entire budget, but financial records of for-profit privately run companies are shielded from public view. Thus, the public has access to charter school facility costs, for example, but no access to how these costs are generated. In some cases, it is like giving a blank check that may be nearly half of the budget without explanation of where the money ended up.
The one consolation in all of the exposure of charter mismanagement is that it is now becoming part of the public discussion about school choice. Privitizing schools may give the appearance of facilitating innovation, but the reality is too often that it results in the loss of public trust.
Today’s New York Times delves into the divide within communities over charter schools. The NAACP is calling for a moratorium on charters because they are increasing not only the racial divide but also the economic divide. Charters in some cities, particularly cities with fewer charter schools as in Newark, Boston or Washington tend to do better than in cities with many charters, but as the number of charters increases, achievement decreases. The reasons become clear:
Charters are viewed by some parents as an ‘escape’ from schools that must serve children with discipline and other emotional problems. Charter educational programs may be no better than in traditional schools, but ‘problem’ students are either screened out or suspended. Suspension rates are higher in charters and disproportionately impact minority students. Achievement for those who remain may rise giving the appearance of being better.
School choice is intended to give parents better options for their children. The idea is appealing, but after fifteen years, it is clear that not all choices are good choices. The League of Women Voters of Florida charges our legislators to ensure that charters: