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:
Which children do charter schools serve? Students are identified based on their demographics including free and reduced lunch (FRL) status. Yet, half the student population in Florida qualifies. FRL status may just mask what is really happening.
Children who qualify for FRL are not all alike. Nearly half of the FRL children, about 950,000 live in deep poverty. The difference is between families of four earning about $47, 000 vs. about $24,000 i.e. those who qualify for reduced cost lunch and those who qualify for free lunch. How many truly poor children attend charters?
Remember the post about Duval County charters? Between 2013 and 2014, the percentage of students classified as economically disadvantaged dropped in most cases about 30%. The reason was a change in the definition of economically disadvantaged by their charters. Skewed enrollment in charters has become a civil rights issue.
In a report from the August 14th New York Times, 14% of all children persistently qualify for free lunch (not reduced cost lunch) over time. A University of Michigan study shows the achievement gap of the persistently poor is a third larger than generally reported by NAEP and other measures. Grouping children in FRL together masks the real achievement gap between lower and higher income groups.
In Florida, 24% of all children fall below the federal poverty level. This includes about 950,000 children below the age of 18. Another 25% qualify for reduced lunch. These are not just statistics. They are real children with lives complicated by the trappings of poverty. If charters are ‘skimming’ students from the public schools, their percentage of students who qualify for free lunch not just for reduced cost lunch, will be much lower.
Charters are supposed to find innovative ways to solve academic problems. They may just be masking them. It is time to take the mask off and see which children are being served.
The U.S. Department of Education wants input to its rules to implement the Every Student Succeed Act. State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote them a letter, a long one. In it she lists her concerns. Her first concern had a familiar ring; under the proposed timeline, it would not be possible to implement the new rules by the beginning of the 2017-18 year. One has to smile, Ms. Stewart is right. She has learned from experience when district superintendents voiced similar complaints about the timeline for implementing the Florida Student Assessment accountability measures two years ago. Stewart’s other concerns are more problematic.
I list them below.