We can talk all day about the intentions of charter operators, about the possible ramifications of various charter policy decisions. Heck, on occasion I can talk about the conditions under which I would welcome charter schools (because I don't automatically default to the position that they're a Bad Thing).
There is a pattern in the ed reform movement. Reformsters hold up a bright shiny polished reform idea, people hop up to say, "Wow, that looks great! Let's have some of that!" And then something else entirely is delivered. So when we talk about any reform policy, we need to talk about what is actually happening on the ground. And what is happening on the ground is fairly alarming.
The Network for Public Education has now done that for charter schools. Full disclosures-- first, I'm a member of NPE and second, NPE is not predisposed to be kind to charter schools. Nevertheless, I recommend you read their new report Charters and Consequences and judge for yourself. NPE has taken a look at what is actually happening in the charter world, and it's not good.
The report is a collection of eleven separate pieces of investigation, created over the span of a year. These are not policy arguments or debates about how public ed should be handled. These are heavily researched, fully sourced accounts of what is actually happening in America. You may disagree with NPE's position, but this is not a position paper. It's a fact-based picture of what is actually going on.
The first four pieces deal with California, where there are more charter
schools and charter school students than in any other state. The very first piece sets the stage for California charter shenanigans:
You can find a charter in a mall, near a Burger King, where students as young as 12 meet their “teacher on demand.” Or, you can make a cyber visit to the “blended learning” Epic Charter School, whose students are required to meet a teacher (at a convenient, to be determined location) only once every 20 days. There is an added bonus upon joining Epic—students receive $1500 for a personal “learning fund,” along with a laptop computer. The enrollment site even advertised that students could boost that fund by referring others to the charter chain.
A superintendent can expand his tiny rural district of 300 students to 4000 by running "independent study" charters in storefronts in cities miles away, netting millions in revenue for his district, while draining the sometimes unsuspecting host district of students and funds. If he is clever, he might arrange a “bounty” for each one opened, while having a side business selling services to the charters. Charters can even provide lucrative investment opportunities for tennis stars and their friends. And then there is the opportunity "to cash in" on international students at a jaw dropping $31,300 per student.
The report is thick with such details. And why is California such a charter playground? Because there is plenty of big money that has come there to play, with the California Charter School Association pouring $2.3 million into just one school board election. Those pockets are deep.
The report also looks at independent learning centers, the kind of storefront charters that operate independent of any specific classroom setting. many of these turn out to be linked pieces of a chain of resource centers, and their track record is abysmal, with far fewer than half the students actually graduating.
The report threads its way through an example of how for-profits can hide behind a web of non-profits, essentially laundering money before turning it into a nice pile of cash to benefit owners of the operation.
And the report talks to some of the folks in California who have tried to fight back against charter fraud and abuse, from whole school boards to individuals like Mike Matsuda. None of them are arguing to eliminate charters entirely, but all would like to see charters operate fairly and within the rules. And that concludes the four-part trip through California.
In, "Charter High Schools and the Best of High Schools List," NPE looks at some of the high-ranking charters and how they get there. For instance, the BASIS charter in Phoenix earns a super-high "challenge" ranking by combining a high attrition rate with giving the AP test to many underclasspersons.
In "Charter Chains: Risk, High Costs and Consequences" the report looks at the growing dominance of charter chains and the risks that come from putting so many schools under the control of state-spanning corporations. There's a risk for fraud and abuse, as well as directing a ton of money to the top in groups like KIPP, which boasts $6 million in administrative costs. And of course there's the Gulen chain, allegedly a fundraising arm of an out-of-power Turkish government in exile.
"Draining the Coffers: The Fiscal Impact of Charters on Public Schools" looks at how charters suck the financial blood from public schools, and what better place to look than my own Pennsylvania, where cyber-charters in particular are driving schools into financial trouble. But across the state, we see public schools that are forced to slash and gut programs, even close schools, to survive the charter drain. I'll note as always that this doesn't have to be the case-- if legislators had the guts to tell the truth and not pretend that you can run three schools for the same cost as running one. But as long as that lie is the premise of charter policy, education will be a zero sum game in which every charter student represents damage to the public system.
In "Public Funding with Private School Advantages," the report looks at how charters often try to have it both ways-- public when they want access to public tax dollars, but private when it comes to following laws governing education. BASIS again provides an example of a charter that isn't really open to everyone (eg- each family must makes a $1500 donation).
"Ignoring the Community Voice" looks at how Philadelphia lost community voice in management of its schools. It's a pattern repeated across the country-- you can have a charter school if you are willing to give up any voice in how your child's school operates.
"Are Charters Public Schools?" Do they reflect the demographic make-up of their neighborhood? Are they committed to serving all students? Are they responsible to community voices? Here's some data to answer the question (spoiler alert-- no).
Finally, the report asks "Have NAACP concerns been addressed?" In other words, are charters still functioning as engines of segregation? Are they transparent and accountable? Are they damaging the rest of the community in which they exist? Are they still disproportionately punishing and pushing out some students?
The report package ends with a statement from NPE about charter schools, with a call for a specific list of legislative policies and reforms favored by the group. Bottom line: until charters follow the public school rules, they're still private schools that take public funds.
The report is under fifty pages and quite readable. Nothing I do here can really capture the sheer weight of detail and examples provided. it will make a great resource for when one of those charter questions comes up yet again, and it's a good primer for people wondering what the fuss is about. It's a worthwhile read.