Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Unintended Charter Consequences

Grabby McMoneybuckets, owner-operator of  a string of charter schools, dreams of the day when he won't have to answer to Slim McWhistle, local school board member. If he could just be free from both the usual state regs and the need to keep his authorizing body happy, life would be sweet. But Grabby should be careful what he wishes for...

The rising tide of charter naughtiness-- everything from stunning incompetence from shameless criminal activity-- is not an unexpected consequence. When you leave large piles of money lying around and post neither watchmen nor guard dogs nor even a grumpy chipmunk to keep an eye on them, you can expect some folks will take advantage of them. If you have the time and the stomach, I recommend Charter School Scandals, a website that provides an encyclopedia of corruption and misbehavior. I was going to pick some specifics, but there are just too many examples to choose from. The best news for anti-charter folks is that "charter school" is becoming synonymous with "banana republic of education." I am expecting it to turn up as punchline somewhere soon.

No, I think this fully predictable outcome is heralding the unexpected consequence that is just over the horizon.

Googling the word string "investigating charter school" returned 16,500 results. Sometimes charters are spanked and shut down by the local district that authorized them. But in some states like NY, that authorizing body operates on the state level. And in many cases, the misbehavior itself is state-level in scope and sanction.

In Pennsylvania, closing a charter generally involves an appeal to the state charter board, and some of the sanctions that have actually been brought to bear involve state entities like the ethics board. More spectacular spanking have been administered not by the state, but by the feds, for example when the USDOJ indicted charter operator Curtis Andrews for fraud. Move up to the giant Gulen mess and we're looking at FBI involvement in charter school oversight. Misbehavior keeps leading to court involvement.

The charter movement offered us schools that weren't accountable to the usual rules, but what they've delivered is a raft of schools that simply hunt down bigger and badder rules to break. And that has the unexpected side effect of creating a new school system that operates on the state and federal level.

I don't think this was intended as a way to further the federal-control agenda. But we're sliding slowly toward the day when a whole sector of US schools are run, not by local school boards, but by federal courts. Parents are increasingly vocal in their demands that somebody, anybody, take a look at what charters are doing. Attempts (like Pennsylvania's SB 1085) to free charters from the usual local authorities will actual result in charters having to play to a tougher house. Instead of sparring with a Slim, Grabby will increasingly find himselves answering to Justice McFed.

This new level of oversight may exacerbate our education incest problems, and that cozy revolving door between privateers and bureaucrats has become bad enough to merit its own watchdog organization. More legal problems means more high-government oversight of charters. Charters could respond to the additional oversight by trying to behave better, and many of them do. But they could also respond by trying to get more grease on more palms.

The attempt to free charters from oversight will get us more federal involvement in schools, and more corruption in the larger system. Grabby is soon going to be nostalgic for the days when Slim was his biggest problem.

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