Monday, December 14, 2015

KY: Considering Charters

Kentucky has never jumped on the charter bandwagon. Some folks have been trying for years, but the legislature has always had trouble getting a bill passed, and so the charter sector has been dying on the vine. But the new governor would like to change that.

Matt Bevin, the new governor whose previous job was investment management, has repeatedly stated his intention to expand school choice through charter school expansion in Kentucky. Bevin seems to believe in the power of competition. Here he is in an interview laying out his thoughts:

There is a lot of concern about academic competition; competition is good, and for those who are quick to say that this is somehow going to come at the expense of public education – we need strong public education. That is where the vast majority of our students are getting their education and will continue to get their education, and we have to be able to support the teachers and administrators that are a part of it. So we don’t want to turn the whole thing upside down. But we have schools that have been failing for generations now. So let’s start with public charter schools. The students going there are public students, the funding comes in a similar manner, everyone will be better for this.

For Kentuckians who haven't had a lot of exposure to the issues that come with charters, this must sound pretty reasonable (Bevin buried his opponent pretty decisively). This post is for them. 

Dear Kentuckians-- here are some things you may want to keep an eye on if you decide to jump into the charter end of the pool.


Despite the use of the word "school," a charter school is much more like a private business than a public institution. You can't walk into the kitchen at McDonalds and demand to see how the special sauce is made, and you can't demand a tour of a Ford assembly plant. Likewise, charters tend to assert their right to be opaque and secretive. In one of the more famous examples, the Success Charter chain in New York went to court to prevent the state auditor from looking at their books to see what they were doing with the tax dollars the state was giving them.

You're being told that the way it works is that the state contracts with the charter operator-- the state hands over a pile of money and the charter promises to hit certain benchmarks. Are you sure that's all you want to know? Is there any other time you can think of when it would be okay for a public institution paid for with your tax dollars to refuse to tell you what they were doing with those dollars?

Local Control

Currently you are entitled to know how your district spends every cent, and while some may not be great at meeting that letter of the law, if you're unhappy with what your school is doing, you are entitled to attend a school board meeting where you are legally entitled to hear everything that goes into making decisions about your schools. If you don't like what you hear, you can say so by speaking formally or hollering informally. You can fight for the election of board members that you support.

But with a charter-- you can do nothing. You are not entitled to attend a board meeting, and nobody who runs the school is required to take your call, talk to you, or explain anything to you. They do not answer to the taxpayers, and they do not stand for election.

"I'll just pull my child out of school if I object strongly," you say? What if you don't have a child in school? Are you upset that your tax dollars are going to support a school that teaches communism is great or runs on a Sharia Law model? Too bad. Nobody has to listen to you. And if you are a parent arguing with the school after Counting Day (the day on which official enrollment is tallied), they will be happy to see you go, because the money associated with your child is already in the school's bank account.

Piles of Wasted Money

Do you think you could own and operate two homes for the same total cost as one home? No, me neither. But a charter system duplicates buildings, administrators, and a host of services that could be more efficiently in one building. Opening charters automatically must increase the total cost of education in your community.

Sucking Public Schools Dry

The classic simple charter funding model is to just have the per-pupil cost follow the pupil wherever she goes. If 5% of your high school students leave for a charter, 5% of your funding goes with them. Here's the problem-- if your school population drops by 5%, do your costs drop by 5% as well?No. You don't have 5% fewer buildings, 5% fewer buses or 5% fewer light and heating bills. You don't have 5% fewer administrators. You probably won't lose, say, an entire classroom's worth of third graders, so when you need to cut teachers to help make the budget, it's more likely to be an art or music teacher. Maybe a librarian.

And because charters are usually set up to help students "escape" the worst public schools, it is the most challenged and troubled schools that will lose the most resources. Unless your legislature decides to fully fund charters without simply moving money from the public system, this is a zero sum game where the public system must lose. And it's awfully hard to "compete" when someone keeps taking away the resources you need to be competitive.

Who Is Served?

Charter schools won't have room for everybody. Any kind of application process will favor families that understand the system and have the motivation to jump through the hoops. Even where all students have the possibility of entry into the charter, charters have many techniques for pushing out students-- particularly those with special needs.


Does any of the above really matter if charters get results? It's a fair question-- should we favor public schools out of tradition if charters can serve our children better?

Kentuckians are being told about great charter successes in New Orleans and other charter hubs around the country. These stories are exaggerations at best. Study after study finds little evidence that charters do any better than public schools. Where there are signs of success, we find that the charters are serving fewer students with greater disabilities and fewer English Language Learners. "Successful" charters also often have extra resources from private sponsors and contributors. In other words, the secret of charter success-- more resources, and only the more easily taught students-- is no secret, and could easily be applied to existing public schools-- if we were willig to change the mission of pblic education.

You should also examine the definition of success. Some charters define success very simply-- the students will score well on the Big Standardized Test. These schools maintain a tightly disciplined focus on a culture of compliance and endless test prep.

The "achievement gap" and "student achievement" refer to only one thing-- scores on standardized tests that cover math and reading. That is far too narrow a definition of success, and certainly does not represent "college and career readiness." ("We'd like to hire you because you take standardized tests really well," said no employer ever). 


Charter schools are businesses, and they make decisions for business reasons. This does not make them evil, but it does mean that they are not going to keep an unprofitable school open in your neighborhood just because it's a nice thing to do. A public school cannot say, "You know what? It's just too hard to keep working at education in this community with such a tiny revenue stream, so we're just going to close up shop." A charter school can say such things-- and they often do. As of last fall, 200 charter schools had closed up shop in Ohio.

Follow the Money

The amount of money wrapped up in the education sector is huge, and charter schools have become a powerful tool for unlocking much of that. The largest chunk of investment in charter schools is not from educators or school-related industries, but from hedge fund managers looking for  good return on investment. And just because a charter school operators is "non-profit" doesn't mean it's not making big money. Some charter school operators are scrupulous and ethical; some are not. And some practices are legal but eyebrow raising, like paying charter school chiefs nearly a half-million dollars, or leasing buildings from yourself.

This report from the National Education Policy Center shows the many ways in which charter schools can be used to funnel money to places it doesn't belong. Some states have instituted some stricter oversight, but states like Ohio show just how widespread scandal, fraud and waste can become when nobody is minding the money-saturated store at all (go ahead-- google "Ohio charter school scandal" and see what pops up).

The amount of money at stake means you need to be wary of people who are trying to sell you something. When a car salesman tells you that the 2016 Superwheels will change your life and make your family smart and beautiful, you would be wise to take it with a few hundred grains of salt. The money trail is often more tricky to trace when it comes to charter schools, but it is worth your while to trace it.

Watch the Big Picture

Ultimately, how Kentucky manages public education and the charter business is about more than just money (though it is certainly about that).

Kentucky is one of the states that has watched the farm industry turn into a factory model business. Farmers are now technicians who are simply meant to take orders from their corporate masters. Animals are now just product to be mass-produced with no concern for anything except their ability to be turned into meat. And the system is kept tilted in favor of the big corporations by a revolving door between corporate and government offices.

Modern education reform is an attempt to apply those same transformations to schools. Teachers are just to follow instructions and deliver pre-packaged lessons. Students are there to produce good-looking test results; their other concerns are unimportant. Charter schools are a leading edge of these transformations.

Charters represent a seismic shift. From he idea of public education as a shared good, a service provided by the community for every single one of its students, we move to the idea that schools are a consumer good, provided for a select few, and primarily serving the business interests of their investors. If you aren't careful, when you install charters, you change the very idea of what schools are for.

Can it be done?

Charter schools can potentially be a great addition to a school system, but only under the right conditions. Kentucky is in a unique position to set the rules up right from day one. If I were the Kentucky legislature, and I were dead set on starting up with charter schools, here's what I would do.

* Fund them fully. Rather than trying to run several parallel systems with the same money that previously only ran one, I would make sure that both the public and the charter systems were fully funded. That means the cost of schooling will go up for the taxpayers. If you really believe in charters, sell the idea.

* Complete transparency. Charters must operate with the same transparency and accountability as public schools. They must account for every cent they spend. They must do their decision-making in public. They must be completely and fully accountable to the taxpayers.

* Locally controlled. The people who run the charter school in the community must be there, in that community. Do not allow charter schools that are run by a board of directors in some other state.

* Fully open. The charter must be prepared to accept and serve any student who lives in that community. No creating barriers to entry or push-outs once in the school.

* Professionally staffed. Charters have often pushed for the option of putting any warm (cheap) body in a classroom. That's not okay.

* Regulated to avoid financial shenanigans. There are too many scams out there that have demonstrated all the ways in which a charter school can be nothing more than someone's get rich quick scheme. Regulators (using the complete transparency from above) should be clear and tough when it comes to making sure that charter school dollars go toward educating students and not making someone rich.

With all these in place, go ahead and set up charters where teachers and education leaders can try new, innovative and free-from-the-usual-rules educational approaches. But make sure that you are running a school and not a business. Charter boosters are going to sell, and sell hard, but if Kentuckians aren't careful, they'll find they've purchased imaginary benefits at far-too-high a cost.

1 comment:

  1. The idea of charter schools have been ever so slowly gaining momentum here with repeated attempts to pass legislation to that effect. I've met with one of the legislators (I had his kids as students) who introduced such legislation repeatedly earlier this year as I sensed the movement was inevitable. I hoped to somehow be involved in a way that might help ensure a focus on quality teaching and learning, not just more choices and while my questions have been received I've yet to have anyone involved followup with any substance. KY has made some progress on the issues of public education in recent years, unfortunately I'm afraid the new direction will result in a reversion to more focus on scores and tests.