13 Questions That Expose Charter School Falsehoods

Alan Singer a social studies educator, Hofstra University. Follow him on Twitter @ReecesPieces8.  Originally published at Huffington Post

The Network for Public Education is challenging the Trump/DeVos anti-public school agenda. According to NPE, “DeVos and her allies have worked for decades pushing charters, vouchers and neo-vouchers such as education tax credits. DeVos even supports virtual charter schools that have a horrific track record when it comes to student success.”

This campaign picks up urgency as Arizona just passed legislation providing its entire student population with vouchers to attend private, for-profit, and religious schools. The law is modeled on Trump/DeVos proposals.

The public is often confused by the Trump/DeVos assault on public schools because they frame it as promoting “choice.” In response, The Network for Public Education prepared a thirteen-point question/answer toolkit to expose the lies and distortions of charter school, voucher, and tax credit advocates. The full toolkit is available online. This report excerpts key items from the toolkit.

1. Are charter schools truly public schools? Charter schools are contractors that receive taxpayer money to operate privately controlled schools that do not have the same rules and responsibilities as public schools. Investigations of charter school operations in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, and elsewhere have found numerous cases where charters used taxpayer money to procure school buildings, supplies, and equipment that they retained ownership of, even if the school closed. In most states, charter schools are exempt from most state and local laws, rules, regulations, and policies governing public and private schools, including those related to personnel and students. Calling charter schools “public schools” because they receive public tax dollars is like calling defense contractors public companies. There are so many substantive differences between charter schools and traditional public schools that charters can’t be defined as public schools. Our communities deserve a school system that is truly public and democratically governed by the community they serve.

2. Do charter schools and school vouchers “hurt” public schools? Charter schools, vouchers, and other “choice” options redirect public money to privately operated education enterprises, which often operate for profit. That harms your public schools by siphoning off students, resources, and funding and reducing the ability of public schools to serve the full range of student needs and interests. In Nashville, TN, an independent research firm MGT of America estimated the net negative fiscal impact of charter school growth on the district’s public schools resulted in more than $300 million in direct costs to public schools over a five-year period. While alternatives to public schools may provide better options for some children, on the whole charter and voucher schools perform no better than the public school system, and often worse. At the same time, they have a negative fiscal impact on existing public schools and are creating a parallel school system that duplicates services and costs. The idea that funds should follow the child (portability) will seriously reduce public school services. Let’s stop draining our public schools and work together to strengthen them.

3. Do charter schools get better academic results than public schools? The charter school sector does not get better academic results than public schools and often performs worse. Charters sometimes appear to do better because they can control the types of students they choose to serve. The most rigorous and most expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found no overall positive effect for charter schools. A recent study of charter schools in Texas found charters overall have no positive impact on test scores and have a negative impact on earnings later in life. Despite the advantages charter school have to selectively enroll students, concentrate instruction on teaching to the test, and push out students who pose the most challenging academic and behavior problems, these schools still do not out-perform public schools.

4. Are charter schools and vouchers a civil rights cause? Charter schools, vouchers, and other choice options increase the segregation of students. This results in separate, unequal schools that isolate black and Hispanic students, English language learners, and students with disabilities in schools with fewer resources and less experienced teachers. Segregation robs all children of the benefits of learning with others who have different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. A comprehensive analysis found 70% of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools – double the share of intensely segregated black students in public schools. Half of Latino charter school students attended racially isolated minority schools. A national study of charter school operated by education management organizations found only one-fourth of these schools had a racial composition similar to public schools. We need a public system that is about advancing the well-being of all, not just helping some families and children get ahead while leaving the rest behind.

5. Are charter schools “more accountable” than public schools?Charter schools that fail to perform as expected are rarely held accountable. In theory, if a charter school does not meet its stated goals or if academic results are below stated expectations, the charter sponsor can revoke its charter or refuse to renew it, and families will withdraw their children from the school. This theory doesn’t work in reality. A national assessment by the charter industry found only about 3% of charter schools are closed for academic reasons. The vast majority of charter school closures are for financial reasons. In Ohio, only one of 10 charter school students attend a school rated high performing. In Florida, where millions are wasted every year on charter schools that eventually close, 21 of those that remain open scored a grade of D or below on state assessments. The flood of poor performing charters and the cost to taxpayers will only get worse until we get to the bottom of why this is happening and insist on transparency.

6. Do charter schools profit from educating students? Charter schools are structured and operate in ways that introduce new actors into public education who skim money from the system without returning any benefit to students and taxpayers. Even charters labeled “nonprofit” expand opportunities to profit from public tax dollars and privatize public assets. In Michigan, nearly 80 percent of charter schools have all or a significant part of their operations under the control of for-profit companies. Charter schools are businesses in which both the cost and risk are fully funded by the taxpayers. The initial “investment” often comes from the government or wealthy individuals. And if the business fails, the “owners” are not out a dime, but the customers, who are in this case children, are stranded. Education should not be about making money from tax dollars intended for our children and families.

7. Do school vouchers help kids in struggling schools? Vouchers, often misleadingly called “scholarships,” divert tax dollars meant for public education to private schools that are not accountable to the public and generally do not serve the interests of struggling, low-income students. In Wisconsin, 75% of students who applied for the statewide voucher program already attended private schools. A national analysis of voucher programs found most programs do not cover enough of the tuition to enable poor minority children to access the best private schools. Vouchers are a gift of taxpayer funds to private and religious schools that if expanded will cost American taxpayers billions of dollars.

8. Are charter schools innovative? Charter schools were intended to be centers of education experimentation and innovation, but they generally don’t invent new teaching methods or develop and spread new education practices. They’re businesses first, and schools second. An analysis of 75 Arizona charter schools found little evidence the schools were developing new classroom practices. A study of Colorado charters found that more than 60% of the schools used reform models that are common elsewhere, and their instructional approaches were already being used in district public schools. Public schools have used innovative education models, such as Montessori and project based learning, for decades – well before the advent of charter schools.

9. Are online charter schools good options for families? Online charter schools, also called cyber schools and virtual schools, are a poor choice for students almost every time. A study of online charters in Ohio found students attending these schools perform worse than their peers in bricks-and-mortar schools in all tested grades and subjects. A widely cited national study found students enrolled in full-time, online only schools lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math over a 180- day school year – meaning, in math, an entire year of lost instruction. Online charters run by private education management organizations account for 74.4% of all enrollments in online schools.

10. Do “Education Savings Accounts” lead to better results for families? “Education Savings Accounts” are another voucher-like scheme that redirects public money for educating all children to private, unaccountable education businesses, homeschoolers, and religious institutions. Privatization advocates created these programs because school vouchers are unpopular and because these programs are a way around prohibitions against using public dollars for religious schools. Wealthier families in urban and suburban communities would benefit the most from the program because they have more access to private schools and services. An analysis of Arizona’s ESA program found that most families using the program are leaving high-performing public schools in wealthy districts to attend private schools. Rather than diverting tax dollars away from public schools, we should adequately fund our schools so they can have smaller class sizes, more specialized resources for student needs, and more education opportunities to meet the high expectations of parents.

11. Do education tax credits scholarships provide opportunity?Privatization advocates have created tax credit programs because school vouchers are unpopular. These programs are a way to get around prohibitions against using public dollars for religious schools which often discriminate on the basis of religion, gender preference, disciplinary history, or ability level. In Georgia, a popular tax credit program allows public money to be used for tuition at more than 100 private schools that refuse to enroll gay, lesbian, or bisexual students. Because the amount of scholarship money rarely covers the cost of tuition at the best private schools, the money subsidizes sub-standard private schools that have less accountability than public schools, discriminate against students, and on average, do not provide children with better education opportunities.

12. Are tax credits scholarships a voucher by a different name? Like vouchers, these programs redirect public money for educating all children to private schools, including religion-based schools. Diverting funds from public schools harms our children’s education because schools are forced to respond to the lost money by cutting staff and programs. In Georgia, the state does not track who is receiving scholarships under the program, and state lawmakers made it a criminal offense to disclose information about the program to the public. Public schools in Arizona get about $4,200 per pupil from the state, but the state’s education tax credit program awards $5,200 on average to parents participating in the program – an additional $1,000 for every child who leaves a public school for a private or religious school. If the goal is to make more high-quality school choices available for parents, then the emphasis should be on helping current public schools be the best they can be. This is no more than a gift of public funds and a scheme to help the wealthy and corporations avoid paying taxes.

13. Do charter schools and vouchers save money? Charter schools increase education costs to taxpayers because they have become a parallel school system that drains money from what’s available to serve all students. School voucher programs can add extra layers of administrative costs and make education funds less transparent and accountable. The result of both programs is more money going to more service providers instead of directly to students and classrooms. A national study found charter schools on average spend $774 more per pupil per year on administration and $1141 less on instruction than traditional public schools. In New Orleans, where all schools converted to charters, administrative spending increased by 66 percent while instructional spending dropped by 10 percent. In New York City, some charter schools occupy public school buildings practically rent free. Charter schools and vouchers are not a way to get better education on the cheap. Because each school or network of schools is its own financial entity, they don’t have the economies of scale that public schools have. So charters and private schools supported with vouchers have to continually find more ways to tap into public school budgets or generate funds from the private sector. This drain on resources threatens the capacity of public education budgets to serve all students.

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19 comments

  1. bmeisen

    Question 8 is particularly useful – it seems the only democratic reason for a community to allow a charter school to compete with public schools for public funds is if the charter school could offer a curriculum that public schools couldn’t offer, a curriculum that was arguably – or better yet demonstrably – more effective for a critical population of learners. The evidence is strong for example that schools that can offer deeply constructivist curricula that public schools struggle with, perhaps due to institutional constraints, do better with autistic children and other special needs children. Otherwise if charter schools replicate existing curricula in public schools then the movement is anti-democratic and destructive to the common good.

  2. Sean

    Successful Charters are likely to well established public schools in wealthy areas that were already doing well. The benefit of going Charter is to better screen out the ‘unwashed’. Which leads to the answer for the question “who benefits?” current parents who want to exclude.

    There is also a deeper implication – ‘school choice’ by its very nature explicitly implies that ‘segregation is good’ and acceptable.

    Those studies that show improvements in academic outcomes from ‘lottery assignments’ fail to account for behavioural benefits arising from the method of lottery assignment – reduces likelihood that Pygmalion effect occur. You can see that is how lottery assignments asymmetrically benefit African-Americans but not whites nor Hispanics. Behavioural economics 101.

    It should be noted that in S.Korea students are randomly assigned to public schools across very very large ‘zones’. Siblings are unlikely to end up at the same school. Yet S.Korean students do exceedingly well.

  3. jackiebass

    I believe the concept of charter schools came from Albert Shanker , the president of the AFT. The idea was to create these schools as a lab to try out new ideas. If any new idea proved to be successful then it would be incorporated into the public school system. Todays chatter schools are not even close to this idea. They are now used to promote a political and social agenda and do little to improve the educational process of the entire population. Like excessive testing, charters have become a big pile of money for the taking.

    1. Katharine

      Yes, it’s another case of what might have been a good idea being taken over and corrupted by people who just want to make a buck.

      The link to the toolkit is worth following if you want sources to back up an argument. The presentation is a little annoying, including a table of What they believe/What we believe, suggesting infection by the “balance” virus, but they do have footnotes citing studies that support their position.

    2. human

      They use political and social agendas to promote their economic agenda and do little to improve the educational process of the entire population.

      Fixed it for ya.

  4. PhilM

    Does anybody know what the source of funding is for the NPE, which is Diane Ravitch’s baby? Yves, is this the kind of thing you can find out? It seems to be that is a necessary part of understanding this post—which is, by the way, full of unreferenced statistics that are difficult to interpret out of context.

    To me, charter schools are as corrupt as the military industrial complex and the health-industrial complex (now made even more fully coercive by Obamacare); but they are no more corrupt than the public-sector unions. That’s why I would like to see who funds the NPE.

    1. tongorad

      Since you mentioned references, what is your referenced basis for your claim that public-sector unions are corrupt?
      And how would an example of said corruption invalidate the points presented in the article?

    2. Procopius

      I’m not interested enough to do this for you (is this a homework assignment?), but Google is your friend. The NPE has a web site, which of course is not a trustworthy source in itself, but lists the members of the board of directors. A Google search on “diane ravitch npe” turns up 18,300 results, the first page of which are all favorable. I imagine if you go through a few pages of those there will be mention of where the money comes from. Perhaps not; I don’t think you’ll easily find who funds Heritage Action, for example. Anyway, good luck on your quest.

  5. Benedict@Large

    Charter schools were initially meant to defund public education, and in turn greatly reduce property taxes on people sheltering their wealt in property ownership. White flight then got added on, and finally the idea came to Wall Street to privatize the public education system, turning its financing into a bond-like structure, where the bonds were supported by the original underlying tax flow for public schools. At no point (other that for public relations) have charters schools or any of the school choice movement even been about what is best for the children. The people that profit from any of the above are not likely to have their own children in these schools, and so education quality has never made a difference to them.

    P.S. Mote also that the Washington Post has invested in school choice, so there will now always be high profile, favorable news coverage for them, regardless of their actual results.

  6. Deloss Brown

    Bravo. Thank you for this. (Although as a member of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, I don’t think anything here was news to me–but it’s nice to see it all gathered together.)

  7. Marc Grober

    Your definition of charter schools is at odds with that most often used in education, in that it adds to the criteria: independence from public accountability, and implementation by private contractor. There are hundreds and hundreds of charter schools around the country which are completely subject to the same accountability measures as all other public schools and are operated by parent groups under the auspices of the local Board.

    While such schools may present a variety of problems for their supporting Boards (including some you mention), they are a far cry from the charter schools that typically receive negative headlines.

    1. Procopius

      There are hundreds and hundreds of charter schools around the country which are completely subject to the same accountability measures as all other public schools and are operated by parent groups under the auspices of the local Board.

      There are? Could you name a few of them for us? Or give us a Google search phrase (none comes to mind immediately)? This type of charter school is never (or very rarely) mentioned in the public discussion.

      1. washunate

        Yeah, I think Marc is genuinely mixing up two different issues: large chains vs. local boards is a different issue from getting exemptions from the rules, regulations, oversight, and accountability of public schools. My hunch is that he is thinking of schools chartered by local school boards and sponsored by local organizations and not realizing those charter schools don’t have to play by the same rules as the public schools.

  8. FiddlerHill

    Let me add my voice to Marc’s comment. My daughter graduated last year from a charter school in Los Angeles — and received in my estimation a superior education, imperfect to be sure but one that has allowed her to complete her freshman year at a highly selective international university with a A-minus GPA. FYI, both my wife and I are college graduates, I have an MA in Education, am an adjunct professor and many years ago taught at a very good public high school. So I do have some background for making a judgement here.

    We enrolled our daughter in the charter school after our local suburban school board increased the class size across the district to 40 students per class. I and other parents organized to petition to school board and administration to re-order their spending priorities because anyone who knows anything about education knows just how difficult it is to provide meaningful public education in a classroom of 40. The board and administration refused to do anything. In fact, their solution to California’s continuing school funding crunch was to try and find some way around the state-mandated maximum of 20 students in K-3.

    Our daughter immediately went into a charter school with an average class size of 15. That school was receiving exactly the same amount of money per student as our public school system. But the school’s founders and directors, supported by their board, chose to spend the money on teachers and assistants rather than brick and mortar and a bloated administrative bureaucracy. The student body of 325 reflected the racial make-up of our part of the city: Hispanic, White, Black, Korean, many from economically disadvantaged homes. The school operates under the auspices of the LA Unified School District and must meet all the same academic requirements as our local school district. Nearly all of my daughter’s classmates were accepted at colleges and universities.

    Now, my daughter’s charter school may be the exception, I don’t know. But at a minimum, I think its success indicates that it is not the concept of the charter school which is at the root of whatever problems may exist among charters nationally. The problem in many cases appears to be what readers on this website have, I think, come to recognize as the Achilles’ heel of much private enterprise: rampant, amoral greed. Better oversight, I would suggest, would be a better solution than abolishing a model that, in my experience, offers frustrated parents an alternative to badly-managed schools and that in time may pressure public schools to institute genuine and needed reforms.

    1. kareninca

      That is interesting. In the case of my family, I have a relative whose kids could go to a truly excellent public school in Colchester, CT. However, her daughters found the school boring and opted to go to charter schools in Hartford, CT. The older one is now going to a fifth (sixth?) tier college on huge amounts of debt (the College of Charleston in NC; 30k/year just for the tuition); she wants to “help women” so she is studying sociology. If I’d tried to persuade her to go to a good state school in CT I would have been the mean rich relative trying to block her from achieving her status dreams. Her younger sister is still at the charter school; I asked her if her fellow students intended to go to college and she said no, they all planned to enter the military. Almost all of her fellow students are black (my relatives are white), so it does not seem to me that this school is benefitting minority kids.

      Their brother is going to the public school in Colchester. He is no genius, but he is not a moron, and he is getting a solid education.

      Anyway, this is a case where the public schools were and are excellent, and the charter schools are not. These girls have been scammed. Their parents have college degrees, and likely knew better, but apparently it is hard to buck the preferences of teenagers.

    2. washunate

      A couple of thoughts for your considerstion:

      1) If most of the student body goes to college, that is not representative of the total population of children in the country. This suggests self-selection, particularly parental involvement that is higher than average.

      2) Brick and mortar is a major component of education expenses. Where does the financing come from for classroom space, recess space, athletic fields, art/choir/music/theater facilities, computer equipment, elevators/ramps, nurse offices, social work offices, maintenance offices, busing, and so forth? Or does the charter simply exclude some of those kinds of activities? Or, are there tax breaks/donations that don’t scale to the system as a whole? Financing is very interesting, and often not considered in the bang for the buck analyses.

      3) What I think is most interesting is that there are lots of individual charter schools that are great for the enrolled students – like many things with lots of data points, there is variance. But the management suggestion of cutting out facilities waste and administrative waste just doesn’t scale, either theoretically or empirically. Public school districts are not generally cutting fat. They’re cutting muscle and bone. This notion that financial pressure can lead to a productive outcome rather than a weakened public school is grounded in a desire of how the world ought to work rather than evidence of what actually happens. Basically, the argument you are making is for privatizating K-12 education. Nothing wrong with advocating that perspective, and indeed, there would be some great schools in a privatized delivery system. You just can’t legitimately argue that weakening public schools makes public schools better. That’s trickle down economics applied to education.

  9. TedWa

    The only reason for seeing charter schools as a relief is due to the money being spent on public education going to these schools that offer at best, borrowed ideas from the regular curriculum and taking government funds from these same public schools. They even share the buildings that they’re in!! If we properly funded our public school system then we wouldn’t have class sized of 40-50 kids. If your perspective is to see charter schools as a solution to class sizes then we’ve already lost – for what happens when they take over and the public school system dies??? 40-50 students per charter classroom. Then the private sector will control education and talk about getting fat from largess. If your perspective is “1 charter school is doing good”, then don’t look over at the nearby public school that’s the host for this parasite. This is a shortsighted solution – and 1 popular with the elites that deal in shortsightedness for a living.

    1. FidderHill

      I don’t know if your comment was related to my earlier post. But if so, you missed the point. The charter school my child attended receives exactly the same amount of money our public school system does. The reason the charter school has classes of 15 instead of 40 is a function of how each system chooses to allocate those funds. The charter school my daughter attended operates out of a former discount clothing store and often hires energetic young unconventional teachers or assistants. In my view, they have managed to use their funding in much smarter, more focused ways.

  10. screen screamer

    The purpose of public schools as initially proposed by industrialists, was to have an educated work force to run the factories and make stuff. This was what was talked about in the beginning and this is what they did. Carnegie and Rockefeller and others like them made this determination and set about making a system to make a better citizenry.
    A hundred years later, in a post industrial society, the question must be asked what is the purpose of public schooling at this point? What is the goal?
    There are corporate interests in our school buildings to this day. The text books, computer programs, in which information is filtered to a large degree, even the people who design and build our schools.
    The budget of our school system ranges between $350,000,000 to $450,000,000 a year in which the head of the BOE receives a quarter of a million dollars. With this kind of budget, it is a mystery how children can graduate with little or no comprehension of basic concepts of reading or math skills. One could even surmise that this is by design.
    Corporate interests have never left the public school house. They invented the modern public school, received a healthy share of our tax money thus enriching themselves under the guise of education, and I suspect this behavior will continue until we have had enough.

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