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The Great Charter School Rip-Off: Report Shows They're Awful — And Folks Are Finally Catching On

Charter schools are supposed to "prove their worth" periodically by demonstrating the achievement of their students — or get shut down when their charters come up for renewal.  But while public schools are being closed all across the country for perceived failures, many failing charter schools have remained unaccountable and open.

By Jeff Bryant
Last week when former President Bill Clinton meandered onto the topic of charter schools, he mentioned something about an “original bargain” that charters were, according to the reporter for The Huffington Post, “supposed to do a better job of educating students.”

A writer at Salon called the remark “stunning” because it brought to light the fact that the overwhelming majority of charter schools do no better than traditional public schools. Yet, as the Huffington reporter reminded us, charter schools are rarely shuttered for low academic performance.

RELATED STORY: The ‘Separate-but-Equal’ Charter School Scam
But what’s most remarkable about what Clinton said is how little his statement resembles the truth about how charters have become a reality in so many American communities.

In a real “bargaining process,” those who bear the consequences of the deal have some say-so on the terms, the deal-makers have to represent themselves honestly (or the deal is off and the negotiating ends), and there are measures in place to ensure everyone involved is held accountable after the deal has been struck.

But that’s not what’s happening in the great charter industry rollout transpiring across the country. Rather than a negotiation over terms, charters are being imposed on communities – either by legislative fiat or well-engineered public policy campaigns. Many charter school operators keep their practices hidden or have been found to be blatantly corrupt. And no one seems to be doing anything to ensure real accountability for these rapidly expanding school operations.

Instead of the “bargain” political leaders may have thought they struck with seemingly well-intentioned charter entrepreneurs, what has transpired instead looks more like a raw deal for millions of students, their families, and their communities. And what political leaders ought to be doing – rather than spouting unfounded platitudes, as Clinton did, about “what works” – is putting the brakes on a deal gone bad, ensuring those most affected by charter school rollouts are brought to the bargaining table, and completely renegotiating the terms for governing these schools.

Charter Schools As Takeover Operations

The “100 percent charter schools” education system in New Orleans that Clinton praised was never presented to the citizens of New Orleans in a negotiation. It was surreptitiously engineered.

After Katrina, as NPR recently reported, “an ad hoc coalition of elected leaders and nationally known charter advocates formed,” and in “a series of quick decisions,” all school employees were fired and the vast majority of the city’s schools were handed over to a state entity called the “Recovery School District” which is governed by unelected officials. Only a “few elite schools were … allowed to maintain their selective admissions.”

In other words, any bargaining that was done was behind closed doors and at tables where most of the people who were being affected had no seat.

Further, any evidence of the improvement of the educational attainment of students in the New Orleans all-charter system is obtainable only by “jukin the stats” or, as the NPR reporter put it, through “a distortion of the curriculum and teaching practice.” As Andrea Gabor wrote for Newsweek a year ago, “the current reality of the city’s schools should be enough to give pause to even the most passionate charter supporters.”

Yet now political leaders tout this model for the rest of the country. So school districts that have not had the “benefit,” according to Arne Duncan, of a natural disaster like Katrina, are having charter schools imposed on them in blatant power plays. An obvious example is what’s currently happening in the York, Pennsylvania.

School districts across the state of Pennsylvania are financially troubled due to chronic state underfunding – only 36 percent of K-12 revenue comes from the state, way below national averages – and massive budget cuts imposed by Republican Governor Tom Corbett (the state funds education less than it did in 2008).

The state cuts seemed to have been intentionally targeted to hit high-poverty school districts like York City the hardest. After combing through state financial records, a report from the state’s school employee union found, “State funding cuts to the most impoverished school districts averaged more than three times the size of the cuts for districts with the lowest average child poverty.” The unsurprising results of these cuts has been that in school districts serving low income kids, like York, instruction was cut and scores on state student assessments declined.

The York City district was exceptionally strapped, having been hit by $8.4 million in cuts, which prompted class size increases and teacher furloughs. Due to financial difficulties, which the state legislature and Governor Corbett had by-and-large engineered, York was targeted in 2012, along with three other districts, for state takeover by an unelected “recovery official,” eerily similar to New Orleans post-Katrina.

The “recovery” process for York schools also entailed a “transformation model” with challenging financial and academic targets the district had little chance in reaching, and charter school conversion as a consequence of failure. Now the local school board is being forced to pick a charter provider and make their district the first in the state to hand over the education of all its children to a corporation that will call all the shots and give York’s citizens very little say in how their children’s schools are run.

None of this is happening with the negotiated consent of the citizens of York. The voices of York citizens that have been absent from the bargaining tables are being heard in the streets and in school board meetings. According to a local news outlet, at a recent protest before the city’s school board, “a district teacher and father of three students … presented the board with more than 3,700 signatures of people opposed to a possible conversion of district schools to charter schools,” and “a student at the high school also presented the board with a petition signed by more than 260 students opposed to charter conversion.” Yet the state official demanding charter takeover remains completely unaltered in his view that this action is “what’s bets for our kids.”


What Happened To Charter School Accountability?

Charter schools that were supposedly intended to be more “accountable” to the public are turning out to be anything but.

As an article for The Nation recently observed, “Charters were supposed to be laboratories for innovation. Instead, they are stunningly opaque.”

The article, written by author and university professor Pedro Noguera, explained, “Charter schools are frequently not accountable. Indeed, they are stunningly opaque, more black boxes than transparent laboratories for education.”

Rather than having to show their books, as public schools do, Noguera contended, “Most charters lack financial transparency.” As an example, he offered a study of KIPP charter schools, which found that they receive “‘an estimated $6,500 more per pupil in revenues from public or private sources’ compared to local school districts.” But only a scant portion of that disproportionate funding – just $457 in spending per pupil – could accurately be accounted for “because KIPP does not disclose how it uses money received from private sources.

In addition to the difficulties in following the money,” Noguero continued, “there is evidence that many charters seek to accept only the least difficult (and therefore the least expensive) students. Even though charter schools are required by law to admit students through lotteries, in many cities, the charters under-enroll the most disadvantaged children.”

This tendency of charter schools operations provides a double bonus as their student test scores get pushed to higher levels and the public schools surrounding them have to take on disproportionate percentages of high needs students who push their test score results lower. Noguera cited a study showing that traditional schools serving the largest percentages of high-needs students are frequently the first to be branded with the “failure” label.

If charter schools are going to have any legitimacy at all, what’s required, Noguera concluded is “greater transparency and collaboration with public schools.”

Fortunately, yet another new report points us in the right direction.

This report, “Public Accountability for Charter Schools,” published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, “recommends changes to state charter legislation and charter authorizer standards that would reduce student inequities and achieve complete transparency and accountability to the communities served,” according to the organization’s press release.

According to the report, these recommendations are the product of “a working group of grassroots organizers and leaders” from Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, and other cities, who have “first-hand experience and years of working directly with impacted communities and families, rather than relying only on limited measures such as standardized test scores to assess impact.”

These new guidelines are intended to address numerous examples of charter school failure to disclose essential information about their operations, including financial information, school discipline policies, student enrollment processes, and efforts to collaborate with public schools.

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