We Americans are suckers for bumper sticker solutions to complicated problems. When it comes to education, those who don’t want to deal with the thorny issues of public education reform insist that we can sidestep contentious decisions about curriculum, resources and equity, and just give parents “choices,” by which they mean voucher programs or charter schools.
So how’s that been working out?
In Colorado, where the state’s Supreme Court recently struck down a Denver charter school “initiative,” the Denver Post reported that
the district created a make-believe charter school called the Choice Scholarship Charter School that would collect the state per-pupil funds. A portion of that $6,100 per student would be sent to the student’s chosen school in the form of a check to the parent, who would use it for tuition.
It’s not enough that the virtual charter school had no buildings, employed no teachers and had no curriculum. Its students never attended a day of class. The school’s existence was to collect money for private schools.
Sixteen of the 23 private schools under the program’s 2011 pilot phase were religious in character, and 93 percent of the 271 scholarship recipients in 2011 enrolled in a religious school. Fourteen of those schools were outside of the district’s boundaries.
The Institute for Policy Studies recently compiled a report detailing current research on charters, and concluded that “While there’s little difference in the overall performance of charter schools and public schools, charters are riddled with fraud and identified with a lack of transparency that leads to more fraud.”
The problems go well beyond outright scams, however. In Tampa, the state Board of Education has voted to include a new requirement in the charter application process — school hopefuls must now disclose which charter groups and companies they have been affiliated with in the last five years. As a member of the Board explained, although some charter schools thrive, others have experienced recurring problems and closed.
Among them is Newpoint Tampa, which closed in 2013 after declining enrollment and financial problems. School district officials said the school’s board meetings were not being held in public or in an appropriate manner…
Earlier this year, two Newpoint charter schools in Pensacola that were run by the same management company operating the Tampa school — Newpoint Education Partners — were shut down after allegations of grade-tampering and contractual violations, the Pensacola News Journal reported.
Because of stories like these, charter school experts say placing extra scrutiny on operators is a must. The goal is to prevent those who have operated schools experiencing serious problems from opening more.
Oversight, obviously, is critical. But we’re talking about a lot of money, and political clout can counter accountability measures. In Ohio, lobbyists succeeding in delaying passage of a charter school reform measure that had broad bipartisan support. The Columbus Dispatch reported on derailment of a bill to implement significant charter-school reforms after charters had been sharply criticized both inside and outside the state.
Sources told the Dispatch that lobbyists were very active behind the scenes, especially the Batchelder Group,representing the White Hat group, a major for-profit charter-school operator run by David Brennan, an important GOP contributor.
Similar stories from other states are plentiful.
The moral of this story is not that charter schools are bad. Some are, many aren’t. Just like traditional public schools.
The moral of this story is: there aren’t easy answers or magic bullets–in education or any other policy domain. Bumper sticker solutions to complex problems often create more complex problems.
The performance of any school depends upon a large number of factors, none of which have much to do with whether the school is a charter or a traditional public school. If we really want to improve American education, we can’t avoid the hard work of defining desirable outcomes, identifying the qualities that define a good teacher, figuring out how to balance accountability with the school-level autonomy that will allow professionals to do their jobs, and ameliorating the effects of poverty that have been shown to impede learning.
The real “choice” is between fixing or abandoning our public schools.