If you missed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ testimony to Capitol Hill lawmakers on March 26th, you missed a good one. Between cutting funding to the Special Olympics, citing made up “facts” about 85 percent of a kindergartner’s jobs prospects being eliminated in the future, refusing to commit to whether student discrimination should be prohibited based on gender identity or sexual orientation, and eliminating after school aid, there was a lot to unpack. The one consistent point she raised was the notion that funding charter schools and vouchers give Americans the “freedom” to choose their own educational path.
This, of course, is nothing new from Ms. DeVos. She has been decisively consistent about school choice and charters as an option for families. What is new, however, is the idea that not only should students have a menu of charter schools to choose from, but also that those schools should be free from any sort of public scrutiny. Her argument is that once charter schools receive federal dollars, they are essentially free to do whatever they want with them. In practice this has resulted, among other things, in charter schools using money to acquire buildings but never actually open a school, paying exorbitantly high lease or rental rates on properties to “friends of” the charter school, discrimination against certain groups of students the school does not wish to educate, and the promotion of religious teaching in public schools. This all culminated in the recent release of a study by the Network for Public education detailing how the federal government has wasted “hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars” on charter schools that never opened or quickly closed.
In order to understand how charter schools got to such a dark place, it’s worth a look back at what spurred their initial creation in the first place. While many would point to Milton Friedman’s 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom as the genesis of the modern day charter movement, we would argue that the push was much less ideological in nature. The very term “charter school” was first introduced by Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, as a way for local school boards and unions to “jointly develop a procedure that would enable teams of teachers and others to submit and implement proposals to set up their own autonomous public schools within their school buildings.” Let that sink in for a minute – charter schools were not dreamed up in a back room to adhere to Mr. Friedman’s principles of government involvement in public life, they were created as a way for local bodies to create solutions to local problems. The whole purpose was that small groups of teachers would be able to experiment with new pedagogical strategies that public schools could learn from and utilize in the future. Further, Mr. Shanker argued that charter schools had the potential to “promote social mobility for working-class children and social cohesion among America’s increasingly diverse populations.” As with any idea, once it is out your hands, people are free to do what they want with it and that is what has happened with charter schools. All is not lost, however, as we propose six guidelines for the Department of Education to enact in order help charter schools regain their good name.
- Register as Non-Profits: While this may seem obvious, approximately 15 percent of charter schools nationwide are registered as for-profit. This is simply not good enough; public education is a public service, not a private for-profit enterprise.
- Total Transparency/Increased Regulation: All information regarding charter schools including (but not limited to) how students are selected, how money is spent, who owns the school building, salaries, and school performance results should be made easily and readily available. Additionally, robust and powerful oversight bodies need to be created anywhere there are charter schools. The notion that somehow charter schools cannot fully reach their potential in the face of oversight is a laughable farce. Public schools are required to comply with all state and local regulations, and if charters really are part of the public school system, they should do so as well.
- Separate Charter Funds: Charter schools need their own pot of money that does not affect the money public schools receive. If charter enrollment is capped at a specific number, then school boards need to set aside that amount for per-pupil expenditures from any funding source that is not public school funding. Your can’t rob public schools to pay for charter schools – it’s nonsensical. If you want charters, that’s fine, but there shouldn’t be the expectation that you can get them for nothing. If a school does not fully enroll, then their per-pupil expenditures can be set aside as a rainy day fund for the system. As with many industries, uncertainty from one year to the next is not good for education. Separating charter school funds from public school funds allows public schools to plan several years into the future with a guaranteed funding stream.
- Cap Charter Enrollment: Charter school enrollment should be set as a predetermined percentage of public school enrollment. The specific percentage should be a local decision from school boards determined by how much they’re willing to spend on charters (see point #3). The days of unbridled charter growth and expansion need to come to an end. Additionally, the date for enrollment and movement to or from charters needs to happen well before the beginning of the next school year. One of the biggest issues for public schools is that they don’t know how much funding to rely on year in and year out. Their enrollment can fluctuate dramatically and with those fluctuations come uncertainty over funding and preparing for the upcoming year.
- Reduce Testing: While this point could be made for all schools, the era of using test scores as a cudgel to minimize a school’s effectiveness needs to end. There are many ways to evaluate a school, including measuring a student’s actual growth over time versus their expected growth. Also, while more time consuming, organizations like the Middle States Association subject schools to a multi-year process that evaluates a school’s alignment with a set of rigorous standards. This longer process is already being used voluntarily by some charter schools, like DC Bilingual PCS. Demonstrated time and again, test scores alone are a woefully inadequate way to evaluate a school.
- Eliminate Privatization: No aspect of charter schools should be privatized. Most notably this includes ways in which some charter school organizations use taxpayer dollars to pay back bank loans on buildings that they eventually own. If public schools want to change their model and start leasing or renting buildings from private entities to shave costs then by all means, charters should follow suit. This one hand pays the other business that some organizations are using must not stand, as this cronyism fails to bestow an educational benefit to students.
While none of these proposals are easy, they are all achievable. The last 25 years of charter school growth have been incredibly informative about the benefits and drawbacks of the system. One thing that has become abundantly clear over that time is that charters cannot, and must not, exist in a regulatory vacuum. The charter school landscape has devolved into the Wild West of education, where anything goes. For the sake of the students that we all serve, we must do better.