Love ‘em or hate ‘em, charter schools are on the scene big time and here to stay. A favorite of the Obama administration and his on-the-way-out Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the federal government has so far given $3,352,841,281 in tax dollars, plus about $1.7 billion and more in grants, to charters since 2009 under the Charter Schools Program.
Add to that, Obama’s $375 million in his FY 2016 budget for charters under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), otherwise known as No Child Left Behind.
Along with all that has been Duncan’s signature $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant program which enticed states compete for dollars by getting on board with the administration’s “education reform” agenda. Conditions included adopting the Common Core State Standards, tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores, and, yes, promoting charter schools. Sign on or lose all hope of winning.
“Unfortunately, all this money has come with little oversight or accountability attached. As reported, “CMD’s [Center for Media and Democracy] review of internal audits reveals that ED did not act quickly or effectively on numerous reports that state education officials had no idea where the federal funds ended up. The documents also show that ED knowingly awarded grants to states with no statutory oversight over charter authorizers and schools as the grant applications are evaluated based on how much “flexibility” from state laws charter schools have.
As a result of lax oversight on the federal level, combined with many state laws that hide charter finances from the public eye, taxpayers are left in the dark about how much federal money each charter school has received and what has been wasted or spent to enrich charter school administrators and for-profit corporations who get lucrative outsourcing contracts from charters, behind closed doors”
None of that has deterred Duncan, however. In September, he awarded another $157 million in new grants to charters, and his replacement, John King, Jr. is sure to follow in his footsteps. For his part, King’s resume includes time at “no excuses” charter schools and a controversial stint as New York’s education chief. Currently a U.S. Department of Education senior official, he takes over as acting education secretary in January.
All this monetary and political support stands despite studies finding only “mixed results” when it comes to charter schools’ academic performance. An Education Justice analysis concluded that, “… charter schools do not, on average, show greater levels of student achievement, typically measured by standardized test scores, than public schools, and may even perform worse.”
Still, charter schools keep expanding across the country and here in Philadelphia. So far, I’ve counted at least 108 of them, and they come with such high-sounding names as Mastery, Discovery, and Alliance for Progress.
Meanwhile, in March, Pew Charitable Trusts polled 1,600 city residents about the most important issues facing Philly, and 32% named education. That topped crime (23%) and the economy (22%). Among the other findings:
• 77% gave our public schools a grade of either “fair” or “poor.”
• 19% said our public schools are “good” or “excellent.”
• 33% said charters “take too much money from public schools and lack sufficient oversight.”
• 55% said the government should “spend more money on the traditional public schools.”
• 35% said to “allow more charter schools and offer more options.”
Make particular note of that: Although a majority gave Philly’s public schools low grades, just 35% would like to see more charters/more choice, 33% worry about the money directed to charters and the lack of oversight, and a whopping 55% want more money to go to public schools.
Know, too, that while funded by federal, state, and local taxes and considered “public” schools, charters are actually independently operated and free from many of the requirements and regulations that bind traditional public schools. In other words, they can pretty much make their own rules.
Meanwhile, thanks to Act 22 of 1997—the Pennsylvania Charter School Law—on the district level, funding “follows a child” to the charters.” That, naturally, suggests that those dollars go solely for a child’s education, but there’s more to it than that. In actuality, a charter can also pass along costs for building maintenance, transportation, athletic and music programs it might not even have.
That goes double for strictly online cyber charter schools.
The result: a financial burden. While about 30% of its operating budget—about $750 million–goes to charters which educate about 33% of Philly’s school-aged youngsters, there’s no longer any state reimbursement.
Moreover, since just a few kids leave a particular district school each year, its enrollment figures don’t significantly decline–nor do its expenses. Staff, building maintenance, transportation costs all remain unchanged, so no cost savings. Plus, the district also has to pay for children who never attended a district school in the first place, instead switching to a charter from either a private or parochial school. See the problem?
All of this very well contributes to the Philadelphia School District’s overwhelming debt. Despite previous cuts in staff and services, it currently stands at about $80 million. On the other hand, the city’s charter schools enjoy a $400 million surplus.