The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Problems with charter schools that you won’t hear Betsy DeVos talk about

Supporters of charter schools rally at the Legislative Office Building on Jan. 20, 2016, in Albany, N.Y.  (Mike Groll/AP)

President Trump has proposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal funding to expand charter schools, and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has made clear that her major priority is expanding school choice, including charters. But one thing missing from their agenda is anything that seeks to hold charter schools and for-profit charter operators accountable for how they spend money and educate children and their level of transparency to the public.

Asked at a hearing earlier this year whether she was “going to have accountability standards” in any new school choice program, DeVos responded that states should decide “what kind of flexibility they are going to allow.”

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies, and have been proliferating for more than 25 years, with thousands of them enrolling as much as 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren around the country.

Supporters of charter schools say they give parents an alternative to failing traditional public schools. Critics say they take vital resources away from traditional public schools and that while some charters are well-run and successful, many are poorly operated. In some cases, “poorly operated” is an understatement. Some states have scandal-ridden charter sectors, though the depths of the problems were hardly front and center at the annual charter conference in Washington earlier this month.

This post, written by Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, details issues on which many charter school supporters don’t want to focus. Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. She has chronicled problems with standardized-test based school reform and the school choice movement on this blog for years.

Will the thing that charter schools love so much be their undoing?

By Carol Burris

During the summer of 2016, the members of the NAACP — the oldest civil rights organization in the country — took a remarkable stand. At their annual convention in Cincinnati, they passed a resolution that called for a pause on new charter school funding.

This was not the first time the organization expressed its concern about charter schools. Calls for charter reforms were included in past resolutions of the NAACP as well. The new 2016 resolution, however, went further in that it called for a moratorium on the growth of charter schools until concerns were addressed.

Specifically, the NAACP asked for a moratorium until:

  • Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.
  • Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.
  • Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate.
  • Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

NAACP moves ahead with its call for moratorium on charter schools

Rather than seriously consider the concerns raised by the NAACP, pro-charter school groups and some newspaper editorial boards responded by attacking the organization. The New York Times, for example, called the moratorium  a “misguided attack on charter schools” and ran an editorial with that title in an attempt to get the NAACP Board of Directors to overturn the vote of its members. But the board held fast and decided to hold hearings across the nation.

The report on those hearings is due to be released soon. While many charter supporters spoke at those hearings, equal numbers of parents came forward and presented testimony that reinforced the four concerns raised by the organization.

During this past year in the course of the ongoing Network for Public Education investigation of charter schools, I kept all four of the NAACP’s concerns in mind. Below is a summary of what I found.

Transparency and accountability

Proponents of charter schools promised that in exchange for freedom from regulations, charters would be more accountable and held to higher standards.

Twenty-five years later, however, we find that freedom from the safeguards that regulations provide has too often resulted in theft, mismanagement, fraud and less transparency.

The sector, in general, now operates more like businesses than schools. One in 5 are for-profit schools and still others turn over the majority of their funding to for-profit management companies. Many are run as chains.

Unlike businesses that start up with personal investment, in the case of charters, the risk is assumed by the taxpayers. If the charter fails, the taxpayers are the “investors” who are on the hook. The promised accountability is often set aside.

Covenant Academy, a charter school in Arkansas, has never achieved academic proficiency, yet it was recently allowed to keep its autonomy, despite financial weaknesses and a deficit that was bailed out by the Walton Foundation. Yet at the same time, the Arkansas State Board retains tight control of higher performing Little Rock public schools.

The state of Ohio is notorious for weak charter governance. The Ohio Charter School Accountability Project found that more than one-third of the charter schools that received federal grants between 2006-2016 either closed or never opened. There is no record that the $4,000,000 in grants given to the unopened schools was ever returned to the taxpayers.

In the state of Arizona, if a charter shuts down, the property of the charter becomes a parting gift to the charter operator. It is not returned to the taxpayers who paid for it.

The closing of charter schools occurs all too frequently, leaving families stranded and taxpayers footing the bill. The Taylor International Academy in Southfield, Mich., recently closed school 12 days early, after the charter’s management company suddenly pulled its staff, including the principal. Taylor International, which was not going to be renewed due to terrible performance, ran out of money and abandoned its students during the last month of school.

Last fall, 500 students fled the Livermore Charter School in California after it was alleged that the school illegally charged foreign exchange students tuition and transferred them to a school in Stockton against their will. The management company is under investigation for conflict-of-interest relationships as well as diverted, commingled and/or misappropriated public funds.

And in May, the Tennessee Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt charter middle school decided to pick up and move 16 miles away, miffed that a school that shared their campus would get additional student support services.

These are not isolated instances nor are they limited to “mom and pop” charter schools. In September, the Inspector General of the Department of Education issued an audit report entitled “A Nationwide Assessment of Charter and Education Management Organizations.” The report assessed “the current and emerging risk” that is posed by charter management organizations for fraud, waste and abuse.

The audited period was less than two years — between late 2011 and the early months of 2013. Thirty-three charters in six states were selected for review. Of the 33, the department found that 22 lacked the necessary internal controls, resulting in a significant risk to Department of Education funds.

When fraud and mismanagement are exposed, the charter does not always close. More often operators ferociously fight sanctions, causing additional risk and expense to taxpayers.

Celerity Education Group, the management company for Los Angeles Celerity charter schools, had the charter for two of its schools revoked. In January, its offices were raided by federal agents. On July 1, however, in the very same location as the closed schools two new Celerity Charter schools will open, led by the same principals of the schools that were shut down.

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a for-profit cyber charter, is supposed to pay back $60 million to the state of Ohio because the school was unable to verify the attendance of 40 percent of its students. Rather than paying the fine, ECOT is filing lawsuit after lawsuit to avoid payment, thus not only delaying the inevitable, but further wasting taxpayer treasure to combat the lawsuits.

There are also attempts to block investigation. Charters will claim they are public schools, but hide behind private status to avoid disclosure. In 2015, the FBI investigated the Jumoke Academy for “rampant nepotism,” the hiring of felons, financial missteps and little or no oversight of former chief executive Michael Sharpe.

Who took the lead on exposing the problems? A local newspaper, the Hartford Courant, began investigations in 2014. As part of its investigation, the newspaper made Freedom of Information Act requests for employment information and contracts. That request was denied. The rationale given by Heidi L. Hamilton, the interim co-chief executive officer of FUSE, the management organization was:

“We are not a public agency.”

Preston C. Green III, Bruce Baker and Joseph Oluwole’s article,  entitled “Having It Both Ways: How Charter Schools Try to Obtain Funding of Public Schools and the Autonomy of Private Schools,” explains how charters use “their hybrid characteristics to obtain the benefits of public funding while circumventing state and federal rights and protections for employees and students that apply to traditional public schools.” The same is true when it comes to financial and academic accountability.
Public funds diverted from public schools to charter schools

Each state funds charters differently. The best question to ask when examining the fiscal drain from public schools to charters is what would public school districts save if charter students returned. When a district student attends a charter, there are stranded costs — money the district must still spend when a student leaves.

Here is a simple example. In New York, the amount lost is based on a formula that depends on per pupil spending. The more generous the taxpayers are with their own students, the more the charter gets. The Rockville Centre School District lost four students to a charter school in Hempstead. The district cost is $19,000 a student, plus transportation and other related costs. What would the district save if the four students came back? Nearly every penny could go back to the taxpayers.

Pennsylvania, like New York and New Jersey, sets tuition rates based on district per pupil spending. I asked Joe Roy, Pennsylvania’s Superintendent of the Year, how much he could save if all of his Bethlehem district’s charter school students came back to the district. Roy told me that the district budgeted $26 million (about 10 percent of its annual budget) this year to pay for tuition and associated costs to charter schools. According to Roy, “We estimate that if all of the students in charters returned, even with hiring the additional needed staff, we would save $20 million.”

report by MGT of America, an independent research firm, revealed that the Los Angeles Unified School District has lost $591 million to charter school growth in 2016. If costs associated with charter school expansion are not mitigated, the district will eventually face financial insolvency.

Student expulsion, suspensions and push-outs

Expulsions and suspensions are often confused. Expulsion is the permanent dismissal of a student from a school; suspension is dismissal for a period of time, with the understanding that the student will return. Every state has its own laws that govern expulsion and suspension.

In New York, for example, students under the age of 17 cannot be expelled from a public school. They can, however, be expelled from a charter school at any age — pushed out only to enroll in a public school.

A 2013 investigation by Emma Brown of The Washington Post found that Washington charter schools expelled 676 students between 2010-13, while the city’s public schools expelled only 24.

A 2016 study by UCLA Civil Rights Project found that nearly 50 percent of black secondary students attending a charter school were enrolled in schools where the suspension rate for black students was about 25 percent. That means that in those schools, 1 in every 4 black students was suspended at least one time during the school year.

Disproportionately high rates of suspension were found by George Joseph in his September piece for the Atlantic. Joseph found disturbingly high rates of suspensions in charters in New York City, Boston, and Washington, and charter schools made up the majority (and sometimes nearly all) of the schools with the highest rates.

For example, Joseph found that of the 50 New York City schools with the most student suspensions, 46 were charter schools in 2013 and 48 were charter schools in 2014. A review of due process rights in New York City charter discipline codes for suspended students by Advocates for Children found serious deficiencies. Half of the 164 New York City-reviewed charter school discipline policies permitted suspension or expulsion as a penalty for lateness, absence or cutting class, in violation of New York state law. Many also did not include rights to appeal and rights to notice.

Some charter parents whose children attend “no excuses” charter schools have complained that frequent suspensions, calls to pick up their child, and even threats to call 911 when their child misbehaves are intended to pressure them into withdrawing their student. These beliefs are not groundless. In 2015, Kate Taylor of the New York Times found that the principal of a Success Academy Fort Greene Charter School kept a “got to go list” of 16 students the principal wanted out of his school. Through interviews with present and former Success teachers, Taylor determined that pushing troubled students out was a pattern across Success Academy Charter Schools.

De facto segregation

Segregated schooling is primarily a result of segregated housing. Nevertheless, charter schools have made segregation worse. Charters have also exacerbated segregation by removing higher performing students from their neighborhood schools, while leaving behind students with disabilities, students who are English-language learners and students who need support in managing their behavior.

Segregation by race

The Civil Rights Project determined that charter schools continue to exacerbate segregation by both race and class. Seventy percent of black charter school students attend schools that are intensely segregated — schools in which 90 to 100 percent of the students are black or Latino.

In some parts of the country, charter schools have been used for “white flight.” Researchers at Duke University have determined that as North Carolina’s public school population became less white, its charter school population became whiter. The study concluded that its “findings imply that the charter schools in North Carolina are increasingly serving the interests of relatively able white students in racially imbalanced schools.”

In 2014, the Community Legal Aid Society and the American Civil Liberties Union brought a complaint to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that asserted that the charter schools of Delaware were resegregating the state’s schools by race and by disability. None of the charters that were listed in the complaint changed their policies.

Segregation by disability and ELL status

 According to Gary Miron, professor of research at Western Michigan University, the Department of Education commissioned the largest study of discrimination by disability in charter schools. Miron said, “the study found a pattern of charter schools systematically counseling out students with disabilities rather than making accommodations and providing the required services and supports; administrators at one-fourth of the charter schools in the study reported having advised parents that the school was not a good fit for their disabled children.” Miron further states that on average, only 8 to 10 percent of charter schools students have disabilities as compared with 13 percent of students who attend public schools.

Although some charters provide welcoming environments to students with disabilities, allegations of discrimination in enrollment indicate that the gap between public and charter schools has not occurred by chance. In May, a video showed one Arizona charter school refusing the application of a kindergarten student. The student’s parents claimed she was rejected because the school assumed she had a disability.

A gap also exists when it comes to the severity of the disability of students enrolled in charter schools. A 2013 study of Pennsylvania’s schools by the Education Law Center found that students with multiple disabilities, emotional disabilities and autism were under-enrolled, with some at nearly half the expected rates in Philadelphia.

There is also ample evidence that English-language learners (ELLs) are not enrolled in charters in rates similar to public schools. In 2016, the Boston Globe found that although one-third of the students in the Boston public school population are English-language learners, only 13 percent of Boston’s charter school students are. And while 13 percent of New York City public school students are English-language learners, ELLs make up only 6 percent of its charter school population.

When the disparities in enrollment are taken as a whole, it is difficult not to conclude that many charters are engaging in cherry picking. An examination of policies reinforces that conclusion. Some charters do not offer free or reduced-price lunch. Others inform parents that they do not offer intensive special education or ELL services. Others ask for donations in either time or money. As noted in the prior section, some have such strict behavioral codes that students who have difficulties controlling their behaviors cannot fit in. Still others like the BASIS and IDEA charters have such high academic expectations many students simply cannot keep up.

All of the above exacerbates segregation by race, socioeconomic status, language and ability.

It has been nearly a year since the NAACP passed its resolution. It could have been a year during which the National Alliance of Charter Schools and other leaders of the charter movement reflected on the four areas of concern and encouraged charters to make progress on each and every one. There is little evidence, however, that the charter sector has taken the NAACP’s concerns to heart.

Attacking the messenger has been the preferred response, along with calls for less regulation. The problems remain unsolved.