Fast Focus: More harm than good

October 14, 2012 

Daniel Bell, Kennewick

Are charter schools public schools? Merriam-Webster defines a public school as, "a free tax-supported school controlled by a local governmental authority." The Washington State Constitution extends that definition, stating, "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders," by providing "a general and uniform system of public schools" (Article IX, Sections 1, 2). We can thus define a public school as one that 1) is publicly funded, 2) is controlled by a local governmental authority, and 3) provides educational services to all children within its boundaries.

Under I-1240 charter schools would be publicly funded, receiving per-pupil allocations, transportation allocations, levy funding, state matching funds for construction, and first right to rent any unused building spaces in the local school district's facilities. The intent of I-1240 is to require school districts to fully fund charter schools. Clearly, I-1240 meets the first criteria of the definition.

I-1240 requires that charter school applicants apply to an "authorizer." Authorizers would be a new Washington Charter School Commission or a local school board if it gains approval to be an authorizer from the state board of education. On the surface this appears to meet the criteria of local governmental control but I-1240 allows applicants to apply directly to the state commission, bypassing the local, elected school board.

This is not an accidental design. It follows the recommendations of A New Model Law For Supporting The Growth Of High-Quality Public Charter Schools published by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools who explicitly designed the model law so that charter school applicants can bypass local governmental authorities.

Further, a charter school would be an autonomous education agency governed by a privately appointed board. Section 204(3) of I-1240 states, "Charter schools are exempt from all school district policies except policies made applicable in the school's charter contract." This is one of the primary reasons the Washington State PTA is opposed to I-1240. As clearly as I-1240 passed the first criteria it fails the second--local governmental control.

All students would be able to apply to charter schools under I-1240. Again, on the surface this appears that charter schools would function like public schools. However, the criterion is not just who can apply but who the school will begin and continue to serve. School districts are required by state law to serve all students within their boundaries, even if this requires extensive measures such as home tutoring. Charter schools, in contrast, have a record of "counseling out" undesirable students and they have historically underserved students who are second language learners, receive special education services, are poor or are minorities. There is no requirement in I-1240 to serve all students with a geographical area. Again, clearly, I-1240 fails the third criteria--providing educational services to all children within its boundaries.

We must conclude that charter schools are not public schools. They are privately owned and managed schools that serve a limited clientele but receive public funds.

What kinds of charter schools would be created under I-1240? I-1240 claims that the establishment of charter schools would address the needs of at-risk students yet there are no requirements, guarantees or plausible assurances that this will happen. In fact, Section 214 of I-1240 explicitly states that charter schools can't be limited to only those that serve at-risk students. So, while authorizers may prefer to approve schools that intend to serve at-risk students they can do nothing to ensure that this will happen.

How would nonprofit corporations start a charter school? Charter schools would be either new charter schools started outside of existing schools or "conversion" schools, public schools converted in their entirety into charter schools. Under I-1240 if a petition to become a charter school is signed by a majority of teachers or parents of a school a corporation making application could apply as a conversion school. The conversion school would completely replace the existing public school, taking over the use of the building and the student body but paying no rent to the school district. This is known as a "parent trigger" law in other states. In most parent trigger laws a school must be considered "failing" but under I-1240 any school in Washington would be vulnerable to conversion at any time. For example, in a public school of 400 students there would be 800 parents and probably 20 teachers. So, if 401 parents or a mere 11 teachers so voted, the public school could become a charter school.

California passed a parent trigger law in January of 2010. During 2010, Parent Revolution, an advocacy group from Los Angeles, used paid canvassers to target McKinley Elementary in the Compton Unified School District in Compton, California. Parent Revolution then solicited parents' signatures on a petition to convert the school into a charter school. They presented the petition to the school board, who refused, and a nasty court case ensued. At one point several parents wanted to rescind their signatures on the petition saying they had been deceived by Parent Revolution workers, but the judge refused their request. The petition lost on technicalities, the charter school operator opened a school nearby and the parents and community in Compton became deeply divided instead of finding mutually supported solutions.

How will charter schools affect public school funding? We know that I-1240 does not increase state budgets to cover additional costs incurred at the state level or in school districts. The cost to operate the Washington Charter School Commission for five years is estimated to be around $3 million.

As to the costs to school districts, let us suppose that a charter school locates next to a public school of 500 students, enrolls 200 students and reduces the attendance of the public school to 300 students. The school district must continue to pay its fixed costs but can no longer operate the public school with efficiency and may be compelled to make drastic changes such as redrawing the school's boundaries or closing the school and redistributing the students to other schools. In a small school district it is entirely conceivable that they could not "absorb" students into other schools and so be pushed into a fiscal crisis.

Advocates say "the money follows the students," and this is exactly the way I-1240 is structured. The allocation through the General Apportionment formula is estimated at approximately $5,032 per student. In our scenario the charter school of 200 students would be given $1,006,400 plus all other allocations. The school district must now operate on more than one million dollars less with most of the same fixed costs. Magnify this effect by 40 times and you have the magnitude of I-1240.

How would charter schools use taxpayer's money? Nothing in I-1240 prevents operators from paying themselves large salaries, and some have. Charter schools' rights to conduct business freely are well protected under I-1240 and they often outsource management of their schools to other companies.

Most charter schools pay their teachers much less than their public school counterparts. A Vanderbilt University study found that charter schools have a significantly higher teacher turnover rate than public schools. Teacher's most common reason for leaving a school was dissatisfaction with workplace conditions and not that administrators were removing underperforming teachers. The researchers noted that this would adversely affect instructional quality saying this would cause "organizational disruption" and make it difficult to "sustain high levels of instructional quality year to year."

Are charter schools effective? Given all of the claimed advantages charter schools hold over public schools, they should easily win in comparative studies of achievement test results. However, results have been mixed but a few trends are emerging. First, numerous studies show that charter schools, on average, perform no better than public schools and so-called innovations in charter schools can also be found in successful public schools. Second, and more troubling, there is a wide variance in the quality of charter schools. While some post impressive results others are flatly terrible.

Advocate say poorly performing charter schools should be shut down. However, many poorly performing charter schools continue to operate. Instead of "a general and uniform system of public schools" charter schools offer less certainty of a quality school.

Will deregulating schools, privatizing them and creating a separate supervisory system somehow improve schools and reach at-risk children? Will our taxpayer dollars be wisely spent? And, most importantly, will we entrust our children to school operators who are unknown to us and unaccountable to local authorities? Look before you leap.

Let us remember what we have: a public school system that serves all children without charge, responds to local needs and employs thousands of dedicated public servants intent on giving our next generation the best opportunities possible. We need to walk back from this "leap of faith" and commit ourselves to supporting and improving our public schools.

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