The Positive Aura Of Charter Schools Is Wearing Thin

"Poll findings show a public increasingly eager to see charter schools subject to stricter regulations and reforms." (Photo: Carol VanHook/flickr/cc)

The Positive Aura Of Charter Schools Is Wearing Thin

The rapid expansion of the charter school industry across the country continues to be dogged by high-profile scandals, lurid news reports, and studies showing widespread corruption and fraud.

The parade of toxic stories about charter schools prompted former PBS education correspondent John Merrow to recently suggest a "Wall of Shame" for the industry, as an attempt to come clean about the "harm that has befallen many students and the millions taken from public treasuries by some charter school operators."

Yet, politicians, policy makers, and prominent pundits continue to say generally favorable things about "high performing" charter schools, and expansions of these schools continue to be fueled by more and more tax dollars coming from federal, state, and local coffers while public schools get cuts.

We see how a current aspirant for the nation's presidency can be a "Teflon candidate" that easily sheds any negative aura associated with his actions and behaviors. Are charter schools a "Teflon industry?"

Often overlooked in the happy talk about charters, however, is that relatively few Americans have direct experience with these schools. Charter schools educate less than 10 percent of the nation's K-12 students, and there are vast areas of the country where these schools are few and far between.

Consequently, most people don't know very much about charter schools and how their presence in the community affects existing local public schools. So there's always the potential that charter school cheerleading is way out of touch with general public attitudes.

Now, there's growing evidence the potential disconnect between charter school promotion and public attitude is more the reality than not.

There's something in the air...

The More People Know About Charters

A new survey of voters across the country reveals growing concerns about charter schools. The poll, conducted by an objective third party firm for Washington, DC advocacy groups In the Public Interest and the Center for Popular Democracy, found the public has generally very positive views of their existing local public schools and generally opposes expansion of charters. Huge majorities in the poll expressed strong support for a wide range of charter schools reforms that the industry often opposes.

"A lot of people don't know what charters are," Kyle Serrette, director of education at CPD, tells the Education Opportunity Network. "But the growing numbers of people who do know about them are having an increasingly mixed point of view. What they tend to agree is that these schools need more accountability and transparency, and they shouldn't do harm to local public schools."

Serrette's observations are drawn from survey data showing that while a little less than half of respondents favor charter schools, a strong majority of 62 percent want to keep the number of charter schools the same or reduce the number of charter schools in their area. Less than a third of respondents want to increase the number of charter schools in their area. A significant portion, 38 percent, still does not have enough information to form an opinion on charters.

Yet despite the mix of views on charters, the survey found overwhelming majorities of voters believe charter schools currently in existence are in need of significant reforms.

These survey findings align with other recent studies showing growing awareness of the problems that charter schools pose to the nation's public education system.

Charters Need Reform

Poll findings show a public increasingly eager to see charter schools subject to stricter regulations and reforms.

According to Serrette, survey respondents expressed strong favorability for specific charter school reforms that have been proposed in a previous report published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. The Annenberg recommendations addressed numerous examples of charter school failure to disclose essential information about their operations, including financial information, school discipline policies, student enrollment processes, and efforts to collaborate with public schools.

The survey consistently finds strong favorability among voters for the Annenberg recommendations. For instance, strong majorities of voters feel charter schools and the management firms that operate them need to be subject to open meeting laws, full disclosure of how tax payer money is spent, and routine audits for fraud and abuse of public funds.

Also, significant majorities want charter schools to return taxpayer money when students transfer to a neighborhood public school during the school year and want public officials to bar charter operators who commit fraud and mismanagement from opening more schools. Voters generally area against charter schools spending tax dollars on advertising and don't want charter board members doling out school jobs to family members.

"Every year, we see continued fraud, waste, and abuse committed by charter schools," says Serrette, "but we haven't seen meaningful legislation to fix this."

In fact, reform recommendations proposed by Annenberg have been stridently opposed by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a leading lobbyists and advocate for the expansion of charters.

How Charters Hurt Children

Another important survey finding is the growing concern among voters that expansions of charter schools will have adverse effects on the public schools in their community.

According to the poll, over three-quarters of voters wants policy makers and officials to ensure charter expansions don't affect the funding and operations of existing public schools. Nearly the same amount wants government officials to conduct an analysis of the impact the impact of charter schools on their neighborhood public schools before any new charter school is approved.

Charter school proponents frequently reassure expansions of their schools will not financially harm existing public schools. They argue, "Money should follow the child" when students transfer from a public school to a new charter, and because charter school funding comes "from the same pots as traditional schools" students do not lose funding for their own education because their friends choose to go to public charters

Research studies have shown otherwise.

According to a recent study conducted by the Florida-based research firm MGT of America, growth of charters in Nashville have had significant adverse effects on that community's existing public schools, as money allotted to the local school is transferred out of that school when the student leaves for a newly opened charter.

"The loss of even a single student will reduce the revenue received," the report states, because "the reduction of a single student in a classroom will not alleviate the need to have a teacher in that classroom ... In fact, the per-pupil cost for that classroom or school would increase because the fixed expenses would remain, but the revenue to support them would be decreased."

The report estimates that the net negative fiscal impact of charter school growth on the district's public schools would be more than $300 million in direct costs over a five-year period. This figure is likely an under-estimate, the report contends, as there are "other indirect costs" of charter schools related to administration that are "not easily identified."

Meanwhile, there are no new revenue sources being considered to offset the additional costs. "There appears to be an assumption," the report notes, "that the central organizations supporting the charter schools can continue to do so within existing resources."

The MGT report is mostly supportive of the idea of charters and recommends ways to ensure their success without harming public schools. Nevertheless, it concludes, "New charter schools will, with nearly 100 percent certainty, have a negative fiscal impact" on the school district." (emphasis added)

The simple reality is that as charters expand into new communities, and residents see that their neighborhood school loses a percentage of students in a particular grade level or across grade levels to charters, the school can't simply proportionally cut fixed costs for things like transportation and physical plant. It also can't cut the costs of grade-level teaching staff proportionally. That would increase class sizes and leave the remaining students underserved. So instead, the school cuts a support service - a reading specialist, a special education teacher, a librarian, an art or music teacher - to offset the loss of funding. Say goodbye to your kids' favorite art teacher or your school's Mandarin program.

What Charters Have Become

"I have been observing what is called the 'charter school movement' from Day One," Merrow recalls, "a historic meeting at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1988 that I moderated. Back then, the dream was that every district would open at least one 'chartered school,' where enrollment and employment would be voluntary and where new ideas could be field-tested. Successes and failures would be shared, and the entire education system would benefit."

Merrow now finds those early aspirations for charter schools "naive," given what characterizes the charter school industry today.

Early charter school promoters may indeed have been naive, but the American public is increasingly getting wise, and the "charter school brand," as Merrow phrases it, is likely turning from Teflon to tarnished.

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