Charter Schools Are Pushing Public Education to the Breaking Point

A recent survey of school district administrators in Pennsylvania found that local public education systems across the state are experiencing greater financial stress.(Photo: Fibonacci Blue/flickr/cc)

Charter Schools Are Pushing Public Education to the Breaking Point

The costs imposed by charter schools are not only financially burdensome to local public schools; they’re also potentially calamitous to schoolchildren and families

When striking Los Angeles teachers won their demand to call for a halt to charter school expansions in California, they set off a domino effect, and now teachers in other large urban districts are making the same demand.

Unchecked charter school growth is also bleeding into 2020 election campaigns. Recently, New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait berated Democratic Massachusetts Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren for having opposed a ballot initiative in her home state in 2016 that would have raised a cap on the number of charter schools. "There may be no state in America that can more clearly showcase the clear success of charter schools than [Massachusetts]," declared Chait.

But while Chait and other charter school fans claim Massachusetts as a charter school model, the deeper reality is that charters are driving Boston's public education system to the financial brink.

As the Boston Globe recently reported, the city is experiencing an economic boom, but its schools resemble "an economically depressed industrial center." The state's unfair funding formula is part of the problem, but an ever-expanding charter school industry also imposes a huge financial drain.

Charter School Money Sucks

"Two decades ago, state educational aid covered almost a third of Boston's school expenses," writes Globe reporter James Vaznis. Today, "city officials anticipate that in just a few years every penny from the state will instead go toward charter-school costs of Boston students. Boston is slated to receive $220 million in state education aid; about $167 million will cover charter-school tuition for 10,000 students, leaving a little more than $50 million for the 55,000 students in the city school system."

Boston is slated to receive $220 million in state education aid; about $167 million will cover charter-school tuition for 10,000 students, leaving a little more than $50 million for the 55,000 students in the city school system."

As charter schools suck students and their per-pupil funding from the public system, the impact on Boston's schools are glaring: "Decades-old buildings plagued by leaks. Drinking fountains shut because of lead pipe contamination. Persistent shortages of guidance counselors, nurses, psychologists, textbooks--even soap in the bathrooms. All the while, many Boston schools are under state pressure to increase their standardized test scores and graduation rates."

As funds for Boston schools dwindle due to the drain from charter schools, the district's alternatives are painful any way you look at it.

Closing schools is not a good alternative. First, it would have minimal impact on savings to the district. Also, school closures can significantly set back the academic achievement of students, particularly those students who transfer to new schools. The negative effects are most apt to be experienced in low-income communities and communities of color.

Attempts to raise local taxes for schools would likely be attacked by no-tax stalwarts and the business community as money-wastes for a "failing" school system.

So if Boston's public schools are going broke because of charter schools, what does that say about Massachusetts as a model for charters?

'A Matter of Priorities'

"Massachusetts' funding approach for charter schools is not a model for other states to emulate," writes University of Connecticut professor Preston Green in an email. Green is the author of numerous critical studies of charter school financials, including one in which he argues that financial abuse and fraud rife in the charter industry resembles the business practices of Enron, the mammoth energy corporation that collapsed under a weight of debt and scandal.

The first mistake Massachusetts makes, says Green, is to underfund the existing public school system. While Massachusetts is one of the biggest spenders on schools nationwide, it isn't particularly fair about how it doles the money out. As in many states, Massachusetts tends to give less money to its highest poverty schools than it does to its lowest poverty schools. With Boston having the highest percentage of students living in poverty in the state, the uneven funding is especially crippling to that city's schools. But the unfairness is worsened by the increasing presence of charters, as state money is redirected to those schools instead.

"This is a matter of priorities," says Green. "States should first provide sufficient funding to traditional public schools in urban areas. Once states have systems of traditional public schools that meet the educational needs of these students, then they can assess how much funding and resources to devote to charter schools."

'It's Just Inefficient'

But blaming the state alone misses some crucial truths of charter school financials.

"It's really not a matter of whether it's 'state' money or 'locally raised' money that's being transferred," writes Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker in an email. "It's about the fact that kids are shifting to charters, and money for district schools is declining at a pace whereby the district cannot possibly immediately, efficiently adjust its budget and use of space."

Indeed, the ebb and flow of charter schools make it near impossible for school districts to precisely predict enrollment, staffing, transportation, and facilities needs. And because public schools must, by law, accommodate all students, public school administrators are in the awkward position of having to anticipate the greatest need without knowing for sure the students will show up. And should students who transferred to charters at the beginning of the year come back mid-year, the per-pupil funding doesn't come back with them.

Baker also finds fault in the inefficient way charter schools are configured with their own separate governing boards, separate administrative and teaching staffs, separate facilities, and separate transportation (if they happen to offer it).

"It's just inefficient," Baker contends. "Running two systems in a common space is just less efficient and more expensive than running one."

Baker warns these inefficiencies are not easily fixed and don't right themselves as public school districts acclimate to the presence of charters. "The ongoing inefficiency of charters is baked into having uncontrollable mobility between two independent systems operating in a common space," he says.

This is not to say Massachusetts might be doing a better job of managing the charter industry than any other state. Charters in Massachusetts are more regulated than they are in most other states, and their numbers are capped--the very thing Chait rails at. But "an important point," according to Baker, is that the inherent inefficiencies of charters "arise even in a state that has reasonably regulated the expansion of charter schooling."

What about in states where they haven't?

'Part of a Growing Trend'

"Boston's experience with charter schools is part of a growing trend," says Green. "Researchers have documented the financial strain charter schools have placed on urban schools in California, Michigan, and Chicago. If charter schools are allowed to expand in urban districts without consideration of their impact on their public schools, we will see more instances of urban school systems pressed to the breaking point."

The financial stress caused by charter schools is expanding beyond big city schools.

Recently, in a rural county in eastern North Carolina, the local public school district had to close two elementary schools due to the growth of charter schools in the district and surrounding counties. While the number of students in the district has remained "fairly stable," reports the local newspaper, enrollment has dropped by almost 13 percent while attendance at charters has "grown almost six-fold."

Since state lawmakers lifted a cap on the number of charters allowed in the state, the number of students attending charters has grown by more than 200 percent, and the number of charters has nearly doubled, notes NC Policy Watch, a progressive news outlet funded by the North Carolina Justice Center. When so many students leave the public system, there are fewer dollars to educate those who remain, the article explains, "especially those students with profound disabilities and other special needs."

A recent survey of school district administrators in Pennsylvania found that local public education systems across the state are experiencing greater financial stress. School officials point to three major causes of the stress: employee pensions, the rising costs of special education services, and charter schools.

What If Public Schools Were No Longer There?

The costs imposed by charter schools are not only financially burdensome to local public schools; they're also potentially calamitous to schoolchildren and families.

When charters are closed by the state, as often happens, or when charter operators decide to close on their own, which they have the flexibility to do, the students and their families at least have a public system they can fall back on. This is not something to take for granted.

In 2012, the nation's largest-ever closure of brick-and-mortar charters occurred in St. Louis, when Missouri state officials suddenly closed a chain of six charter schools managed by Imagine, a nationwide charter management company, for persistently low academic performance and financial improprieties. The district quickly had to absorb more than 3,800 returning students from the charters and reopen three closed schools, which cost millions to upgrade and outfit with new equipment.

What would have happened to those families if the public school system were no longer there?

In Baker's recent study, "Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities," he writes that school systems experiencing large expansions of charter schools "have faced substantial annual deficits."

So far, many of these districts have adapted by lowering overhead and closing and consolidating schools. But there are far more severe financial thresholds school districts may eventually be forced to cross.

Because of charter expansions, "public districts are being left with legacy debts associated with capital plants and employee retirement systems," Baker finds, "while also accumulating higher risk and more costly debt in the form of charter school revenue bonds."

Baker urges charter authorizers to collaborate with public school districts before deciding where and when to open new charters, and he calls on policymakers to weigh the potentially negative impacts charter expansions have on introducing inequities and financial instabilities into the system.

To learn more about school privatization, check out Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, a free ebook published by the Independent Media Institute.

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