Action Alert

Back to School: Public School or Charters?

Back to School: Public School or Charters?

Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, has been confirmed. DeVos is an education activist from Michigan and a prominent member of the Republican Party. She is a former state Republican Party chair and national committee member who has spent a considerable amount of her career advocating for school choice at the K-12 level. She wants to take money away from public schools and use federal funds to make school choice available to all students, through vouchers that allow families to take public funding to private schools. However, she has not publicly stated where she falls on key issues under the department's purview, such as the rising costs of student loans, various federal education grants and anti-discrimination policies. DeVos technically has no teaching or administration experience, a fact which her critics say makes her unqualified to be the secretary of education.

DeVos has many supporters, but many critics as well. One of her biggest fans is Mitt Romney, former presidential candidate and governor. He says that she will be great as the secretary of education because she “…has reignited the age-old battle over education policy.” He claims that she is not “financially biased” since she does not need a job. He also says that “she cares deeply about our children and will do everything in her power to offer them a brighter future.” On the other side, the Manhattan Community Education Council (CEC) joined three other CECs to issue a resolution against DeVos. They claim that she is "a candidate lacking any credentials as an educator or experience in the administration and management of public schools and demonstrating a pre-disposition toward — and long history of support for — charter schools and school voucher programs, which by their very nature eviscerate free and appropriate public education for specific economic, social and racial groups." Other critics also say that she has argued for shutting down Detroit public schools, with the system turned over to charters or taxpayer money given out for vouchers at private schools. It should also be noted that in that city, it is reported that charter schools do not perform better than traditional schools, and sometimes even worse.

The Future of the U.S. Education System?

A recent statement issued by the NAACP has restarted a conversation that educators, policymakers and parents have been debating for years: Should charter schools be the future of our U.S. education system?

The NAACP called for a halt in the expansion of charter schools on October 15. According to the NAACP, certain assurances need to be made before more charter schools are created. The organization calls for charter schools to be held to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools, to be funded not at the expense of the public school system, to stop expelling so-called “difficult” students “that public schools have a duty to educate,” and to stop selecting only the highest performing students and thus perpetuating de facto segregation. Some view this resolution as misguided.

“For many parents and students, a charter school is the only route to a superior education. In advocating a blanket moratorium on charters, the NAACP would fail to acknowledge what’s happening to children who need and deserve a way out of the broken schools to which they have been relegated,” The New York Times’ editorial board wrote.

 The NAACP recognizes that traditional public schools face many problems that need to be addressed too and stated that their position is to continue to support public education and denounce the privatization of education, which diverts public funds away from the traditional public school system.

What’s Different?

But first, what makes a charter school different from a traditional public school?

Charter schools are publicly funded, like traditional public schools; the difference is that they are independently operated, while public schools answer directly to the state and follow state regulations. The point of charter schools is to give parents more of a choice in how their children are educated, as charters have greater freedom in their programs and teaching methods. However, since they have greater flexibility, the expectation for high academic performance is greater as well. If a charter school does not meet its own accountability standards, its contract with the state or jurisdiction may be revoked, and it may be shut down.

Charter schools make up about 7 percent of the total number of public schools in the United States, and this number is expected to continue to increase.

When comparing traditional public schools and charter schools, the advantages and disadvantages will vary depending on what organization is running the charter. Since they are independent, charter schools can have academic results ranging anywhere between below or above average. How transparent they are and how accountable they remain to the public also varies from school to school. From a national perspective, the main advantage of charter schools is choice, but their main disadvantages are noted as transparency and accountability. For traditional public schools, on the other hand, choice seems to be the disadvantage, while accountability and transparency are their main advantages over all.

Opponents of charters generally point to the fact that the schools can choose to reject certain students, that they frequently give only give partial scholarships, and that they increase segregation. As education historian Diane Ravitch puts it, "The school chooses the student, the student doesn’t choose the school.”

Devos’ critics observe that she has no relevant credentials or experience for a job setting standards and guiding dollars for the nation’s public schools. Additionally, at DeVos’ confirmation hearing, she evoked major concern among civil rights advocates. She declined to say whether she would enforce new regulations meant to hold schools accountable for all students and she indicated that she will likely shift away from Obama’s policies of aggressive investigation into sexual assaults at schools.

The Matter of Choice and Equity

From a national perspective, the main advantage of charter schools is choice. Many students are limited to one school based on their location and economic status. If their local public school is underperforming and their families don’t have the resources to send them to a private institution, students’ choice is rather limited. In other words, their access to a good education is hindered simply because of where they live and because of the financial barriers to private education.

This inequity in access to quality education disproportionately affects people of color and people of lower socioeconomic status. While high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates are improving overall, racial disparities still persist. While the national high school graduation rate has reached 82 percent, the rates for students of color are much lower. About 87 percent of white students graduate high school, compared to 76 percent of Hispanic students and 73 percent of African-American students. According to a 2015 U.S. News & World Report data report, racial disparities in education start early — with less access to materials, advanced classes and opportunities to learn — and last throughout a student’s education, leading to lower graduation rates and overall educational attainment.

According to the U.S. News & World Report data report, more than two million black students attend a public school where 90 percent of the students are minorities. Nationally, these schools also are more likely to have less experienced, lower paid and possibly uncertified teachers. People of color also make up the majority of the students — 57 percent — attending so-called “dropout factories,” even though they only make up 30 percent of the national student population. “Dropout factories” are schools where at least one quarter of the senior class dropped out since freshman year.

Addressing Racial Disparity

Some charter advocates, such as Secretary DeVos and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, argue that charter schools could help address some of this racial disparity by offering students a chance to choose another publicly funded institution that could give a better quality education.

Cheryl Brown Henderson, founding president and CEO of Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, believes we need to place better educational choices in the hands of families across the country. “Charter public schools present African-American families, especially those in low-income communities, with the choice to choose a public option that is best for their child,” Henderson said. “We must protect this choice.”

However, critics of charter schools believe that these school perpetuate segregation across racial and class lines. The Civil Rights Project, run by the University of California, has been reporting on segregation in public schools for 14 years and has found that charter schools perpetuate, rather than mitigate, segregation in terms of race and class.

“Charter schools attract a higher percentage of black students than traditional public schools, in part because they tend to be located in urban areas,” the Civil Rights Project reported. “As a result, charter school enrollment patterns display high levels of minority segregation, trends that are particularly severe for black students.”

The project calls this phenomenon “choice without equity,” meaning that while students of color and students of lower socioeconomic status have more choice in where they go to school, it doesn’t necessarily mean equal education.  The Civil Rights Project claims that racial disparities will persist even if more choices are available, as long as other issues (e.g. segregation) remain unaddressed. Student Performance in Traditional Public Schools vs. Charter Schools

Betsy DeVos has spent the past two decades pushing “school choice” in her home state of Michigan, vowing to “fundamentally improve education.” However, the state’s overall academic performance has failed to keep up with other states. Michigan ranks near the bottom for fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading on a nationally representative test, nicknamed the “Nation’s Report Card.” In fact, according to an analysis of federal data, the state’s charter schools scored worse on that test than their traditional public-school counterparts. If the schools were held accountable, this may not be the case, but DeVos has lobbied against the creation of the Detroit Education Commission, which would oversee school accountability.

This matter of choice could be helpful to students, however, if these charter schools were proven to result in better student performance. Research suggests low-income, nonwhite students living in urban areas have a lot to gain from charter schools, if they are run right.

Again, the effectiveness of both public and charter schools varies from state to state.

On the national stage, students in most charter schools are not performing better or worse than students in traditional public schools. According to a 2013 Stanford University study, about one quarter of all charter schools are performing better than their local public school counterparts, while about the same amount are actually performing worse than the traditional public schools.

Some charter schools are seeing better results than others. Places such as Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City have seen great learning gains in their charter schools. While improving individual students’ performance, the Stanford report did point out that students of color still had smaller learning gains than their white peers, no matter if they were in a charter or public school. This means that while charter schools did help improve reading and math skills, they did not fully address the racial disparity in access to quality education.

Then, there are charter schools that are underperforming traditional public schools. In Pennsylvania, where cyber charter schools have become popular, these schools are significantly underscoring traditional public schools. While traditional schools were scoring an average of 76.9 out of 100 on the state’s School Performance Profiles scale, cyber charters were scoring an average of 48.7 out of 100. Pennsylvania charters reportedly have problems with misleading student attendance reporting, as well as fund transparency — a common critique of charter schools in general.

The Matter of Transparency and Accountability

Due to their very design, charter schools have more freedom in how they operate, including how they spend the public funds the state or jurisdiction provides them.

A combination of a lack of oversight and a lack of transparency has led to multiple cases of mismanagement and sometimes fraud.

In Ohio, an audit was conducted on 30 charter schools in the state. The audit found that these charters were misspending public funds nearly four times more often than other publicly funded agencies. Charter schools were inflating their school enrollment numbers to receive more funds. In one school, auditors couldn’t find a single student, even though it had received enough state money to educate 152 students. Taxpayers could have been paying up to $12 million for empty seats across the state.

White Hat Management, a private, for-profit company that ran over 30 charter schools in Ohio, refused to disclose how they spent public funds, even to their school boards. Charter schools are public and receive public funds, so they should be subject to transparency laws, the Washington Post reported; however, journalists and even school boards are finding themselves increasingly barred from any information on charter schools’ operations. Since private companies are doing the spending, the operations remain private, according to the Post.

The charter school boards sued White Hat Management, but the Ohio Supreme Court found that the company owned the property it bought with public funds for the schools, due to the fulfillment of its contract. Justice William O’Neill wrote this in his dissent: “By contract, White Hat promised to safeguard and effectively utilize $90 million of public funds that were specifically set aside to educate the children of Ohio. And by contract, White Hat promised the children of Hope Academy that it, White Hat, would fulfill its fiduciary duty by providing a quality education for the sum of $90 million. The only part of that contract that was fulfilled was that White Hat thoroughly and efficiently received the $90 million. There has been no quality education, there has been no safeguarding of public funds, and there most certainly has been no benefit to the children.”

It’s not just Ohio; this misuse of public funds has been discovered in multiple states and cities across the United States. A recent audit conducted in Broward County, Florida, this year found that school leaders were falsifying documents, inflating student enrollment and using public funding for personal travel and expenses. Two charter schools were shut down due to these discoveries.

Though the taxpayers definitely lose out when funds are misspent, what of the students? When schools close, where do they go? Charter schools by design can be shut down if they don’t meet accountability standards, and these shut-downs can happen any time of the school year.

Since 2008, Florida has shut down 119 charter schools — most of which closed two years or less after opening — and lost about $70 million in public funding in the process. About 38 of these schools closed because of money mismanagement and poor oversight, according to Naple News.

 Accountability to students after closings ends up falling on the parents instead, who are left to deal with the turnover.

“We’re opening [charter schools], which is fine, but if you’re not holding them accountable for teaching our most prized possessions, that’s a problem,” Florida Rep. Shevrin Jones said to Naple News in 2014. “We’re creating a huge disruption in the lives of our children and our neighborhood schools.”

Some states have started to address this lack of accountability. Ohio passed a major charter school reform bill in October 2015 that sets clearer regulations for accountability and transparency in the state’s charter school system. In particular, it sets higher standards for oversight.

Florida, too, recently passed a bill around charter school reform, changing how charter schools can get public funding, in particular favoring schools serving impoverished students and those with disabilities. However, political officials from both states feel they still have a lot of work to do to ensure more accountability and a better charter school system for all children.

For states that have not passed charter school reform bills, the U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would require states to hold their charter schools to higher professional standards, with an emphasis on better transparency, more accountability and a heightened focus on ensuring that educationally disadvantaged students will have access to these charter schools. The Charter School Transparency, Accountability, and Quality Act, would also ask that charter schools provide three consecutively successful annual audits without fiscal issues and that national studies on the impact of charter schools be conducted.

The Department of Education currently supports the expansion of higher-quality charter schools and the dissemination of information about the schools with proven best practices through the Charter School Program. The department promotes national understanding of charter schools, so that they can be at the forefront of innovation within the U.S. education system.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said, “In every school, no matter how successful, we know there is more we can do to reach the students who are not yet succeeding, and more we can do to equip students with not just the fundamental academic skills but the socioemotional skills needed for success in life.” When asked about if she preferred growth or proficiency to measure student achievement, the new secretary, Betsy DeVos, said, “I would correlate it to competency and mastery, so each student is measured according to the advancements they are making in each subject area.”

United Methodist Women has a long history of supporting public education.

Let’s act to hold Secretary DeVos accountable for working with states to fulfill the nation’s promise of universal public education for all children — children with disabilities, children from vulnerable families, and children representative of our nation’s diverse communities. Private school choice and unregulated schools with poor education performance undercuts traditional public education.

Let’s go back to school as advocates for our children.

Let's encourage the new secretary of education to "go back to school."

Send Secretary DeVos an invitation to visit your local public school. Tell her you can show her what creative and inclusive public school learning looks like!

Posted or updated: 2/21/2017 12:00:00 AM
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Take Action:

  • Federal, state and local: Hold your governments accountable. “When it comes to matters of policy, the public tends to look to the federal government to lead the way, but the local governments actually determine the educational policy. Each school district is administered and financed by the community along with that district’s state government. School districts with higher socioeconomics tend to give more resources to their schools. Standards and quality of education consequently vary widely from state to state, town to town and even district to district. However, federal and state government can still play some roll in education policy.”
  • Raise your voice at the federal level to ensure that the Department of Education continues to:
    • Provide equal access to education and safeguard constitutional rights.
    • Allocate funding only to those school districts that follow federal guidelines. Most of this money goes toward assistance programs for children with disabilities. The rest of the money is distributed to school districts that meet the “Race to the Top” criteria.
    • Evaluate each school district by administering the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.
  • Raise your voice at the state and local level to ensure your public school system is:
    • Providing a place where children may receive a quality education
    • Selecting textbooks and educational materials
    • Selecting and regulating curriculum
    • Setting mandatory requirements for students to graduate

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