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Education

15 Key Takeaways From the NEA’s New Policy on Holding Charter Schools Accountable

The NEA draws a firm line against non-local, corporate-run education franchises.

Photo Credit: NEAToday.org / Scott Iskowitz

The National Education Association’s newly adopted policy on charter schools seeks to return their oversight to democratically elected local school boards, which will authorize them only if they meet community needs and hold the experimental schools to the same accountability and transparency standards as traditional public schools.

In issuing its new policy at a July 4 nationwide meeting of its Representative Assembly, the nation’s largest teachers union is unambiguously characterizing the modern face of the charter movement as an educational experiment gone awry—as exemplified by the rise of non-local, corporate-run education franchises. But by not seeking an outright moratorium on future charter growth, the NEA is also hoping they can be returned to the professional educator fold if communities exercise sufficient democratic oversight.

“Charter schools were started by educators who dreamed of schools in which they would be free to innovate, unfettered by bureaucratic obstacles,” NEA president Lily Eskelsen García said in a release issued with the charter statement. “Handing over students’ education to privately managed, unaccountable charters jeopardizes student success, undermines public education and harms communities. This policy draws a clear line between charters that serve to improve public education and those that do not.”   

“This policy is the first step to arm our communities and our educational professionals with the tools and voice we all need to ensure a better future for our youth,” Dave Daly, a high school English teacher at Old Redford Academy, a charter school in Detroit, and a member of the NEA Task Force on Charter Schools, said. “Profiteers have been stripping away resources for almost two decades by cutting corners and treating children as commodities.”

The NEA’s new charter policy comes against a growing backlash against privateers that is being challenged by the Trump administration and its pro-charter, pro-voucher agenda.

Other national organizations like the NAACP have called for nationwide moratoriums on new charter schools. Last fall, voters in Massachusetts and Georgia rejected measures to expand charters in their states, suggesting that when the public votes specifically on these experiments they are not buying the overheated and unsupported rhetoric that they are always better for underserved children and communities.

The NEA’s new policy position did not call for a moratorium, however; it is more of a compendium of the needed and necessary responses to make these schools more locally suitable, accountable and equitable to traditional public schools. The policy statement reflects the extensive analysis of charter student performance, business models, political oversight and community impacts as traced by myriad academics and education experts.

What follows are 15 excerpts from the statement reflecting this backdrop.

1. Today’s charters diverged from their historic roots. “Over the last quarter of a century, charter schools have grown dramatically to include large numbers of charters that are privately managed, largely unaccountable, and not transparent as to their operations or performance.”

2. A separate and unequal school system has emerged. “The explosive growth of charters has been driven, in part, by deliberate and well-funded efforts to ensure that charters are exempt from the basic safeguards and standards that apply to public schools, which mirror efforts to privatize other public institutions for profit.”

3. Charters have diverted limited funds in needy districts. “Charters have grown the most in school districts that were already struggling to meet students’ needs due to longstanding, systemic and ingrained patterns of institutional neglect, racial and ethnic segregation, inequitable school funding, and disparities in staff, programs and services.”

4. Charters have rolled back the clock on segregation. “The result has been the creation of separate, largely unaccountable, privately managed charter school systems in those districts that undermine support and funding of local public schools. Such separate and unequal education systems are disproportionately located in, and harm, students and communities of color by depriving both of the high quality public education system that should be their right.” 

5. The NEA doesn’t oppose all charters, just bad ones. “The purpose of this policy statement is to make plain NEA’s opposition to the failed experiment of largely unaccountable privately managed charter schools while clarifying NEA’s continued support for those public charter schools that are authorized and held accountable by local democratically elected school boards or their equivalent.”

6. Charters must be accountable to locally elected school boards. “Charter schools serve students and the public interest when they are authorized and held accountable by the same democratically accountable local entity that authorizes other alternative school models in a public school district such as magnet, community, educator-led or other specialized schools.”

7. No more colonizing of local districts by outside profiteers. “Public charter schools should be authorized by a public school district only if the charter is both necessary to meet the needs of students in the district and will meet those needs in a manner that improves the local public school system.”  

8. Charters must be run under the same rules as other schools. “Public charters… [must be] subject to the same basic safeguards and standards as every other public school, namely, in compliance with: i) open meetings and public records laws; ii) prohibitions against for-profit operation or profiteering as enforced by conflict of interest, financial disclosure and auditing requirements; and iii) the same civil rights, including federal and state laws and protections for students with disabilities, employment, health, labor, safety, staff qualification and certification requirements as other public schools."

9. Charters must respect labor laws and union organizing. “When a charter is authorized in a public school district that has an existing collective bargaining agreement with its employees, the authorizer will ensure that the employees will be covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Those basic safeguards and standards protect public education as a public good that is not to be commodified for profit.”

10. Local education impact studies must be part of charter authorization. “Charter schools may be authorized or expanded only after a district has assessed the impact of the proposed charter school on local public school resources, programs and services,  including the district’s operating and capital expenses, appropriate facility availability, the likelihood that the charter will prompt cutbacks or closures in local public schools, and consideration of whether other improvements in either educational program or school management (ranging from reduced class sizes to community or magnet schools) would better serve the district’s needs.”

11. Local, not state authorizing authority, must approve the schools. “Maintaining local democratic control over decisions as to whether to authorize charters at all, and if so, under what conditions, safeguards community engagement in local public schools. A single local authorizing entity also ensures comprehensive consideration of whether each option, and the mix of options offered in a district, meets the needs of students and the community as a whole given the resources and facilities in the district.”

12. State officials must exercise real oversight, not act as rubber stamps. “The state should both monitor the performance of districts as charter authorizers and hold districts accountable for providing effective oversight and reporting regarding the quality, finances and performance of any charters authorized by the district. In addition, the state must provide adequate resources and training to support high quality district charter authorization practices and compliance work, and to share best authorization practices across a state.”

13. The free market does not know what’s best for public schools. “The theory that charter competition will improve public schools has been conclusively refuted. Charters have a substantial track record that has been assessed in numerous research studies.  Those studies document that charters, on average, do no better than public schools in terms of student learning, growth or development. And those charters that do perform better are not incorporated into district-wide school improvement efforts.”

14. Charters have an outsized record of failing and hurting communities. “At their worst, charters inflict significant harms on both students and communities. Of the charter schools that opened in 2000, a full fifth had closed within five years of opening and a full third had closed by 2010. Because the very opening of charters often prompts cutbacks and/or closures in local public schools, these alarmingly high charter closure rates subject students and communities to cycles of damaging disruption. Such disruption can leave students stranded mid-year. Even closures that occur at the year’s end disrupt students’ education and unmoors communities that previously had been anchored by the local public school.” 

15. All-online education has no place in public schools. “Fully virtual or online charter schools cannot, by their nature, provide students with a well-rounded, complete educational experience, including optimal kinesthetic, physical, social and emotional development. Accordingly, they should not be authorized as charter schools.”

Saying ‘Enough’ to a Parallel Universe

The NEA charter statement mostly sticks to its mission of providing the best education possible, based on the belief that public schools are a cornerstone of a more equitable and democratic society. As a result, it focuses on holding charters accountable in the same way that traditional pubic schools are democratically run by locally elected school boards that are subject to the approval of voters and their communities. 

The NEA doesn’t extensively note how the creation of a privatized K-12 sphere has implicitly created opportunities for fiscal self-dealing, where entrepreneurs can present themselves as a new generation of education reformers—even though many have no professional educational training or experience running schools. The NEA statement makes only passing reference to the outright profiteering that has been seen in every virtually state where charters have emerged.

“Charters that are not subject to the basic safeguards and standards detailed above also open up the local public schools to profiteers,” it said. “Such charters operate without any effective oversight, draining public school resources and thereby further harming local public schools and the students and communities they serve.”

Overall, the NEA statement seems to acknowledge that charters are not going away, but they need to be brought under the umbrella of democratic oversight and professional educators. The statement acknowledges this is going to be a long political fight.

“NEA supports communities that are working to hold charters accountable whether that work takes the form of state legislative initiatives, local school board resolutions and actions, or efforts to raise local awareness of the need for charters to comply with the basic safeguards and standards detailed above,” the statement said. “NEA also will support state and local efforts to preserve public school funding and services by eliminating such funding and services from unaccountable privately managed charters that do not comply with those basic safeguards and standards.”

The statement also said that the NEA will help any charter school employees seeking to organize a union: “NEA believes that all educators deserve the right to collective voice and representation, and that an organized workforce is a better guardian of quality standards for students and educators alike. For that reason, state affiliates that seek to organize charter schools may continue to seek NEA’s assistance in those organizing efforts.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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