13 Questions That Scare Charter School Advocates
The Network for Public Education is challenging the Trump/DeVos anti-public school agenda. According to NPE, “DeVos and her allies have worked for decades pushing charters, vouchers and neo-vouchers such as education tax credits. DeVos even supports virtual charter schools that have a horrific track record when it comes to student success.”
This campaign picks up urgency as Arizona just passed legislation providing its entire student population with vouchers to attend private, for-profit, and religious schools. The law is modeled on Trump/DeVos proposals.
The public is often confused by the Trump/DeVos assault on public schools because they frame it as promoting “choice.” In response, The Network for Public Education prepared a thirteen-point question/answer toolkit to expose the lies and distortions of charter school, voucher, and tax credit advocates. The full toolkit is available online. This report excerpts key items from the toolkit.
1. Are charter schools truly public schools? Charter schools are contractors that receive taxpayer money to operate privately controlled schools that do not have the same rules and responsibilities as public schools. Investigations of charter school operations in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, and elsewhere have found numerous cases where charters used taxpayer money to procure school buildings, supplies, and equipment that they retained ownership of, even if the school closed. In most states, charter schools are exempt from most state and local laws, rules, regulations, and policies governing public and private schools, including those related to personnel and students. Calling charter schools “public schools” because they receive public tax dollars is like calling defense contractors public companies. There are so many substantive differences between charter schools and traditional public schools that charters can’t be defined as public schools. Our communities deserve a school system that is truly public and democratically governed by the community they serve.
2. Do charter schools and school vouchers “hurt” public schools? Charter schools, vouchers, and other “choice” options redirect public money to privately operated education enterprises, which often operate for profit. That harms your public schools by siphoning off students, resources, and funding and reducing the ability of public schools to serve the full range of student needs and interests. In Nashville, TN, an independent research firm MGT of America estimated the net negative fiscal impact of charter school growth on the district’s public schools resulted in more than $300 million in direct costs to public schools over a five-year period. While alternatives to public schools may provide better options for some children, on the whole charter and voucher schools perform no better than the public school system, and often worse. At the same time, they have a negative fiscal impact on existing public schools and are creating a parallel school system that duplicates services and costs. The idea that funds should follow the child (portability) will seriously reduce public school services. Let’s stop draining our public schools and work together to strengthen them.
3. Do charter schools get better academic results than public schools? The charter school sector does not get better academic results than public schools and often performs worse. Charters sometimes appear to do better because they can control the types of students they choose to serve. The most rigorous and most expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found no overall positive effect for charter schools. A recent study of charter schools in Texas found charters overall have no positive impact on test scores and have a negative impact on earnings later in life. Despite the advantages charter school have to selectively enroll students, concentrate instruction on teaching to the test, and push out students who pose the most challenging academic and behavior problems, these schools still do not out-perform public schools.
4. Are charter schools and vouchers a civil rights cause? Charter schools, vouchers, and other choice options increase the segregation of students. This results in separate, unequal schools that isolate black and Hispanic students, English language learners, and students with disabilities in schools with fewer resources and less experienced teachers. Segregation robs all children of the benefits of learning with others who have different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. A comprehensive analysis found 70% of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools – double the share of intensely segregated black students in public schools. Half of Latino charter school students attended racially isolated minority schools. A national study of charter school operated by education management organizations found only one-fourth of these schools had a racial composition similar to public schools. We need a public system that is about advancing the well-being of all, not just helping some families and children get ahead while leaving the rest behind.
5. Are charter schools “more accountable” than public schools? Charter schools that fail to perform as expected are rarely held accountable. In theory, if a charter school does not meet its stated goals or if academic results are below stated expectations, the charter sponsor can revoke its charter or refuse to renew it, and families will withdraw their children from the school. This theory doesn’t work in reality. A national assessment by the charter industry found only about 3% of charter schools are closed for academic reasons. The vast majority of charter school closures are for financial reasons. In Ohio, only one of 10 charter school students attend a school rated high performing. In Florida, where millions are wasted every year on charter schools that eventually close, 21 of those that remain open scored a grade of D or below on state assessments. The flood of poor performing charters and the cost to taxpayers will only get worse until we get to the bottom of why this is happening and insist on transparency.
6. Do charter schools profit from educating students? Charter schools are structured and operate in ways that introduce new actors into public education who skim money from the system without returning any benefit to students and taxpayers. Even charters labeled “nonprofit” expand opportunities to profit from public tax dollars and privatize public assets. In Michigan, nearly 80 percent of charter schools have all or a significant part of their operations under the control of for-profit companies. Charter schools are businesses in which both the cost and risk are fully funded by the taxpayers. The initial “investment” often comes from the government or wealthy individuals. And if the business fails, the “owners” are not out a dime, but the customers, who are in this case children, are stranded. Education should not be about making money from tax dollars intended for our children and families.
7. Do school vouchers help kids in struggling schools? Vouchers, often misleadingly called “scholarships,” divert tax dollars meant for public education to private schools that are not accountable to the public and generally do not serve the interests of struggling, low-income students. In Wisconsin, 75% of students who applied for the statewide voucher program already attended private schools. A national analysis of voucher programs found most programs do not cover enough of the tuition to enable poor minority children to access the best private schools. Vouchers are a gift of taxpayer funds to private and religious schools that if expanded will cost American taxpayers billions of dollars.
8. Are charter schools innovative? Charter schools were intended to be centers of education experimentation and innovation, but they generally don’t invent new teaching methods or develop and spread new education practices. They’re businesses first, and schools second. An analysis of 75 Arizona charter schools found little evidence the schools were developing new classroom practices. A study of Colorado charters found that more than 60% of the schools used reform models that are common elsewhere, and their instructional approaches were already being used in district public schools. Public schools have used innovative education models, such as Montessori and project based learning, for decades – well before the advent of charter schools.
9. Are online charter schools good options for families? Online charter schools, also called cyber schools and virtual schools, are a poor choice for students almost every time. A study of online charters in Ohio found students attending these schools perform worse than their peers in bricks-and-mortar schools in all tested grades and subjects. A widely cited national study found students enrolled in full-time, online only schools lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math over a 180- day school year – meaning, in math, an entire year of lost instruction. Online charters run by private education management organizations account for 74.4% of all enrollments in online schools.
10. Do “Education Savings Accounts” lead to better results for families? “Education Savings Accounts” are another voucher-like scheme that redirects public money for educating all children to private, unaccountable education businesses, homeschoolers, and religious institutions. Privatization advocates created these programs because school vouchers are unpopular and because these programs are a way around prohibitions against using public dollars for religious schools. Wealthier families in urban and suburban communities would benefit the most from the program because they have more access to private schools and services. An analysis of Arizona’s ESA program found that most families using the program are leaving high-performing public schools in wealthy districts to attend private schools. Rather than diverting tax dollars away from public schools, we should adequately fund our schools so they can have smaller class sizes, more specialized resources for student needs, and more education opportunities to meet the high expectations of parents.
11. Do education tax credits scholarships provide opportunity? Privatization advocates have created tax credit programs because school vouchers are unpopular. These programs are a way to get around prohibitions against using public dollars for religious schools which often discriminate on the basis of religion, gender preference, disciplinary history, or ability level. In Georgia, a popular tax credit program allows public money to be used for tuition at more than 100 private schools that refuse to enroll gay, lesbian, or bisexual students. Because the amount of scholarship money rarely covers the cost of tuition at the best private schools, the money subsidizes sub-standard private schools that have less accountability than public schools, discriminate against students, and on average, do not provide children with better education opportunities.
12. Are tax credits scholarships a voucher by a different name? Like vouchers, these programs redirect public money for educating all children to private schools, including religion-based schools. Diverting funds from public schools harms our children’s education because schools are forced to respond to the lost money by cutting staff and programs. In Georgia, the state does not track who is receiving scholarships under the program, and state lawmakers made it a criminal offense to disclose information about the program to the public. Public schools in Arizona get about $4,200 per pupil from the state, but the state’s education tax credit program awards $5,200 on average to parents participating in the program – an additional $1,000 for every child who leaves a public school for a private or religious school. If the goal is to make more high-quality school choices available for parents, then the emphasis should be on helping current public schools be the best they can be. This is no more than a gift of public funds and a scheme to help the wealthy and corporations avoid paying taxes.
13. Do charter schools and vouchers save money? Charter schools increase education costs to taxpayers because they have become a parallel school system that drains money from what’s available to serve all students. School voucher programs can add extra layers of administrative costs and make education funds less transparent and accountable. The result of both programs is more money going to more service providers instead of directly to students and classrooms. A national study found charter schools on average spend $774 more per pupil per year on administration and $1141 less on instruction than traditional public schools. In New Orleans, where all schools converted to charters, administrative spending increased by 66 percent while instructional spending dropped by 10 percent. In New York City, some charter schools occupy public school buildings practically rent free. Charter schools and vouchers are not a way to get better education on the cheap. Because each school or network of schools is its own financial entity, they don’t have the economies of scale that public schools have. So charters and private schools supported with vouchers have to continually find more ways to tap into public school budgets or generate funds from the private sector. This drain on resources threatens the capacity of public education budgets to serve all students.