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Living in Dialogue: Charters and Vouchers: The Threat to Public Schools is Real

Across the nation, educators have awakened to the reality that charter schools are a threat to the health and even survival of public schools. For that reason, charters have become a major point of contention in teacher strikes, from Oakland to Los Angeles, and even in West Virginia.

But at Education Week’s blog, Charters and Choice, staff writer Arianna Prothero tells us these fears may be overblown. She acknowledges that charter school expansion is “a salient issue,” but only for those who live in urban areas like Los Angeles and Oakland, where charters enroll as many as 30% of the students.

But after acknowledging this, she asserts:

But are the expansion of charter schools and school vouchers really an existential threat to traditional public schools? In most parts of America, it’s hard to argue that they are.

Charter schools educate only about 3 million students, or 7 percent of all public-school students, according to federal data. It’s taken charter schools more than 25 years to get to that 7 percent enrollment share—and it looks as though that growth has been slowing in recent years.

Prothero apparently only consulted one side of this contentious issue, as all the statistics she cites are from the National Alliance for Public (sic) Charter Schools.

By “most parts of America,” the author seems to be referring to rural areas, which are the focus of the rest of her post. She writes:

…areas with less population density struggle to support robust school choice, which requires lots of schools clustered close enough together that families can reasonably get to them.

She then notes that “it’s mostly rural states that still don’t allow for charter schools…”

And then she suggests that the West Virginia proposal recently defeated by a teacher strike was no real threat:

In West Virginia, lawmakers wanted to allow up to seven charter schools to open and to create 1,000 education savings accounts, a voucher-like program, for students with disabilities.

Make no mistake, this would have been an important symbolic victory for school choice advocates, especially charter school supporters who have been pressing to get charters in the state for a while.

But based on the rate of charter school growth so far, and where charters have been successful in expanding, it seems unlikely West Virginia would have been overrun by charter schools anytime soon, if at all.

Wow. That is quite a conclusion! It would be reassuring if this were not the way that almost every charter school and voucher program began – with just a few schools, or only targeting a limited group of students. And then within a few years, the programs are expanded to include nearly everyone. Reporters covering education should know this history.

Indiana’s voucher program started for limited income students who had attended public schools for at least a year. It expanded to the point that today many students are eligible. Take a look at all the student eligibility pathways  This year, taxpayers will spend $153 million on vouchers for students attending private and parochial schools. Families earning as much as $91,000 a year are eligible.

Voucher programs such as “Education Savings Accounts” almost always start with one group, such as students with disabilities,  and then more groups are added every year. That is what happened in Arizona. The program in Arizona started small, and by last year had expanded to make 20% of students eligible. State lawmakers tried to make 90% of students eligible, but last year voters overturned the law. The proposal in West Virginia, for seven charter schools and vouchers for a thousand students this year, would have been a platform for further growth.

So is there good reason for public school parents, teachers and students to fear the expansion of charters and vouchers? Yes. A group called In the Public Interest took a close look at the fiscal impact of charter schools in three California districts. Their report found:

  • Charter schools cost Oakland Unified $57.3 million per year.That’s $1,500 less in funding for each student that attends a neighborhood school.
  • The annual cost of charter schools to the San Diego Unified is $65.9 million.
  • In East Side Union, [in San Jose] the net impact of charter schools amounts to a loss of $19.3 million per year.

And rural communities are particularly vulnerable to the impact of charters. Rural public schools struggle to keep afloat with limited enrollment and high transportation costs. When privately managed charter schools arrive, they siphon off students, reducing revenue for the public schools.

In 2017, Carol Burris took a trip to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to look at the impact of charter schools. She learned that the Bethlehem schools were then spending $26 million a year – 10% of their budget – on charter schools. Superintendent Joseph Roy told her:

If we weren’t spending so much on charters, we would have more academic and social supports for our students living in poverty. We would have more professional development focused on equity and literacy. We would have social workers. And, importantly, we would not have raised property taxes to the extent we have if not for the charter expenses. The local working-class people of BASD are shouldering the cost of charter schools due to the state’s lack of financial support and lack of desire to correct the problems.

Teachers worried about the expansion of charter schools are not alone. In Philadelphia power was recently reclaimed by the elected school board from an appointed School Reform Commission. That Board rejected the applications of three charter schools seeking to expand in the city. This article in The Notebook reports that:

Temple Law professor Susan DeJarnatt said she conservatively estimated that approving the new charter schools would create $43 million in stranded costs for the District – the net loss to the District even after accounting for any savings incurred by students leaving their home schools.“That does not include the additional costs of oversight or the effects on special education funding,” DeJarnatt testified before the votes.

Meanwhile, in California,  activists are working to get signatures on a petition asking state legislators to rein in charter schools and allow for greater accountability and transparency.

Mainstream media coverage for the past decade has, similar to this EdWeek blog post, generally downplayed the potential and real harms inflicted by the expansion of charter schools and voucher programs. The experiences of those in places like Oakland, Los Angeles and Pennsylvania serve as a warning to others — whether they are in urban, suburban or rural areas. Charter schools are a costly experiment that so far, has failed to yield much. Those in states fortunate enough to have avoided charters thus far do not need to repeat these failed experiments to learn the same lessons the hard way. Teachers in West Virginia were wise to ward off this danger.

Readers might be interested to know that blog posts in EdWeek bearing the K12 Parent Engagement logo are partly funded by contributions by the Walton Family Foundation, though EdWeek retains editorial control.

What do you think? Are West Virginia teachers wise to take action to block charters and vouchers from their state?

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he now lead...