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Curmudgucation: Failing Charters Go Private

Last month, Amelia Pak-Harvey at Chalkbeat Indiana ran a story about a failing charter school that had been approved for a new lease on life--as a private school.

Ignite Achievement Academy was supposed to improve its "checkered academic record," but instead the State Board of Education gave it a unanimous thumbs up to become a private school. Specifically, a private school that can cash in on Indiana's school voucher program.

This is not a new dodge. Annie Waldman wrote a piece for ProPublica way back in 2017 that found 16 troubled charters converting to private schools that could grab taxpayer-funded vouchers. 

As Waldman pointed out, this was a bit of as shift. There was a time when private schools converted to charter, because charters could collect taxpayer money, and private schools couldn't--yet.

There has always been some tension between charters and vouchers, because they represent two different stances. First, the funding.  Let's say that the funding is an actual stream that leads to an actual pond. Traditionally, that pond was used strictly for thirsty public school systems. The charter approach has been to insist that they be allowed to drink from that pond, too. The voucher approach is to interrupt the stream itself, redirecting it away from the pond and off to a hundred other little locations.

Second, the overall goal. Real charter fans see charters as a sort of supplement or enhancement of the public system, while voucher fans would be just as happy to burn the whole public system down. And of course, a whole lot of charter supporters have been the foot-in-the-door crowd, seeing charters as a way station or halfway house to sort of while away the hours until vouchers could finally stomp freely over the landscape. 

Andy Rotherman (of reformy Bellwether) offered a quick visual analysis that hits the mark. As more and more voucher bills pass, charters will feel the pinch. After all, why run a charter that has to keep some authorizer happy when you can collect taxpayer-funded vouchers that come with no regulation, oversight, or accountability?

It's one more way that magical market forces do not make a good substitute for actual oversight, accountability, and regulation. Ignite is a perfect example. About to be held accountable for your failure? Change your name and move to another sub-sector of the ed biz. It's a trick the private sector already knows, like the drilling company in my neck of the woods that was sued repeatedly for ruining well water, so they declared bankruptcy, escaped the consequences of their failure, and soon formed a new business with the same folks.

Charter and private schools have additional advantages. First, the market for their business is constantly turning over. Second, they only need a small sliver of the total market to be viable. So just keep marketing enough to keep pulling in fresh customers, and it's unlikely that any of your previous failures will catch up with you any time soon.

In the meantime, watch for more and more failed charters, or charters that just want to operate in an accountability-free sector, to jump into the unregulated world of private schooling. 


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...