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Janresseger: Major New Report Shows that Charters Are Too Often Parasites Weakening Host School Districts

On Wednesday, The Economic Policy Institute published a comprehensive report by Rutgers economist Bruce Baker, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities.  Reviewing Baker’s report for The American ProspectRachel Cohen explains that Baker speaks to the very question that became central in the $34 million political fight that just concluded in Massachusetts, where Question 2—to expand charter schools statewide—went down to resounding defeat.  Opponents of unregulated expansion of charter schools defeated Question 2 by asking: How will charter school expansion affect all of the children including the children who remain in traditional public schools?  Usually instead promoters of charter school growth make their argument based on a very different question: How will expanding charter schools affect the test scores of the relatively few children who leave the public schools to enroll in charter schools?

Cohen reports on her interview with Bruce Baker about his new report: “Baker suggests moving the conversation away from the individualistic, consumer-choice narrative, that market-driven reformers have promoted over the past two decades, and towards one that centers public education as a collective responsibility for communities to provide as efficiently, and equitably, as they can.  In an interview with The Prospect, Baker emphasizes that we need a far better understanding of all the costs and benefits associated with running multiple, competing school systems in a given space—public policy questions that are surprisingly ignored on a regular basis.”

In the new report, Baker questions the economic viability of the charter school model based on what is now 25 years of experience with school choice: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Baker grounds his argument in some history: “Since its origins in the early 1990s, the charter school sector has grown to over 6,500 schools serving more than 2.25 million children in 2013.  In some states, the share of children now attending charter schools exceeds 10 percent (for example, Arizona and Colorado), and in select major cities that share exceeds one-third (for example the District of Columbia, Detroit, and New Orleans.”  The vast majority of America’s children and adolescents, 50 million of them, remain in the roughly 90,000 traditional public schools across the states. Baker examines the impact of charter school expansion on the host public school districts that serve the majority of students and that are being affected by the growth of charter schools within their boundaries.  “In this report, the focus is on the host district, the loss of enrollments to charter schools, the loss of revenues to charter schools, and the response of districts as seen through patterns of overhead expenditures.”

Baker credits charter advocates like Paul Hill at the Center on Reinventing Public Education with envisioning a more collaborative “portfolio” model in which “a centralized authority oversees a system of publicly financed schools, both traditional district-operated and independent, charter-operated.” But competition, not collaboration, has come to dominate the expansion of charter schools: “A very different reality of charter school governance… has emerged under state charter school laws—one that presents at least equal likelihood that charters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources.  One might characterize this as a parasitic rather than portfolio model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. “(S)ome of the more dispersed multiple authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid, unfettered, under-regulated growth.”

Baker challenges claims by charter school advocates that the growth of charters has little negative effect on the fiscal viability of the host public school districts: “(N)umerous studies find that charter schools serve fewer students with costly special needs, leaving proportionately more of these children in district schools.” “(T)he assumption that revenue reductions and enrollment shifts cause districts no measurable harm… ignores the structure of operating costs and dynamics of cost and expenditure reduction.”  Baker reminds readers that for several years now, Moody’s Investors Services has been warning about a range of concerns for host urban districts when charters are rapidly expanded.

Choices made that ignore the needs of host public school districts are likely to create formidable barriers to turning back if, for example, “policymakers and the public at large tire of the recent wave of charter expansion.” Baker worries especially about the consequences as school districts lose students to charters and then respond by selling off underutilized buildings for the use of the charter schools: “Capital stock—publicly owned land and buildings—should not be sold off to private entities for lease to charter operators, but rather, centrally managed both to ensure flexibility (options to change course) and to protect the public’s assets (taxpayer interests).  Increasingly, districts… have sold land and buildings to charter operators and related business entities, and now lack sufficient space to serve all children should the charter sector, or any significant portion of it, fail. Districts and state policymakers should not put themselves in a position where the costs of repurchasing land and buildings to serve all eligible children far exceed fiscal capacity and debt limits.”

Baker also worries about shifts in the teacher workforce that frequently accompany rapid charter growth—by which “the teacher workforce has been substantively altered from a career-oriented, professionally trained teacher workforce to a temporary workforce… In some cases, the newly minted teacher workforce is dominated by teachers narrowly trained in specific ‘no excuses’ methods, as charter operators have expanded their reach into the granting of graduate credentials and certification of their own teachers….”

There are also concerns about the protection of students’ rights when schools have been privatized: “Rarely if ever considered in policy  discourse over charter school expansion is whether children and families should be required to trade constitutional or statutory rights for the promise of the possibility of a measurable test score gain.  In fact, the public, including parents and children, is rarely if ever informed of these tradeoffs and does not become aware until an issue arises… Children in low-income and predominantly minority communities are more likely to be asked to make these tradeoffs, while not being told what rights they are trading off.  Concurrently, taxpayers in impoverished, minority communities are disproportionately foregoing their rights to understand where the money goes, in the hierarchical public-private structure of charter schools in their neighborhoods, and increasingly losing control over long-held public assets including land and school facilities, while affluent suburban residents are not being asked to make similar tradeoffs.”

Finally, Baker slams the federal Charter Schools Program, operated by the U.S. Department of Education: “The federal government in particular, in recent years, has poured significant funding into the expansion of chartering in states that have exhibited systemic failures of financial oversight coupled with weak educational outcomes…. The federal government has also, through facilities financing support for charter schools, aided in the transfer of previously publicly held capital assets to private hands, as well as aided in the accumulation of privately held debt to be covered at public expense…. Federal funding for charter expansion generally, or for facilities acquisition, should be put on hold until better parameters can be established for ensuring that these funds advance systemwide goals and protect public interests.”

After voters in Massachusetts were educated about some of these tradeoffs, they voted, by an astounding 63 percent to 37 percent margin, to protect their public school districts. Under a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos—a pro-charter, pro-voucher, pro-competition ideologue—serving as Secretary of Education, it will be up to all of us to ensure that Bruce Baker’s well-documented concerns about the dangers of unregulated expansion of privatized education are better understood by the general public and by our state legislators and members of Congress.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...