How Charter Schools Heighten The Politicization Of Education

Last year a breakthrough policy brief from the National Education Policy Center exposed some of the financial machinations charter schools engage in to further the interests of profit-seeking entrepreneurs. But what about the political machinations? The politics of charter schools are less quantifiable than their financials but troubling nevertheless, and the expansion of these schools … Continue reading “How Charter Schools Heighten The Politicization Of Education”

Last year a breakthrough policy brief from the National Education Policy Center exposed some of the financial machinations charter schools engage in to further the interests of profit-seeking entrepreneurs. But what about the political machinations?

The politics of charter schools are less quantifiable than their financials but troubling nevertheless, and the expansion of these schools will no doubt lead to increased politicization of education in local communities.

Consider the following anecdotes.

Florida Fracas

Recently a Florida news outlet reported about a charter school management company that “disappeared from the scene” after being told by the local school board to explain financial and operational problems. The company that operated four schools had racked up $1.8 million in debt after receiving $4.5 million in taxpayer money.

This seems like pretty blatant fraud, but it gets more complicated when politics get involved.

As the article explains, parents and school leaders at one of the schools, Windsor Prep, felt pretty gung ho about their school and responded to its vanishing manager by pitching in, on a voluntary basis, to take over some school operations. However, the board still felt the obligation to address the problems posed: the missing money, the management company scofflaws, and the welfare of lots of students who need more than just enthusiastic amateurs to oversee their education.

While the local board was attempting to sort out the mess another, other issues involving Windsor Prep continued to surface: unaccounted for grant money and $300,000 in mysterious consulting fees.

Based on these ongoing concerns, the school district’s staff recommended putting Windsor Prep and the other charters on a 90-day notice of termination.

Charter school families, mostly from Windsor, flooded the board meeting to express their disapproval. Families expressed their fondness for their charter schools and complained that finding alternatives would be a struggle. School board members responded by pointing out to parents the available seats at local public schools. But many parents contended the public schools are inferior to charters. They point to the “C” letter grades the states have given these schools, even though the school their children attend, including Windsor Prep, are also rated C. Nevertheless, the parents are sure the local public schools are “bad schools.”

To make matters even more supercharged, now a state senator has jumped into the fray to plead the parents’ case to keep Windsor open. According to a local news outlet, “The senator has been a key player in legislation that has empowered more charter schools to operate in Florida and he is a vocal support of giving parents a choice when public schools fail.”

As a local columnist for the same paper observers, it’s hard to blame the parents and the school board when you have a political situation not of their making.

Florida lawmakers, he writes, ” have created an atmosphere that favors charter school operators above almost everyone else.” So charter schools get enough leeway to ensnare their operations in potential financial and academic problems, and local government authorities have to step in to ensure accountability for taxpayer money. But when parents, who’ve been convinced charter schools are the shining alternative to their dysfunctional public schools, get wind of any disruption to their schools, they lash out. And politicians who helped start the whole mess into motion eagerly step in to make themselves look like heroes.

It’s hard to see how there is any positive end to this.

Consider another, yet very different, example of how charters heighten politicization.

Quaker State Quagmire

Recently a Pennsylvania state auditor alerted the Allentown school district that it may have violated state laws when it made a charter school real estate deal with a developer, according to a local newspaper.

The developer Abe Atiyeh had hired a consulting firm to promote two new charter schools for the district. The owner of the consulting firm pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery offenses and tax evasion, but nevertheless, the proposals for the two new charters remained on the books, and the developer was still eager for a deal.

In January of last year, the school board approved a lease with Atiyeh for the first school, which the district opened in September. Then the board approved an application for the second charter school submitted by Atiyeh to open at a building he already owned.

The deal the board made with Atiyeh to ensure approval of both schools hinged on a pledge from Atiyeh not to open more charter schools and to provide $150,000 worth of advertising to help promote the charter schools.

Where local authorities ran afoul of state law, according to the auditor, was in hiding from the public information about the two pledges from Atiyeh.

This whole affair seems like a simple matter of government transparency. But here again, because of the politics of charter schools, decision-making about charter schools is way more complicated than it seems.

As the news article reports, the state auditor stated the school district was in a “no-win” situation.

Like in Florida, charter schools in Pennsylvania have a significant advantage in gaining approval. Local school boards that block new charters are almost always overturned when the charter applicant appeals to the state. And state statutes governing charters are written with such generous consideration to these schools, courts tend to side with charter operators.

Also, as in Florida, local public schools in Pennsylvania lose millions every year to competitive charters – so much, in fact, that at least on school district in the Quaker State is thinking of getting out of operating high schools altogether.

So if Allentown had tried to block the new charters from opening, the state or the court would likely have overruled the district, and the community would be stuck with the two schools anyway, but without the benefit of the advertising money and the pledge to open no more new charters. If the district had given approval but then insisted on making its agreement with the developer public, the developer would have likely backed out.

Either way, the district loses.

Going To Get Worse

The above two anecdotes are plucked from my newsfeed in just the past few days, but these kinds of political cul de sacs arising from the current ways we create, operate, and govern charter schools happen all the time, all over the country.

Notice also that in both situations, the subject of education is by and large overlooked. Indeed, concerns for teaching and learning never came up because there was too much other flack in the air – the public perceptions of the schools, financial matters involving public money, political deals, and the needs of parents to have a guaranteed school seat for their children.

Regardless of how you feel about charter schools, because of the way they’ve been forged in the crucible of politics, they’ve become much more political beings than they are institutions of education. Simple mandates to expand these schools, without any attention to these political consequences, will make matters worse.


8 thoughts on “How Charter Schools Heighten The Politicization Of Education”

  1. Part of the problem here is that too many people have been convinced to take as an article of faith the idea that government (including public schools) can’t do anything right, that the private sector can always do things better. If people can be shown that charter schools need the same kind of oversight and monitoring as public schools, transparency might prevent some of these kinds of problems.

  2. What really needs to happen here is to abolish charter schools altogether. Who are these ignorant people that have this also ignorant idea that creating an independent entity in education, answerable to pretty much no one is a good idea? I’m talking to the parents that have the erroneous idea that these schools are somehow superior to public schools your children once attended. The fact is, there is nothing to indicate that these “for profit” schools are in any way superior to the public school system they are fleecing for money. And by there very existence they starve our public schools for money causing them to be less effective help to fulfill republican claims that our public school system is failing us. Well all I can say is, DUH! Republicans are making their prophesy is self fulfilling. Then there’s the issue of diverting my tax dollars as well as everyone else’s to a venture that operates without consent from most of us and doesn’t have to account for for where the money they steal from our public education system goes? This whole escapade is nothing more than republicans making good on their desire and plan to destroying public education.

  3. Sorry for the mistakes, I was a little angry and missed the darn things. I hope you get the gist though.

  4. Public education has always had some shortcomings. The solution is adequate funding. Instead, some sharp operator types bleed money out for their own ends, which consist almost entirely of money-making.

    But we really shouldn’t find that particularly surprising, however sad.

    I keep wondering what instruction in American History looks like in these charters. I bet they’re working hard to keep a lot of ugly cultural ideas alive. Doing well by teaching bad (ideas.)

  5. And don’t overlook the root cause of this: the politicization of governance at the State level. State-after-state has bought into the notion that the Governor should appoint either the State Board or the State Superintendent “because the state spends so much $$$ on schools”… once these appointments are controlled by the governor he or she can appoint people who will do their bidding and their bidding is deregulated privatization in states with republican governors…

  6. The article cherry-picks a couple of bad stories which doesn’t give an accurate depiction. I have seen huge corruption in my local public school and I dream of charter schools. Why? Charter schools cost less per student than public school (about 1/3 less) yet they are called “for profit”. Charter schools on average have equal or better results than public schools. If charter schools are bad, they can be closed but public schools can’t.

    1. As for your assertions that charters cost less, that’s not true everywhere and where it is true the reduction in cost is contingent on providing less service and access, including no transportation or food service, lower-paid and sometimes uncertified teachers, and little to no access to special education staff, ESL specialists, libraries, athletic programs, and the arts. Regarding your argument that poorly performing charters can be closed, that varies a lot too. The vast majority that close, do so for financial reasons, not academics, and often low-performing charters are allowed to stay open for years because of their generous contracts, changes in management, and other loopholes. Further, charter operators who have their poor performing schools closed on them can simply open a new school somewhere else. This “churn” of schools opening and closing is bad for students, families, and communities.

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