Stories about charter schools and their role in the education landscape in America are nothing new. NPQ has covered many stories over the years. The debate over privatization, the people involved, and whether the oversight is adequate to ensure young people get the highest possible quality of education rages on. Last week was no exception, with three widely varying stories emerging from the federal government in support of charter schools, a new report decrying what is essentially described as theft, and the New York City government’s attempts to institute greater oversight requirements.
Members of the federal government are so excited about charter schools that they are considering legislation to expand charter schools around the country. The bipartisan bill that is being proposed in the Senate matches a similar one just passed in the House would increase funding for charter schools by $50 million, would encourage districts using privatization to rescue struggling public schools, and would make it possible for charter schools to purchase or build new facilities at low cost.
Proponents of charter schools in the House and Senate are excited because their bill has received some support from liberal Democrat legislators as well. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) is a self-described supporter of public education, so it’s something of a surprise to hear he is supporting a bill to expand charter schools. The bills represent an investment in what the sponsors consider to be high performing charter schools, although the term “high performing” is not defined.
To that point, a report released last week by Integrity in Education and the Center for Popular Democracy suggests that $100 million or more has been “lost to fraud and abuse in the charter industry, because there is virtually no proactive oversight system in place to thwart unscrupulous or incompetent charter operators before they cheat the public,” according to Sabrina Joy Stevens of Integrity in Education as quoted on BillMoyers.com. The two groups conducting the survey are opposed to privatization of education and have used this report to call for greater levels of oversight and transparency across the whole charter school system. In one example, the owner of a charter school was using funds to support a failing restaurant. In another example, a school was billing for students who were actually attending another school.
This issue of oversight has drawn the attention of the members of the New York City Council. Under the city’s previous administration, that of Mayor Bloomberg, the charter school system in New York grew to include more than 180 schools. In hearings, members of the Council are raising questions about the demographics of students accepted into charter schools in New York City (particularly those being allowed to co-locate with public schools), transparency regarding academic performance and financial matters, and discipline. In one dramatic moment, Councilman Daniel Dromm challenged the discipline meted out by one particular school, which he likened to punishment in the prison known as Rikers Island. He cited an instance where students at the Coney Island Prep Charter School were disciplined by having to wear orange T-shirts over their normal school clothes and sit in special sections of the classroom.
The hearings in New York City may be about the city’s lack of regulatory teeth more than anything else. As was pointed out during the hearing, it is quite possible that the Coney Island Prep Academy did nothing they are not allowed to do, and there is certainly no oversight checking in on their policies. Although the school operates under a charter by the city, it does not have to submit to any scrutiny of its rules as long as they do not break any federal or state regulations.
As the legislators in Washington move ahead with their legislation, perhaps they should pay attention to ensuring that what is actually going on in the classrooms matches the theory of what could happen due to privatization.—Rob Meiksins