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Snake oil, charter schools and disingenuous debate

Bill Smith, Community Voices • Oct 28, 2018 at 7:30 AM

At the Oct. 9 gubernatorial debate in Kingsport between Karl Dean and Bill Lee, educational reform was a central focus. Both candidates asserted that education is the key to the state’s future and offered their visions for its improvement.

Dean spoke passionately about his commitment to public education and pointedly expressed his opposition to vouchers, emphasizing that they undermine public schools by diminishing their resources. He also asserted that charters offer “choice” and have “a role in an urban system,” while reminding the audience that for-profit charters are not legal in Tennessee.

Lee stuck to the Republican Party line and advocated for a range of alternatives to public education, stating that “choice elevates the entire system.” He claimed he would never do anything to undermine public schools and said we should “look for innovative, creative ways” of educating students by offering them choices and “then bring those models, those best practices, to bear in the public system.”

The day after the debate, the Center for American Progress released the appropriately titled report “Profit before Kids,” a study examining academic performance and financial practices in virtual (online) charter schools. The authors found that students in these schools performed well below their peers in regular public schools and graduated at a much lower rate. They also reported that the companies operating these schools spent substantial amounts of taxpayer dollars on political donations, advertising, executive compensation, lobbying, and profit at the expense of instruction.

Although this study focused solely on virtual charter schools, the findings are consistent with previous research indicating poor student performance and a misuse of taxpayer dollars in other kinds of charter schools. The aspect of this study that seems new — and especially troubling — is the revelation that virtual charter schools identified themselves in public records as “independent nonprofit charitable organizations,” when in fact they are moneymakers for entities such as K12 Inc., the country’s largest for-profit virtual school provider.

K12 Inc. has not only generated profits for investors, but it also spent $11 million in compensation for five top executives in 2017 and almost $38 million on advertising in fiscal year 2018. Rather than rewarding its company leaders for improved student outcomes, it gave them bonuses for reducing expenditures on instruction in order to produce higher profits.

When I read “Profit before Kids,” I wondered if our next governor will look closely at the Tennessee Virtual Academy in Union County, a charter that is operated by K12 Inc. If our state’s lawmakers are genuinely opposed to taxpayer dollars being funneled to for-profit educational entities, the findings reported in “Profit before Kids” should raise some concerns.

It’s no secret that non-profit charter schools often divert money intended for children’s instruction to other priorities. For example, many charters compensate their “CEOs” two to three times the salaries of principals who perform the same functions in regular public schools. Vision Academy in Nashville pays its two top executives (a married couple) a combined $562,000, while reportedly charging students for textbooks. (Imagine the outcry if a local public school engaged in such financial behavior.)

The Oct. 9 debate between Lee and Dean was — like the rest of their campaign — noteworthy for its civility. They both seem to be good, decent men, and they exhibit many of the leadership qualities we should all want in our governor. Moreover, when you listen to them talk about educational reforms, their arguments seem very compelling — until you carefully consider the facts.

Lee is either delusional or disingenuous to assert that he would do nothing to diminish public education but is fully in favor of vouchers and charters. The point of offering these choices is to diminish public education, and the evidence indicates that it is working.

Further, when he says we should give students educational alternatives, identify the “best practices” to emerge from these settings, and then implement these model approaches in public schools, he is describing the central promise of the charter school movement when it first emerged in the 1990s. In the beginning, the plan was that charter schools would be relieved of regulatory oversight so that they could explore creative practices and then export their best ideas to public education. Unfortunately, that never happened.

This failure raises a fundamental question that Lee, Dean and other charter advocates do not address (in my opinion, because they can’t). If charter schools are as wonderful as they claim, why won’t they tell us what makes these schools so effective? If you knew the cure to a dreadful disease, would you keep it to yourself?

The charter folks remind me of the old snake oil salesmen who appeared unexpectedly one morning, sold their mysterious elixirs, and slipped out of town at dusk. They made incredible claims about the benefits found in those opaque bottles, but they never told anyone what the ingredients were. “Trust me,” they said. “It’ll cure whatever ails you.”

Let’s be clear. Advocates of charters and vouchers can’t tell us why these educational alternatives are better because they simply aren’t. Moreover, most of the people pushing for choice don’t want to improve public education. They want to undermine it so that they can profit from educational privatization. The only reason they want relaxed regulatory oversight is so that they can funnel as much of our tax dollars as possible into their own pockets without us noticing.

I believe that Dean is sincere about his support for public education, and I will vote for him for that reason. To his credit, he opposes all forms of choice except for non-profit charters, and I hope that he will realize one day that they too have failed to live up to expectations. He is kidding himself when he denounces the undermining effects of vouchers on public education while simultaneously advocating for charters (even in a limited capacity) and not seeing that they too draw resources away from public schools.

Democrats who still think there’s a place for charter schools need to reconsider that position. If there was ever a useful role for charters in our educational system, it has long since been high-jacked and corrupted beyond redemption. Charters are simply one more weapon for market fundamentalists to employ in their effort to privatize public education.

In this time of hyper-partisanship and extreme contentiousness over issues such as immigration and tax policy, the dangers of school choice are not going to attract the attention of most citizens until Democrats stand forcefully united against it. If they don’t, I’m afraid we will wake up one day and realize that what David Faris called the Republicans’ “slow-moving hostile takeover” of our educational system has been accomplished. In other words, this is one more issue on which Democrats cannot afford to be Republican Lite. Someone needs to show responsible leadership and stand up for our children.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator and public school advocate.

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