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On charters, proof is in the percentages

Bill Smith, Community Voices • Jun 1, 2019 at 8:00 AM

In recent years Republicans in Nashville have actively promoted school privatization through charter schools and vouchers. Tennessee’s first charter schools opened in 2003, and the numbers have grown slowly but steadily.

Vouchers are not yet in effect, but the House and Senate recently passed Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher bill, and it is awaiting his signature. In the process of promoting the bill, local representative Matthew Hill amended it to limit its impact to Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, explaining he wanted to be sure his schools and teachers would be “held harmless” from the law’s effects. Jason Zachary provided the tie-breaking vote in the House only after receiving a promise that citizens in his Knoxville district would also be “held harmless.” In the end, the final version of the bill applies only to Nashville and Memphis.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think charters and vouchers can never come to our region, and we now have further evidence why we need to keep that from happening.

The Network for Public Education recently released a study of the federal Department of Education’s spending on startup funding for charter schools. The researchers found that the Charter Schools Program awarded roughly $1 billion between 2006 and 2014 to “charter schools that never opened or opened for only brief periods before being shut down for mismanagement, poor performance, lack of enrollment, and fraud.”

The data on these defunct charter schools are eye opening. For example, the CSP granted $20,272,078 from 2006 to 2014 to 109 charters that never opened or are now closed (out of a total of 250 approved charters) in secretary of education Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan. Despite this 42 percent failure rate, DeVos granted Michigan an additional $42,222,222 for new charters in 2018.

Florida, California, Ohio, and Louisiana had failure rates of 36, 38, 40, and 46 percent respectively in the years examined. Taxpayer dollars squandered by charter operators were in the tens of millions in each of these states and over $100 million in California alone.

When DeVos was questioned about this report in a Congressional hearing, she responded, “You’re always going to have schools that don’t make it.” Then she argued for the establishment of more charters and asked Congress to increase CSP’s annual funding to $500 million.

DeVos might have said that most of this waste occurred on her predecessor’s watch (it did) and that she would attempt to correct the problems (she didn’t). Instead she doubled down and gave no indication that she would work to prevent behavior that, at best, indicates a weak screening process, and, at worst, suggests complicity with scammers.

Having begun my educational career in 1974, I’ve been listening to government officials and other public figures talk about teacher accountability for over four decades. For DeVos to characterize an approximately 40% failure rate and the loss of over $1 billion as “stuff happens” is stunning. Where’s the accountability for her and the charter school movement?

Even more disturbing is the thought of the disruption that charter openings and closings impose on public schools and communities across America. Imagine if a charter elementary school opened in Johnson City. If it enrolled 400 children, that would be an average loss of 50 students for each of our eight elementary schools. Because school revenue is dependent on enrollment, the resulting funding cuts would mean that at least two or three teachers (and perhaps other staff members) would lose their jobs at each school, and the school board would probably have to reduce or eliminate spending to essential programs.

And, no, the dismissed teachers wouldn’t necessarily land at the charter school. Many non-profit charters act as “pass throughs” (for taxpayer funding) and hire for-profit Charter Management Organizations to run their schools. Because these CMOs are more interested in making money than serving children, they reduce personnel costs by hiring unqualified teachers — sometimes brought in from the outside.

Depending on their circumstances, the laid-off teachers may have to leave Johnson City to find employment. If the charter closes, as so many do, our public schools will be left to pick up the pieces: at a minimum, they will need to hire new faculty and staff back into the positions that were cut. Of course, the pool of strong teacher candidates will be smaller, because some of those who were laid off earlier will have left our community.

We also need to understand that Johnson City’s school board and administrators may not enjoy the luxury of preparing for returning students during summer break. In many cases, charters have gone belly up during the year, causing literal chaos for children, families, communities, and school systems. An Ohio charter school that received $414,530 in taxpayer dollars suddenly closed in the middle of the year with teachers arriving at work to find locked doors and a sobbing student.

An even worse scenario would be if a new charter school drew most of its students from only one of our city’s public elementary schools and forced its closure. If the charter later failed, the challenge of reabsorbing students back into the school system would be exponentially more difficult and expensive.

I used Johnson City in this example, but obviously educators and citizens from other systems should know that it could happen to them too. Moreover, charter schools aren’t the only problem. The exact same situation could result from the establishment of a school funded by vouchers. You can be sure the next incremental step in the Republican push for school privatization will be to extend vouchers beyond Nashville and Memphis. Matthew Hill can claim that our region is “held harmless” by Lee’s voucher bill, but I wouldn’t count on us being “held harmless” for very long.

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

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