Oh the irony. It just so happens that when our public education advocates get off their buses in Harrisburg this morning, they will be greeted by another group rallying at the capitol for cyber charter schools. While our colleagues are meeting with legislators today urging them to restore public funding for public schools, the PA Families for Public Cyber Schools group will be meeting with legislators asking them to instead send more public money to largely private corporations.
Let me say right up front that I don’t think all charter schools are necessarily bad. In fact, I know of some pretty good ones. Perhaps not surprisingly, these tend to be non-profit organizations, run by actively involved local volunteer boards, have broad parent participation, and pay their teachers competitively. Unfortunately, this is not the model for all charter schools – especially not in the cyber charter world, which is largely enriching corporate shareholders while delivering horrendous educational results.
We’ve talked before about the outrageous sums of money going to line the pockets of cyber charter CEOs and their equally outrageous school performance (“Soaking the Public”). And we’ve talked about the $86 million taxpayers and school districts could have saved in 2009-2010 if cyber charters had been funded based on what they actually spent per student, rather than an artificially high fee imposed by the state (“Trouble Seeing the Money”). That was two years ago – imagine what we could be saving now – and spending on students instead of CEOs.
But we haven’t talked about two other key concerns with charter schools in general: performance and oversight. Let’s start with performance. The bottom line is that charter schools, whether brick-and-mortar or cyber, are not delivering the student performance results they promised when they were signed into Pennsylvania law back in the 1990s.
For example, the University of Washington’s center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Mathematica Policy Research released a study earlier this year on the effectiveness of charter school management organizations (CMOs). The longitudinal study looked at 17,000 students attending CMO-operated schools in eight states and matched them with similar students attending conventional public schools. The researchers concluded “there were no statistically significant effects of attending a CMO-operated school on state assessments in math, reading, science, or social studies among middle school youth. There were also no statistically significant impacts on high school graduation and college enrollment rates.”
Interestingly, this study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation – that’s the Walmart family that spent over $159 million on funding school privatization efforts last year. As Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition points out, “What if the Waltons spent their $150M per year on programs for poor kids that are actually effective, like early education and making sure that they are reading on grade level by third grade?” [“Follow the Money,” KSEC, 3-8-12]
Cyber charter schools do a particularly poor job of educating students. Only two of twelve Pennsylvania cyber charter schools made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress, a designation affiliated with the federal No Child Left Behind) last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. That’s a 100% failure rate. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011]
That study also found that students in Pennsylvania’s brick-and-mortar charter schools are not doing so well. A quarter of them made “significantly more positive learning gains” in reading, but the report concluded, “their performance is eclipsed by the nearly half of charter schools that have significantly lower learning gains.” And Pennsylvania reflects the national trend. A 2009 Standford/CREDO study of charter schools in fifteen states and the District of Columbia – looking at the vast majority of the nation’s charter school students – found that only 17% of charter schools showed better academic gains than conventional public schools. And 37% were worse, while 46% showed no significant difference. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2009]
With such inferior results, we are left to wonder why Gov. Corbett’s administration recently authorized seven new cyber charter schools for next school year and is hell-bent on charterizing as many existing public schools as it can. (This is the state’s forthright goal in Philadelphia: see “This is What Privatization Looks Like.”) Especially when the entire charter system lacks supervision.
That brings us to the second problem with charter schools: supervision. The Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call reported last month that, “The Legislature and state Department of Education have known since 2002 that oversight of charters was lacking.” A Western Michigan University study that year found that many local school districts in our state were making only “ceremonial” visits to the charter schools under their purview. [Morning Call, 4-22-12] But the state is the one that has forced school districts to allow charter schools to open while providing no staff or financial resources for their supervision, creating yet another unfunded mandate.
The state is also responsible for supervising charter schools. But the Morning Call found that the auditor general’s office “is having trouble conducting cyclical audits or special investigations to make sure tax money is spent appropriately in the state’s charter schools.” The report concluded “there are few eyes on the $4 billion taxpayers have spent toward charter schools in the last decade.” That’s right. Four billion. That number came from the Department of Education and includes per student expenditures, salaries, building and rental costs, and grants. [Morning Call, 4-22-12]
If the state is going to spend four billion of our taxpayer dollars, we ought to demand adequate supervision. Particularly since a great chunk of that money is going to private corporations who answer to shareholders and their bottom line, not students and their learning outcomes.
What if we had invested that $4 billion in our existing public schools? After all, that is where the vast majority of Pennsylvania’s students continue to be educated – and by many measures, educated quite well. Where there are problems, let’s fix them. That $4 billion would surely go a long way.
Our legislators in Harrisburg will see dueling rallies today: when they hear cyber charter families asking for more taxpayer dollars for miserably performing, poorly supervised charter schools let’s hope they focus on the other message. The one our colleagues will be chanting: what we really need is adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education.