June 2021 Roundup of News, Analysis, and Opinion

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June 2021 Roundup of News, Analysis, and Opinion

With this briefing, NCSPE revives its monthly roundup of news, analysis, and opinion concerning developments in educational privatization and school choice. For regular updates as well as earlier analyses, go to Current Events on the NCSPE Web site.

National Charter Alum Survey Produces Mixed Responses (June 4)

In a recent article for Chalkbeat on the 30th anniversary of charter schools, Roquel Crutcher highlighted the perspectives of students and alumni at the nation’s charter schools to inform the debate over school privatization. Crutcher, a KIPP Memphis alumna who is now an education policy entrepreneur at the start-up think tank Next100, launched a national public survey “aiming to fill a hole in our public understanding of charters and to gauge alumni priorities for improving charters moving forward.”

The survey received over 300 responses, and two-thirds of respondents called their experience attending their charter school “mostly positive.” Like most families, Crutcher said, the respondents “were most likely to choose the charter they attended because of the perceived differences in quality, discipline, and curriculum from their district option.” From her survey, Crutcher was able to get alumni to point to “key areas where charters were falling short,” and to offer ideas for how charter schools could improve for the next generation of students.

A key concern was discipline, as “less than half of charter alums believe discipline practices at their school were fair.” Discipline in charter schools has been a central topic of conversation since KIPP–Crutcher’s high school alma mater–renounced its “no excuses” approach to discipline last July, retiring its motto, “Work hard. Be nice.” Chicago’s Noble Charter Network joined KIPP in renouncing such a hard-lined approach to discipline in March. This repudiation of the “no excuses” philosophy adopted by many charter schools followed the Black Lives Matter protests provoked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Crutcher wrote that she hoped that her findings would “encourage schools to prioritize improving discipline practices so that they are culturally competent, fair, and restorative.”

Another issue raised by alumni was the lack of diversity among the teachers at charter schools. According to Crutcher, alumni “pointed out that charters could do more to recruit educators who reflect the diversity of the students they teach and invest in cultural competence training for all teachers regardless of their race or ethnicity.”

- Andrew Thomas

Ohio School Choice Bill Critiqued (June 9)

In an op-ed for The Columbus Dispatch, guest columnist Nicholas Pittner criticized a “seemingly innocuous” education bill currently in the House of the Ohio General Assembly for essentially writing a blank check to funnel public school funding to private schools, and warned that such action could “wreak irreparable harm” upon the state’s education system.

The “ghost bill” in question is House Bill 290, which consists of a single paragraph committing the state to revising current laws so as to allow “families to choose the option for all computed funding amounts associated with students’ education to follow them to the schools they attend.” With no funding formula, no provisions for tax levies, and without appropriating any funds, the bill creates a framework for the state to “allocate all school funding on a per-pupil basis to not only public schools but also to an unlimited number of ‘nonpublic’ schools as well,” according to Pittner.

The bill, warned Pittner, writes “a blank check for the legislature to pass whatever the conservative majority decides to bring forward after its passage,” setting the table for “a vast, unlimited, expansion of the plunder of public-school funds” for the benefit of private schools. According to Pittner, current legislation has already funneled over $1.3 billion of public school funds to private schools this year, and such legislation “will likely bankrupt [Ohio’s] public education system.”

- Andrew Thomas

Biden Preserves Funding for Federal Charter Schools Program and Provokes Criticism (June 10)

To the disappointment of both charter advocates and opponents, the Biden administration will continue funding the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) at the same rate as last year, which amounted to $440 million, reported Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post. Charter advocates were lobbying for another $60 million while opponents have been pushing for nullification of the program.

The CSP was authorized under President Clinton in 1994. The aim of the CSP is to help charter schools get off the ground, amplify offerings, and replicate. Since its inception, the program has allocated nearly $4 billion to this end.

To Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group that opposes the privatization of public education, a central problem with the CSP is that it has been funding segregation.

In a guest column published by Strauss, Burris focuses on the distribution of CSP grants in North Carolina, and how charter schools receiving those funds encourage white-flight and implement racial and socioeconomic segregation within their communities by catering to a predominately middle-class White constituency.

Of the 30 CSP grant-receiving schools in North Carolina that have reported demographic data, Burris writes, 11 “have significant overrepresentation of White students or a significant underrepresentation of Black students compared with the population of the public school district in which they are located.”

One troubling path to CSP money, reports Burris, is the conversion of private schools to charter schools. Burris cites Hobgood Academy as a salient example: begun in 1970 as a private school in relatively Black district, the school “served as a haven for White families willing to pay tuition rather than send their children to an integrated public school.” But in 2019, the Hobgood Academy parent community succeeded in transforming the school into a charter school and thereby replacing tuition with government funding. In the process, the school received a $500,000 CSP grant.

Burris provides four similar examples of CSP money going to charter schools largely serving White families. At Community Public Charter, which received a CSP grant of $250,000, 95 percent of the students were White, while White students made up 53 percent of the population of the public school district. At the Community School, which received a CSP grant of $700,000, 84 percent of its students were White, while White students made up 27 percent of the population of the school district.

The report also found that many schools that received CSP grants dramatically underserved low-income students and students with disabilities. Of the 29 CSP awardees for which the North Carolina Department of Education tracks the percentage of free or reduced-price lunch students, 90 percent served at least 10 percent fewer economically disadvantaged students than the public school district while 45 percent served 40 percent fewer economically disadvantaged students. When it came to serving students with disabilities, 20 of the 28 CSP awardees with 2020 data served a lower percentage of students than their public school district.

Burris also cites North Carolina the lack of participation in the National School Lunch Program by CSP grantees as well as their transportation policies as methods of exclusion. While 95 percent of publicly funded schools in the U.S., including charter schools, participate in the National School Lunch Program, 24 of the 35 grantee schools in North Carolina do not. Furthermore, many grantee schools are located in rural counties or in majority-white neighborhoods and do not offer a “robust transportation plan to bring disadvantaged students to the school,” making diversity unlikely.

Another method used to discriminate against low-income families is a requirement for parents to donate time—or money in lieu of time—to the school, which often drives away parents who must work full-time jobs and do not earn enough money to substitute volunteer service.

Under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, $26.6 million in CSP funding was allocated to North Carolina. While only for-profit schools are not eligible to receive CSP grants, Burris found that the North Carolina Department of Education made grants to four for-profit charters run by national education management organizations: Torchlight Academy Schools, Charter Schools USA, Charter One, and National Heritage Academies.

- Andrew Thomas

Lawsuit Filed Against Kentucky's March Voucher Legislation (June 16)

The Council for Better Education (CBE), a non-profit representing the 168 of Kentucky’s 173 public school districts, filed suit on June 7th in an attempt to stop House Bill 563, which they claim violates the state constitution in funneling public funds to private schools.

The law, which was vetoed by Democratic Governor Andy Beshear and overridden by the Republican state congress in March, provides $25 million annually for an Education Opportunity Accounts program (EOA) that gives tax credits to individuals and corporations that donate to third-party organizations that, in turn, distribute the funds to families for educational expenses. Donors will receive a 95 percent tax credit on up to $1 million dollars in donations exclusively to “account granting organizations, which typically oversee accounts for multiple schools or education service providers in an area,” according to The Courier-Journal. This arrangement essentially amounts to an indirect voucher program, as Kentucky’s constitution prohibits the direct use of public funds for private education.

Supporters of the measure say that it increases the options available to traditionally disadvantaged groups and provides an escape from “failing” public schools, reported The Courier-Journal.

Opponents of the bill argue that EOAs – like vouchers – funnel public funds to private institutions. In its lawsuit, the CBE argued that “the General Assembly concocted a complicated tax credit scheme to move state revenue through a private grant program” in order to “avoid the plain constitutional prohibition against the public funding of unaccountable private schools through direct expenditures.” Furthermore, the CBE highlighted the legislation’s lack of any anti-discrimination clause or provisions mandating data collection to spot disparities in who benefits from the vouchers. The CBE claimed the vouchers will allow private schools accepting tax-incentivized funds “to discriminate based on race, religion, disability, LGBTQ status, English fluency, and academic ability,” reported Public Funds Public Schools.

The lawsuit claims that HB 563 violates Kentucky’s Constitution in four ways. First, it states that HB 563 ignore the state’s constitutional mandate to administer a “substantially uniform,” well-funded public school system by “establishing and funding a separate, non-uniform, system of schools that is not under state control.” Second, the constitution mandates that public expenditures be spent on public schools, unless private school funding is approved by a majority of voters in a referendum, and HB 563 was never submitted to a voter referendum. Third, the law violates the constitutional requirement that public funds are expended for a public purpose. Finally, the EOA program “unconstitutionally delegates legislative authority over the essential governmental functions of providing education to private entities” without any basic safeguards or measures of accountability. Without any benchmarks, there is no way of telling whether the private education that the program funds is adequate.

Shortly after filing their lawsuit, the plaintiffs filed a motion for temporary injunction, seeking to stop state officials from implementing the voucher program, according to Public Funds Public Schools.

- Andrew Thomas

New Jersey Supreme Court Upholds Newark Charter Expansion (June 24)

New Jersey’s Supreme Court unanimously upheld the state’s 2016 decision to allow the expansion of seven charter schools in Newark, but criticized the former education commissioner’s consideration of the decision’s impact on segregation as inadequate: “While failing to conduct that analysis rendered the decision deficient, the justices wrote, reversing it would be impractical and could disrupt the education of thousands of students in Newark’s charter schools,” reported the Associated Press.

The lawsuit was filed by the Newark-based Education Law Center (ELC) against seven of Newark’s largest and highest-performing charter schools, including North Star Academy, KIPP, Great Oaks Legacy, and Robert Treat Academy, which collectively enroll an estimated 18,000 students, according to Chalkbeat.

Today, more than a quarter of the Newark school district’s state and local funding goes to charter schools.

The controversy began in 2016, when then-Education Commissioner David Hespe approved the seven schools’ request to increase enrollment by 8,500 students. The ELC filed a suit in opposition, arguing that the decision “would harm district students by diverting money to charter schools and intensifying segregation,” reported Chalkbeat. However, in last week’s decision, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling that placed the burden on school districts to show that new or expanded charter schools would negatively impact their budgets and the diversity of their student populations.

The ruling puts the state “on firm and clear notice” that it must analyze and address segregation caused by charter schools, David Sciarra, executive director of the ELC, told Chalkbeat. The center projected in its failed lawsuit that if the expansion were approved, 50 percent of all Newark students would be enrolled in charter schools within five years.

- Andrew Thomas

Michigan Launches Inquiry into Charter School Finances (June 26)

The Michigan Board of Education launched an inquiry aimed at charter schools that avoid releasing basic information on how they spend public funds, directing state officials to request records related to teacher salaries, management fees, and basic expenditures, reported Chalkbeat.

The inquiry is an effort by the Democrat-controlled board to encourage transparency from Michigan’s charter schools, 80 percent of which are run by for-profit entities or use commercial firms to manage internal operations. Leaders of the board aim to guarantee “that for-profit management companies don’t divert money that was intended for classrooms,” continued Chalkbeat.

Critics say that many of these charter schools “use legal loopholes to hide their finances from the public,” and that there is “no way to know if for-profit charter school operators are diverting money from classrooms that enroll tens of thousands of Michigan students.” Charter school advocates insist that the schools are fully transparent, but journalists and researchers have struggled to access financial information, according to Chalkbeat and Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who produces a national report on the charter school industry.

The move by the board reignites the debate over accountability at charter schools less than a year after Concept Schools—a charter management organization that operates two schools in Michigan and 24 others in Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, and Missouri –consented to pay a $4.5 million fine to close a federal corruption investigation last November.

The public records requests are set to go out by the end of the summer, and the debate will only intensify if decennial redistricting tilts the balance of power toward Democrats in the state house after the 2022 elections.

- Andrew Thomas

North Carolina Divides Over Charter School Growth (June 28)

State and local tensions over charter schools came to a head in North Carolina last week when the state attemted to limit the ability of municipalities to resist the proliferation of charter schools, reported The Charlotte Observer.

In response to the Durham City Council’s refusal to extend water and sewer service to a new, state-approved commercially managed charter school, the North Carolina State House “voted 92-14 for a bill that requires municipalities to extend water and/or sewer service, if they have the capacity, when requested by charter schools,” while also adding a provision that says that municipalities must approve annexation requests from charter schools if the property is eligible, according to the Observer.

It has been 25 years since the state law creating charter schools in North Carolina was ratified, and there are now 200 charters serving more than 126,000 students statewide, according to the Observer. Durham has 14 charter schools within its county limits.

The North Oak Academy was set to open in 2021, but met resistance from local leaders in Durham since its approval by the state, delaying its opening until 2022. After both the Durham school system and the Wake County school system unsuccessfully opposed the application for the new charter on the grounds that it would hamper efforts to improve local elementary schools and increase segregation and socioeconomic isolation in the county, the Durham City Council used their authority to reject the school’s applications for incorporation into city limits and for utilities.

In explaining the council’s motives, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel told the public at their November meeting that “it’s no secret that I believe that charter schools have been detrimental to Durham Public Schools in many ways,” and that “[charter schools] have been resegregating, and I think that they have also taken so much of the good parental and professional energy out of our public schools,” quoted the Observer.

The state was not swayed by local leaders’ arguments, and the House’s recent bill–if approved by the Senate–will further limit the ability of municipalities to resist the state’s will on the expansion charter schools.

- Andrew Thomas

New Hampshire Legislature Establishes Vouchers, Cuts Public School Funding (June 30)

New Hampshire’s House and Senate last week passed two budget bills that lay bare the new Republican-majority’s desire to expand private education. Included in the bills are a sweeping school voucher plan, a reduction in the statewide education property tax, and a $25 million cut in public school funding, reported Reaching Higher New Hampshire (RHNH), a non-profit education policy center and advocacy group.

The two-year budget proposal also includes an amendment that prohibits teaching and training on “divisive concepts,” such as systemic racism, sexism, and ableism, according to The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. Such measures mark a shift in education policy in New Hampshire since the Republicans flipped the House and Senate last November after two years in the minority.

The budget includes the hotly contested language of Senate Bill 130, which establishes “Education Freedom Accounts,” or vouchers, for students whose families earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty threshold, or $79,500 for a family of four, reported New Hampshire Public Radio. The program will cost the state $70 million in new spending and local school districts $15 million in lost revenue in its first three years, according to estimates from RHNH. This and other Education Savings Account (ESA) programs introduced across the country were lauded by the Wall Street Journal editorial board in February.

A further $25 million cut to public school funding comes from the legislature’s refusal to renew a targeted aid program for property-poor communities, or those with little property tax revenue. Meanwhile, the budget also includes “a $100 million cut to the statewide education property tax (SWEPT), which disproportionately benefits owners of higher valued properties” while further hurting property-poor towns, according to RHNH. According to the Ledger-Transcript, 63.7 percent of public-school funding in New Hampshire comes from local property taxes.

The budget also includes language from the state Senate’s so-called “divisive concepts” bill, one of 16 anti-critical-race-theory bills nationwide designed to stop teachers from discussing systemic racism, sexism, and ableism in the classroom. The bill resembles former President Trump’s now-defunct executive order prohibiting federally funded institutions from teaching “divisive concepts” about race and gender, which was reversed by President Biden in an executive order on his first day in office.

- Andrew Thomas

Published Wednesday, Jun. 30, 2021