Taxpayers would pay for costly, non-union charter schools that would probably fail

Former United States Assistant Secretary of Education (for George W. Bush) Diane Ravitch, who was an avid fan of charter schools and school choice, had learned that her love of charter schools and school choice was abject failures that didn’t provide better student grades and merely lined the pockets of charter school businesses that were provided the opportunity due to the myth that privatization is the best way to go.

In her article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform”, Ravitch came to this assessment and reversed her positive opinion on chart schools and school choice:

Most studies of charter schools acknowledge that they vary widely in quality. The only major national evaluation of charter schools was carried out by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond and funded by pro-charter foundations. Her group found that compared to regular public schools, 17% of charters got higher test scores, 46% had gains that were no different than their public counterparts, and 37% were significantly worse.

Charter evaluations frequently note that as compared to neighboring public schools, charters enroll smaller proportions of students whose English is limited and students with disabilities. The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters often reflects the fact that they are able to “counsel out” the lowest performing students; many charters have very high attrition rates (in some, 50%-60% of those who start fall away). Those who survive do well, but this is not a model for public education, which must educate all children.

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Charter schools usually are a force to push out labor unions, with teachers being at-will employees with no job protections and schools being union-free. These schools are privately controlled and run by unelected, self-appointed pro-charter appointees to their boards that are not unaccountable to the public. Because high-performing schools get bonuses under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), charter schools competing to get higher test scores than regular public schools will avoid students who may pull down their scores. There have even been instances where charter schools would expel students just state testing days occur.

In Madison, a new charter school, Madison Prep, would have non-union, at-will teachers who get their marching orders from a private board that’s not accessible to the public and would be subsidized by taxpayers in order to operate:

Madison Prep backers have asked the Madison School District for about $14,500 per student for the 120 students expected to attend in the 2012-13 inaugural year, adding equivalent amounts for 60 more students each year until the school has a full enrollment of middle and high school classes. They say the district would save millions each year by not having to educate those pupils who will attend Madison Prep. But Madison district officials say they would save far less than that, estimating savings of only about $5,500 per student, once school staffing and operational costs throughout the district are figured in. That means, says Erik Kass, assistant superintendent for business services, Madison taxpayers would end up subsidizing Madison Prep about $9,000 per student annually or about $10 million over the next five years. And that would mean cuts to programs and services at other schools, say district officials.

So while a majority of Madison School Board members say they are open to or intrigued by the prospect of Madison Prep, these costs make them nervous and could prove to be a major stumbling block when the district is asked to give final approval in the fall.

In the past, School Board denial of a charter agreement signaled the end of the line for a project. But a new GOP-backed piece of legislation creating a state authorizing board for charters could change that. In fact, it would upend Wisconsin’s long tradition of local control of schools, where authority rests primarily with school board officials elected by local taxpayers.

Supporters say that’s just what is needed to create new opportunities for learning in the state’s troubled school systems.

But critics say loss of such control, combined with Gov. Scott Walker’s massive budget cuts to schools, plus 18 years of strict revenue limits, would lead to financial ruin for some public school districts. They claim the legislation is unfair because it provides public money from the state’s general aid fund — at $7,775 per student — to start new independent charter schools, but eliminates any oversight role by locally elected school officials. The flow of money for these new charters would reduce the pot of money remaining for the states’ existing schools during already fiscally challenging times.

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For those who continue the myth that charter schools are the solution to better educate students, the CREDO study from Stanford titled “Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States”, shows that trashing public schools and replacing them with charter schools is not the solution:

Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.

  • Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total.
  • The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools instead.

CREDO study (PDF)

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