When is a charter school a bad idea?

Hint: the answer is not,  “never.” It is a bad idea, according to education blogger Peter Green, “when charters disrupt and displace [district] public schools.” I would add that often, these district schools are the hubs of their communities so charters contribute to disrupting these communities as well.

Case in point is a new charter school (Legacy Traditional School) being built in Glendale, Arizona. Scheduled to open in time for the 2016/17 school year, the new campus will serve 1,200 K-8 students at the northeast corner of 67th Avenue and Thunderbird Road. Sounds good, right? Problem is, this school is being built within the boundaries of the Peoria Unified School District, within two miles of 10 of their “A” or “B” rated elementary schools (50 percent of PUSD’s schools are rated “A”, another 25 percent are rated “B.)  When PUSD has the capacity to serve the 1,200 students Legacy hopes to eventually attract, why is this school necessary, or even in the best interest of this community?When the charter school concept was first embraced back in 1988, it was as “a new kind of public school where teachers could experiment with fresh and innovative ways of reaching students.” In Cologne, Germany, Albert Shanker visited a public school where teachers made the critical decisions about what and how to teach and the school had students with a broad mix of abilities, family incomes, and ethnicity. He said charter schools could “reinvigorate the twin promises of American public education: to promote social mobility for working-class children and social cohesion among America’s increasingly diverse populations.” Shanker also believed charter schools should be unionized because of the critical role he believed unions played in democratic societies.

Unfortunately, today’s charter schools are an entirely different animal than Shanker envisioned. They are more autocratic (empowering management versus teachers) and more segregated (by race and income) than ever and only about 12 percent of charters provide their teachers union representation. No wonder an “astounding 24 percent of charter school teachers leave their school each year, double the rate of turnover in traditional public schools.”

They are now seen as “a vehicle for infusing competition and market forces into public education.” Whether intentionally or not, charters have served to re-segregate education to a level not seen since the 1960s. A side benefit for the corporate reformers was also no doubt, the weakening of teacher unions and therefore less democracy in our schools and communities. All this eventually brought us to where we are today. Instead of charter schools augmenting and serving as “laboratory partners to public schools”, they are now in direct competition for students and the dollars they bring. Make no mistake, today’s charters – whether they are for-profit or non-profit – are as much about making a profit, as they are about educating children.

What suffers from this “competition” mindset is the collaboration between schools, overall efficient and effective use of available education funding, the richness of the educational experience that truly diverse schools can bring, and the strong school climate vibrant teacher voices can bring. This diversity isn’t just valuable for our students of color, but for their white counterparts as well. Those students who’ve experienced more diversity will be more successful in the ever-increasingly global economy.

So, here we are. A brand new charter school is under construction, right in the middle of 10 excellent district schools with plenty of capacity. As Legacy Traditional School is a non-profit entity, I suspect the school is funded with a bond issued by the Phoenix Industrial Development Authority (quasi-private so the taxpayer is not on the hook.) Nonetheless, the Legacy charter will compete directly with PUSD for what are already too few maintenance and operation dollars. As for other for-profit charters, they’ll likely turn to SB 1531 signed into law during this year’s legislative session which, provides $100 million to provide collateral for lower interest rates on charter school project loans. When those charters default, Arizona taxpayers will get the bill. (Don’t even get me started on how the $100 million could have helped our district schools.) In either case, said Tracey Benson, of the Arizona School Boards Association, charter schools added will “build corporate assets – those held by privately operated charter schools – versus community assets – our local district public schools that add value to our cities and neighborhoods.”

I’m not a charter “hater”, I’ve seen some that serve a special niche and provide a valuable alternative. What I do hate is the narrative that charters are superior to district public education, that they ensure disadvantaged students have access to a “high-quality choice”, and that they save the state money…because that narrative is largely false. At the end of the day, over 80 percent of Arizona’s students attend district public schools and that should be our first priority for funding and support.

 

 

 

 

 

Ed Feulner and your Heritage Foundation, me thinks thou protesteth too much…

Nothing like some conservative propaganda first thing in the morning to get a liberal’s blood flowing. Yesterday morning, my Google alert on Arizona public education sent me a commentary from “The Daily Signal” which is the multimedia news organization of The Heritage Foundation. I try to be well read, especially on matters of public education, but I also know the source is important. So, I noted this commentary was 1) written by Ed Feulner who for 36 years, served as president of The Heritage Foundation and “transformed the think tank from a small policy shop into America’s powerhouse of conservative ideas”; 2) was originally published in the Washington Times; and 3) The Heritage Foundation (a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, touts itself as “the trusted conservative leader” and probably more telling, has endorsements by Senator Ted Cruz, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on its website home page.

Okay, so this is a commentary from a hard-core conservative. That got me thinking about what being a conservative really means. Wikipedia says conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. It also says that there is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of converts depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. According to Merriam-Webster.com, conservative describes someone who: believes in the value of established and traditional practices in polities and society and is not liking or accepting of changes or new ideas.

It seems to me, somewhere along the line what it means to be a conservative became perverted. Conservatives today seem to be about exploring new ways to do things (when it provides profit), keeping government small and out of business (unless it is the private business of same-sex couples or a woman’s medical choices), and tearing down traditional social institutions (such as public education.)

Mr. Feulner’s commentary makes the point that children deserve more options than just public schools. What our children (all of America’s children) DESERVE, is well-funded, high quality public schools. Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Public schools have always been what best served to “educate and inform the whole mass of the people” and even today, in a state that leads the nation in the number of charter schools, a full 83 percent of Arizona’s students attend community public schools. Among the reasons for this is that no matter how much school choice is expanded, choice doesn’t guarantee opportunity or availability and, it is hard for the kids to be the priority when profit is the motive.

I’m on the governing board of a small rural district. Of the 410 students in my district, about 150 students living in our District have opted to exercise their school choice options. The other 410 students that attend our District are either happy with their community school, or they can’t take advantage of the opportunity. It is ironic that those who can’t take advantage of the opportunity are often the same disadvantage students those promoting school choice claim they want to “help.”

Mr. Feulner says that Education Savings Accounts (vouchers) enable families to deposit their children’s state per-pupil” funding in an account that can be used for a variety of education options. Since when did the state per-pupil funding belong to each child? I thought it belonged to all Arizonans collectively. In 2014, the average state and local taxes paid were $5,138. The primary funding source for K-12 education in Arizona is property tax, both at the primary and secondary (where approved) rates. The rest of it comes from the state general fund in the way of equalization funding, where required. The average property tax collection per capita in Arizona was $1,052. The amount deposited in ESA accounts is much more however, than parents pay in “school tax.” The range of funding for ESAs is from $2,000 to $5,500 for non-disabled students, and $2,000 to $30,000 for disabled students. The average ESA funding in 2014-15 was $5,300 per student without special needs and $14,000 when special needs students were factored in. As you can see, it isn’t only the parent’s taxes that provide for the per-pupil funding, the rest of us contributed as well. That’s why I don’t buy the assertion that the funding should follow the child, as if it belongs to them. It doesn’t belong to them or their parents, it belongs to all of us and we deserve transparency and accountability for how it is spent.

In addition to questions as to how my tax dollars are spent, I question the education being offered these students. Yes, unlike when you take your child and educate them with your money (not public tax dollars), I believe I have a legitimate say in what children are taught, when my tax dollars are used to teach them. In community public schools, locally elected school boards provide oversight of District operations and parents and community members are welcome and encouraged to stay tuned into what is taught, how it is taught, and who is teaching it. Locally elected school boards even approve textbooks. This process is not always perfect (such as with the Gilbert School Board recently voting to put abstinence-only avocation stickers in their science textbooks), but at least it is done in the light of day and can be addressed by those in disagreement.

Feulner is incensed that the ALCU is suing Nevada to keep its Education Savings Account law from taking affect. The ALCU says the ESA program “violates the Nevada Constitution’s prohibition against the use of public money for sectarian (religious) purposes.” He makes the point that the ESA funds go from the state to parents, not from the state to religious schools as if this makes all the difference. This is the same logic the Arizona Supreme Court used in legalizing Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers) in Arizona. Sounds like hair splitting to me.

Then, Feulner cites the example of a legally blind student and his parents used his ESA to provide him a great alternate education and save money for his college as well. Sure there are going to be many examples of how ESA’s serve children, especially those with special needs. I’m not against all use of ESAs, just as I’m not against all charter schools. There are special needs and circumstances these alternatives provide well. But, I don’t buy that ESAs are the best way to educate the majority of our children. I also don’t buy the pretense that this is all about parental choice, saving taxpayer dollars, or improving education. I believe this is about 1) making the education of your child YOUR problem thereby relieving legislators of the responsibility, 2) providing more profit opportunities for private business, 3) hiding conservative education agendas, 4) giving taxpayers less say over how their tax dollars are spent and ultimately, and 5) weakening our democracy.

You might think that tying ESAs to the weakening of our democracy is a bit much. Well, as those who desire to, take advantage of vouchers, they reduce the funding available to our community district schools. As the funding is reduced, more parents will be dissatisfied with the quality of educational opportunity in their public schools and more will leave. Those eventually left in our public schools will be those with no alternative and most likely those of color whom, for the most part, live at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Our public schools are already experiencing the worst segregation seen since the 1960; it will only get worse.

In addition to the downward spiral of funding school choice forces upon community public schools, those who leave these schools also take with them their parent’s support and involvement. These parents are those who have typically worked for improvement in their community public schools and they are missed when they leave. Local governance (as does our entire democratic process) counts on informed and involved community members. Make no mistake. The war currently being waged on public education is a war on our democracy. As for those who would point out our nation is a republic, not a democracy, I say “get over yourself.” In the United States, we each have a voice and a vote. Assaults on those most precious rights are decidedly “un-American” and “un-patriotic”, and must be met head on.  Oh by the way, did I mention that ESAs (whether they are Education Savings Accounts or Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or vouchers) are one of the primary weapons of the American Legislative Council (ALEC) in their war on public education?  Don’t know what ALEC is?  You should.

For the Public Good

Recent news that Arizona is tied for last in the nation for college completion rates and first in student loan default, just added fuel to the fire in the state’s education race to the bottom. But of course, there is more to the story (there always is.) The rest of the story is that Arizona’s public universities actually have a better than national average on graduation rates and loan payback. It is the for-profit and mostly on-line colleges (such as Phoenix University) that see half the average completion rate by their students and there numbers drag our public universities down.[i] This report mirrors numerous stories of late from for-profit K-12 charters around the country where corners are cut and children suffer.

Why do many of the for-profit institutions do so much worse? I believe the problem lies in the “for-profit” motivation. Corporate and legislative “reformers” of education would have us believe that schools should be run more like businesses and that the private sector can do a much better job if we will just unleash the dogs of industry. The truth is though, that business is in the business of making a profit; that is why it exists. Yes, a business may very well provide an important service or product, but in the end, they exist to make a profit.

I realize that increasingly, there are those who believe government is a beast that should be starved until it is a shell of its former self. But, when it comes to providing large-scale services for the public good, government is the answer. If business exists to make a profit, then government exists to serve the public.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a product of government. I grew up in an Army family, in the Air Force for 22 years, and I have a Master’s degree in Public Administration. I’ve seen government work for people. I’ve seen countless, incredibly dedicated military members and civil “servants.” Yes, I’ve seen some losers too, but then those exist in all walks of life. What I’ve come away with from this lifetime of public service (military brats serve too, just in a different way) is that when it comes to providing for the public good, there is no substitute for a non-profit entity accountable to the people it serves. After all, the people are paying for the service.

By way of example, let’s compare the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) and Walmart. AAFES is the Army and Air Force’s answer to Walmart. It provides stores on Army posts and Air Force bases, which sell goods and services to military members at lower than retail prices. The stores aren’t fancy and the selection isn’t super, but they do provide much of what members and their families want and need. AAFES does not exist to make a profit, but it does generate revenue, which then is funneled to help provide morale, welfare and recreation activities for service members and their families. Some of their stores generate a great deal of profit (location, location, location), with others operating at a loss. The Army and Air Force accept this outcome as a “cost of doing business” because the return on investment it seeks from AAFES is happier, healthier service members and their families. Walmart, on the other hand, exists to make a profit. If Walmart has a store that is continuously operating at a loss, chances are it won’t exist for long. That’s because Walmart’s business model is to produce a profit for their shareholders.

When it comes to educating our children, there may well be some for-profit schools that do a decent job. But, when profit is the priority, somewhere, somehow, the public good will suffer. Unfortunately, it is often those most disadvantaged to begin with that lose out. That’s because when your motive is profit, you do whatever you can to ensure efficiency and return on investment. In education, this means you work to ensure the best possible raw product (smart students with engaged, well-off parents.) You will try to avoid accepting English language learners and special needs children. Not because they don’t deserve an education, but because they cost more to educate. Along those same lines, you don’t provide services that are not profitable, such as transportation and food service. Elimination of these services has a side benefit for these businesses by the way, of discouraging students from the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

Until we recognize that the education of our children is the ultimate public good and, that we all have a stake in ensuring it is done properly, we are not going to make progress on improving results. Contrary to recent headlines, our public schools are NOT failing. But, if we continue to allow our education tax dollars to be siphoned off to private and for-profit schools, with virtually no accountability or transparency, we will continue to see our public education degraded and our state winning the race to the bottom.

[i] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2015/07/28/arizona-college-graduation-rate-lowest-nation/30769711/

Predatory Privatization

Education reformers would have you believe the best way to improve the American public education is to privatize it.  Senator Al Melvin, candidate for Arizona Governor, thinks the solution is to give parents $9K for each of their children so they can choose where to send their child.  Never mind that there are over $1 million students in Arizona and the cost to implement this “voucher” system would be more than the entire state budget.

Nonetheless, let’s explore this idea that privatization is the best solution to provide services for the common good.  In Arizona, we turn to the business of incarcerating people, as this state is one of the leader’s in privatizing prisons.  In early 2012, the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) issued a report on the impact of private prisons in the state.  The report was called “Private Prisons: the Public’s Problem” and it concluded that between 2008 and 2010, Arizona overpaid for private prison services by about
$10 million, and the services it received were sub-par: malfunctioning alarm systems, fences with holes in them, staff who didn’t follow basic procedures and more.  In fact, the state’s auditor general found 157 serious security failings across five prisons that hold in-state prisoners.  At least 28 riots were also noted.[i]

How did we get here?  In 2012, Corrections Corporation of America (the largest for-profit private prison company in the country) sent a letter to 48 state governors offering to buy their public prisons in return for 20-year contracts.  These contracts would include a 90 percent occupancy rate guarantee for the entire term.  In Arizona, three for-profit prison contracts secured a staggering 100% quota, despite an analysis from 2012 by the Tucson Citizen that showed the company’s per-day charge for each prisoner increased an average of 13.9% over the life of the contracts.  In 1997, Arizona’s spent $409 million on prisons; the per-year cost is more than $1 billion today.  The state now has over 600 current contracts for incarceration related functions, but in fact, cost-effectiveness claims of private prisons just aren’t true.[ii]  According to both AFSC and the non-profit privatization resource center, In the Public Interest:  “in states across the country, private prisons have been plagued with a multitude of problems – major riots have exploded, inmates have died, and civil rights have been routinely violated. Private prisons have an economic motive to cut costs in every area of operations, resulting in lower-quality staff, higher employee turnover, and degrading prison conditions. These dismal conditions directly contribute to the decreased security and higher incidence of violence found at privatized prisons. As prison quality greatly suffers, there is little evidence that these private prisons save governments money.”

Surely this drove Arizona legislators to rethink their position on privatizing prisons, right?  Nope, instead of trying to right the ship, they just turned it into a submarine passing HB2860 which, in the words of AFSC, would “ensure that the public would have no way of knowing whether the state’s private prisons are saving money, rehabilitating prisoners, or ensuring public safety.”[iii]  Why would this be the case you ask?  Let’s just follow the money. Private prison companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America have made huge contributions to legislators from both major parties, but most of the funds have gone to Republicans.  These corporations have also played a very direct role in designing legislation good for business (such as SB 1070, the state’s notorious immigration bill, passed in 2010).   Florida on the other hand, made exactly the opposite choice with a bi-partisan bill to defeat a plan to privatize the state’s prisons.  The legislators who opposed the bill “argued that public education, like public safety, is a core mission of government that shouldn’t be outsourced to private vendors.”[iv]

As with the prison industry example, the incentives motivating those seeking privatization appear to be immune to the failures of vouchers to deliver on the promise of improved educational outcomes.[v]  The Arizona State Legislature has been working toward privatization of our public schools in a multitude of ways.  Tax credits for private schools and student tuition organizations wash money from public schools into private ones, often for students whose parents didn’t need the help to send their child to those schools.  Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) give parents 90% of what the state would have spent on their child with a wide range of how they can spend it, even to send their child to a private school.  Then there was also the pillaging of the public education budget that made Arizona the state with the highest per-pupil cuts to education from 2008 to 2012.  Court mandated funding of the owed inflation funding from Prop 301 has helped raise us to third highest in the nation now, but that still is a poor ranking.   Of course, it is important to understand that many of these voucher work-around programs get started as providing opportunity to students from poor families, children with disabilities or students in underperforming schools as with Arizona’s ESAs.  This however, is not the ultimate goal of the privatizers.  They are instead, a tactical means to a much larger strategic end of ending public education.[vi]

To what end you ask?  Again, follow the money.  Organizations like ALEC are promoting school choice and privatization, providing our legislators “camera ready” bills to implement across the country.  In addition, Right-wing organizations and donors laud Arizona as a leader in the school choice movement and are funneling big money into the state.

What is really ironic about this whole privatization movement is that the GOP has painted them self into this corner.  Their anti-government fanaticism, combined with tough stances on crime, immigration, etc., combined with a refusal to raise taxes, forces them to tout the benefits of privatization.  Unfortunately, the companies whom the services are farmed out to are interested much more in a desire to generate revenue than in any social obligation.  Think Halliburton and Backwater during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bottom line is that business is in business to make money.  There is nothing wrong with that as long as the product or service they provide is not something that must be provided to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.  Every state constitution in the nation mandates the state provide a free public education – it was a requirement for their entry into the Union.  But, when public services have been outsourced to “for-profit” companies, it is very likely the contract will increase in cost over time, limit transparency, undermine good public policy and the democratic process, and that the drive to generate revenue over providing for the public good will eventually be more costly to the taxpayers.[vii]  The examples abound.  We should pay attention.  Public schools are not only our right as Americans, but they helped make us a great nation and, are important still very important to the health of our communities today.