Friday, January 3, 2020

Charter Schools: The Good, The Bad and The Costly

Posted By on Fri, Jan 3, 2020 at 3:08 PM

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Two recent, lengthy reviews on charter schools are both worth taking a look at.

One is a series of articles by the Arizona Republic reporter Craig Harris, who visited seven states to put together a big picture look at the charter school scene. Harris is probably the most even-handed reporter I've read on the subject. Most writers, including me, come at charter schools with some set agenda, which means the analyses are shaped by the writers' educational preconceptions. That's what makes Harris' reporting so refreshing. He detests charter waste and fraud and has gone after financial corruption in Arizona's charter sector with a passion. But when he looks at schools themselves, he tries to evaluate them on their merits. He finds things to like and dislike.

Harris' most recent investigative report focuses on charters in states other than Arizona which have a record of increasing the performance of students from low income families. The article links back to the earlier articles if you want to read the whole series.

The other important piece of investigative reporting comes from the Network for Public Education, a group begun by educational historian Diane Ravitch and others which has grown into a significant force in the educational battles raging across the country. NPE is decidedly against education privatization and the so-called "education reform" movement in general, which means you're not likely to hear much from them in the way of praise for charter schools. The recent report from NPE details the $1 billion in federal money wasted on charter schools which either never opened or closed since receiving the funds.


One thing that jumps out from both Harris' articles and the NPE report: Charter schools spend a lot of money. Not all of them, but enough to say that charters, especially those with a record of success, spend more money than comes in from state funding. In fact, charters that get a lot of press for their student achievement tend to outspend the district schools in their areas by a considerable margin.

Which leads me to two conclusions. First, the long-standing claim by "education reform" advocates that charter schools are lean and mean, that they can give students a high-quality education without all the "wasteful spending" of "failing government schools," has been proven false by the schools themselves. Second, more money may not guarantee students a better education, but if you want to provide top-quality schools, you have to spend money. Education can't be done on the cheap.

Harris' recent article focuses on two charter school chains: IDEA (Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement), with 96 schools, and KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), with 242 schools. Large chains like these are becoming the norm. Mom-and-pop charters are still around, but they're being edged out by Big Charter.

IDEA and KIPP both serve mainly lower-income students, and both have shown themselves to be successful, often more successful than nearby district schools with similar student populations. I tend to question the value of head-to-head comparisons between district school students and those in nearby charter schools with records of success. The students may look identical when it comes to socioeconomic data, but the charter school parents have demonstrated a willingness to go the extra mile by enrolling their children in charters, and the children agree to abide by the school's demands of stricter discipline, longer school hours and more school work. Otherwise, the children end up back in the traditional public school system. But that being said, evidence indicates that students who stick with charters like IDEA and KIPP benefit from the schools' approaches to education.

In his article Harris makes it clear, education at IDEA and KIPP schools doesn't come cheap.

IDEA schools have received a quarter of a billion dollars in grants from the federal government over the past decade. They also get lots of donations from philanthropic groups, about $71 million this past year alone. My back-of-the-envelope estimate is, IDEA schools received an extra $2,000 per student last year above and beyond the regular funding they receive from the state.

KIPP schools have received $130 million in federal grants, and they have a well-oiled fundraising machine for tapping big-bucks donors around the country.

Like all charters, the IDEA and KIPP schools are tuition free, but they spend significantly more than those supposedly wasteful district schools which are their neighbors.

Where does the extra money go? According to Harris, KIPP's first year teachers make $52,000 to $56,000 a year, about $20,000 more than Arizona's beginning teachers. (Even with the higher salaries, teachers find that the longer school days and other demands on their time can be so stressful, many of them leave after a few years.) KIPP schools also give their students free breakfasts, lunches and to-go dinners.

That brings us to the NPE analysis of the federal government's ongoing efforts to prime the charter school pump with generous grants. Since 1995, the Feds have poured $4.1 billion into funding new charters and expanding existing schools. Last year alone, the figure was close to half a billion dollars. Remember, charters only educate 6 percent of the country's students.

Of that $4.1 billion, a billion was wasted on schools that either never opened or have closed since they opened their doors, according to the NPE. In Arizona from 2006 to 2014, 26 percent of the charters receiving federal money, to the tune of $12.6 million total, either never opened or have closed since.

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