Op-Ed: More Accountability Should Be Endgame for Charter Schools

Donna M. Chiera | June 27, 2019 | Opinion
Illegally or not, charter schools take money for schools and students out of the very communities where it is most needed

Donna M. Chiera
While “Avengers: Endgame” is smashing records at the box office, the hundreds of millions in precious public dollars that flowed to for-profit management companies and real estate concerns associated with charter schools — as the NorthJersey.com investigation Cashing In On Charter Schools documented — might be better exemplified by the 1960’s spaghetti Western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

It is a good time to have an important discussion about accountability, while the state wrestles with how to update the long outdated charter-school authorizing law originally implemented more than 20 years ago. Until the laws can be strengthened to prevent squandering of public money, a moratorium on granting new charters or expanding existing charters is appropriate.

In California, political economist Gordon Lafer found that the high costs of charter schools have led to neighborhood public schools depriving students of necessities such as “counseling, libraries, music and art programs, lab sciences, field trips, reading tutors, special education funding, and even the most basic supplies like toilet paper.”

California recently passed charter legislation preventing “personal gain” and banning board members from voting on contracts in which they have a financial interest. New Jersey would do well to follow suit as it is not clear whether all the wheeling and self-dealing — shocking though it may seem — actually broke the law.

Facing an ugly truth

We must face the ugly truth that — illegally or not — charter schools take money for schools and students out of the very communities where it is most needed. Charter advocates claim that their growth is not a zero-sum gain, but public education money follows the individual students and that creates an incentive for profiteers to take advantage.

The communities that most require wraparound services to meet the social and emotional needs of students, are those that are most likely to be negatively impacted, while their schools are educating a disproportionate number of special needs or
low-income and English language learners who seem to be excluded from charters.

New Jersey’s charter school advocates found plenty of superheroes during the administration of Gov. Chris Christie, when federal funds intended for traditional public and charter school construction went exclusively to the charter sector with scarce accountability.

The federal money flowed through the currently beleaguered Economic Development Authority, which enacted little or no oversight over the distribution and allocation of funds used for charter school facilities. Most of the money in the Garden State went to the large national charter chains KIPP and Uncommon Schools — a far cry from the original idea of charter schools as local education innovation centers, which share successful innovations with local districts.

The Network for Public Education characterizes the federal Department of Education as “asleep at the wheel” during this period — possibly allowing more than a billion dollars to be wasted on charter schools that never opened (including a planned Hebrew language school in Middlesex County) or opened and closed due to poor academic performance or fiscal mismanagement.

What is really good is that all parents want a high-quality, safe, secure education for their children. Parents and educators share a vision for welcoming schools which foster students’ development and growth. Charter educators are also coming together in good faith to advocate for their students, their schools, and profession in unionized charters across the country.

It is further good that New Jersey requires charter schools to remain public and subject to open public meetings and records acts. We are ahead of many states in these measures.

It is bad that the U.S. Department of Education office of inspector general has identified “significant risks” from charter school stakeholders nationally due to “waste, fraud, and abuse” and a general “lack of accountability over Federal funds” particularly due to the types of multi-layered, complex financial arrangements detailed in the NorthJersey.com investigation.

Writing new regulations

Is it possible to establish protections in new regulations that would maintain a more productive balance between traditional neighborhood public schools and charter schools?

For starters, charter educators in AFT recommend requiring that parents, educators and community members have input on any colocation plans (where charter schools are housed in existing traditional public school buildings) and that charters pay rent under this scenario.

Regardless of where a charter is located, its finances should be documented and publicly disclosed, just as a public school budget is analyzed, questioned, and approved, including rent paid, and any conflicts of interest.

The “ugly” is that some in the charter sector seem motivated by a desire to weaken the collective voice of unions, and others created charters to escape segregated schools. “If school choice in the form of charters continues to rise,” write the authors of a report on school segregation in New Jersey “…charter schools could exacerbate New Jersey’s school segregation crisis even more.”

Presuming that most charter schools boards, like the students and parents they serve and educators they employ, are motivated by the “good” of educating every child to his or her full potential, the citizens of the state should be able to expect a comparable level of scrutiny to that which guards our public schools against waste, fraud, abuse, and profiteering.