Charter Schools are Public Schools—and They Need to Act Like It

Charter schools are public schools.  State law defines them that way, they are non-sectarian and tuition-free, have open enrollment with lotteries (though there may be auditions for an arts school etc.), and the State funds them.   But some charters don’t act like public schools.

Charters have to follow state law around testing and transparency and meet Constitutional standards for civil rights including school discipline.  99% of California’s and 100% of Oakland’s charter schools are governed by a not for profit board of directors and held to strict conflict of interest requirements.  Charter finances are public, and meetings are generally open.

So by all formal accounts, charter schools are public schools.  Unfortunately, sometimes they don’t act like it.

Case and point, recent articles covering an online charter school organization, K12 Inc.  If the allegations are to be believed, K12 set up sham boards for its CA schools and funneled an unreasonable amount of money to its corporate offices under the guise of contracts for services.  So while technically, non-profit boards ran the schools, they were not sufficiently independent or steely eyed enough when it came to contracting with K12.  Their job is to serve children and protect taxpayer funds, but apparently they didn’t.

If the schools were having strong results with students, that would be one thing, but they weren’t.

Take a gander at some of the allegations, and clapping hands for the Charter Association for helping to shut this school down,

In every year since it began graduating students, except 2013, CAVA has had less than a 50 percent graduation rate, while California’s traditional public school graduation rate has hovered around 80 percent;

Some CAVA students log into their virtual classroom for as little as one minute a day, which is enough to give the charter its daily attendance revenue from the state;

While K12 Inc. paid almost $11 million total to its top six executives in 2011-12, the average CAVA teacher salary was $36,150 that same year — close to half of average teacher pay in California;

and In December 2011, the California Charter Schools Association called for the closure of CAVA in Kern County because the school did not meet its renewal standards.

We are in an underfunded state, the kids were not learning, and a corporation is profiting, something is clearly wrong here.   But let’s not pretend that this is so unusual.  Contractors rip off districts all the time—which is technically what is happening here.  Remember that story about LA Unified and the hundreds of millions in Ipads.  Sure you can find tons of these abuses or borderline abuses if you look.

This one is problematic because of the extremity, but again, contractors make money off Districts all the time, textbook publishers, testing companies, service providers, etc.  So the fix is not to try to ban service providers.

The fix is to actually follow the law, and for boards and authorizers to exercise actual oversight.  Those boards need to made aware of their responsibilities and held responsible, and the authorizers need to be the referee and judge as well, shutting down failing or fraudulent schools, or even those where the charter’s board is not actually exercising oversight.

I have written before about what I have perceived as screening of students at charters (unethical and illegal).  And I hear enough stories in Oakland from folks that I respect, that there has to be some fire if so many folks have smelled smoke.

The answer is not, however, to throw all the babies out with some dirty bathwater.

As charters, authorizers, the public, and boards of schools we need to do better.  We need to hold ourselves and each other accountable, and take a greater responsibility for the working of the “system”.  We will ALL pay a cost, mostly born by families, for the bad actors in our midst if we don’t.

What do you think?

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