Wendy Lecker, a civil rights attorney in Stamford, joins the many others who complain that charter schools have been allowed to proliferate in an irresponsible manner, with minimal or no supervision. She writes that it is time to reassess the charter movement and to set new standards for accountability. Across the country, charter school frauds have been exposed, in which the operators are profiting handsomely while refusing to accept the same children as the neighboring district. The latest example is in North Carolina, where a local businessman is making millions of dollars by supplying goods and services to his four publicly-funded charter schools while insisting that he has no obligation to open the books to public scrutiny. Connecticut has had its own charter scandal, with the implosion of Jumoke Academy.
Almost daily, headlines are filled with stories of charter school fraud or mismanagement. Recent revelations about possible illegal practices in charter schools in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere have led even charter supporters to try to distance themselves from the “crony capitalism” fueling this sector.
It is cold comfort that Connecticut officials are not alone in allowing unscrupulous charter operators to bilk taxpayers. It is time to reassess the entire charter movement in Connecticut.
Recall the original promises made by charter proponents: that they would benefit all public schools — showing public schools the way by using “innovative” methods to deliver a better education to struggling students in an efficient, less expensive manner.
None of those promises have been kept. Charters cannot point to any “innovations” that lead to better achievement. Smaller classes and wraparound services are not innovations — public schools have been begging for these resources for years. Charter practices such as failing to serve our neediest children, e.g., English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and “counseling out” children who cannot adhere to overly strict disciplinary policies, are not “innovations” — and should be prohibited.
Charters often spend more than public schools. Charters in Bridgeport and Stamford spend more per pupil than their host districts. And while it appears that charters in New Haven and Hartford spend comparable amounts, they serve a less needy, and less expensive, population. Moreover, Connecticut charters need not pay for special education services, transportation, or, if they serve fewer than 20 ELL students, ELL services.
While Connecticut owes billions of dollars to our neediest districts, officials provide higher per-pupil allocations to charters. For example charter schools receive $11,500 per pupil from the state, but Bridgeport’s ECS allocation is only $8,662 per pupil. Bridgeport is owed an additional $5,446 according to the CCJEF plaintiffs, not including the cost of teacher evaluations, the Common Core, and other unfunded mandates imposed over the years.
Connecticut increased charter funding over the past three years by $2,100 per pupil, while our poorest school districts received an average increase of only $642 per pupil.
Here are Lecker’s proposals for reform of privately managed charter schools:
The Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s “Public Accountability for Charter Schools,” is a good starting point. The report outlines areas that demand equity, accountability and transparency: such as enrollment, governance, contracts, and management.
Connecticut must require, as a condition of continued authorization, that charters serve the same demographics as their host districts, through clearly delineated controlled choice policies.
Charter schools must maintain transparent and publicly available annual records and policies regarding enrollment, discipline and attrition. Charters must ensure that they do not employ subtle barriers to enrollment, such as strict disciplinary policies or requirements for parent participation as a condition of attendance. No such barriers exist in public schools.
Charters must prove that they meet the specific needs of the host community in a way the public schools do not. Charters must not be imposed over community opposition. State officials must assess the negative impact of charters on a district, including segregation and funding effects.
Charters must post all contracts and fully disclose revenues and expenditures. Charter officials, board members and employees must undergo background checks and disclose any relationships with contractors, state officials and others dealing with their school. Parents in charter schools must be allowed to elect charter board members.
Charters must show evidence annually that their unique educational methods improve achievement.