Archives for category: Charter Schools

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire’s A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. Schneider and Berkshire have collaborated on podcasts called “Have You Heard.”

Thompson writes:

The first 2/3rds of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, is an excellent history of attacks on public education. It taught me a lot; the first lesson I learned is that I was too stuck in the 2010s and was wrong to accept the common view of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as a “joke” and a “political naif.” The last 1/3rd left me breathless as Schneider’s and Berkshire’s warnings sunk in.

A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door starts with an acknowledgement that DeVos isn’t the architect of the emerging school privatization tactics. That “radical agenda” has been decades in the making. But she represents a new assault on public education values. As Schneider and Berkshire note, accountability-driven, charter-driven, corporate reform were bad enough but they wanted to transform, not destroy public education. They wanted “some form” of public schools. DeVos’ wrecking ball treats all public schools as targets for commercialization. 

Schneider and Berkshire do not minimize the long history of attacks on our education system which took off after the Reagan administration’s A Nation at Risk blamed schools for “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation.” They stress, however, that it was a part of Reagan’s belief that our public schools and government, overall, were failing, and how it propelled a larger attack on public institutions.

Forty years later, free marketers are driving a four-point assault. They contend that “Education is a personal good, not a collective one,” and “schools belong in the domain of the Free Market, not the Government.” According to this anti-union philosophy, it is the “consumers” who should pay for schooling.

The roots of this agenda lie in the use of private school vouchers that began as an anti-desegregation tool. Because of “consumer psychology,” the scarcity of private schools sent the message that they were more valuable than neighborhood schools. But, neither private schools nor charter schools made good on their promise to deliver more value to families. Similarly, Right to Work legislation and the Janus vs AFSCME ruling have damaged but not destroyed collective bargaining.

Neither did online instruction allow the for-profit Edison schools or, more recently, for-profit virtual education charter chains to defeat traditional schools. Despite their huge investments in advertising spin, these chains produced disappointing outputs. For instance, DeVos claimed that virtual schools in Ohio, Nevada, and Oklahoma had grad rates approaching 100%. In reality, their results were “abysmal.”

To take one example, the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy had a 40 percent cohort graduation rate, not the 91 percent DeVos claimed. It received a D on the Oklahoma A-to-F Report Card for 2015-16. Also, in 2015, a Stanford study of 200 online charters found that students lost 72 days per year of learning in reading and 180 in math in a 180-day year.

Such dismal results prompted more calls for regulations for choice schools. Rather than accept more oversight, free marketers doubled down on the position that parents are the only regulators. To meet that goal, they borrowed the roadmap for Higher Education for-profits, adopting the tactics that failed educationally but made them a lot of money.

So, Schneider and Berkshire borrow the phrase “Lower Ed” from Tressie Cottom  as they explain how privatizers patterned their movement after Higher Ed where 10 percent of students attended for-profit institutions. Their profits came from the only part of public or Higher Education that could produce big savings, reducing expenditures on teaching. This meant that since the mid-1970s tenure-track faculty dropped by ½, as tenured faculty dropped by 26 percent. Consequently, part-time teachers increased by 70 percent.

Moreover, by 2010, for-profit colleges and universities employed 35,000 persons. They spent $4.2 billion or 22.7 percent of all revenue on marketing and recruiting. 

In other words, the market principles of the “gig economy” are starting to drive the radical “personalized” education model that would replace “government schools.” Savings would begin with the “Uberization” of teaching.  A glimpse of the future, where the value of a teaching career is undermined, can be found on the “Shared Economy Jobs” section of JobMonkey where education has its own “niche.” Teachers could expect to be paid about $15 per hour.

And that leads the system of “Education, a la Carte,” which affluent families need not embrace but that could become a norm for disadvantaged students. What is advertised as “personalization” is actually “unbundling” of curriculum. Algorithms would help students choose courses or information or skills and teachers (who “could be downsized to tech support”) that students think they need.

Worse, this “edvertising” is full of “emotional appeals, questionable claims, and lofty promises.” Its “Brand Pioneers” started with elite schools’ self-promotion and it led to charters adopting the “Borrowing Prestige” dynamic where the implicit message is that charters share the supposed excellence of private schools. And then, charters like Success Academy took the “brand identity” promotions a step further, spent $1,000 per student on marketing SA logo on You-Tube, Twitter, Instagram, baby onesies, and headphones.

Schneider and Berkshire also described the KIPP “Brand Guidelines” video which compares the charter chain to Target, which wouldn’t represent its business differently in different cities. So, it says that every conversation a KIPP teacher has about the school is “a touch point for KIPP’s brand.”

Similar edvertising techniques include the exaggerated size of waiting lists for enrolling in charter chains. Their marketing role is sending the message, “Look how many people can’t get in.”  Charters have even engaged in “market cannibalism,” for instance issuing gift cards for enrolling children in the school.

Worse, demographic trends mean that the competition between choice schools and traditional schools will become even more intense as the percentage of school age children declines, For instance, 80 percent of new households in Denver since 2009 didn’t have children. And even though corporate reformers and DeVos-style free marketers have failed to improve education, their marketing experts have shown an amazing ability to win consumers over.

So, here’s Schneider’s and Berkshire’s “Future Forecast:”

The Future Will Be Ad-Filled;

The Future Will Be Emotionally Manipulated;

The Future Will Be Micro-Targeted;

The Future Will Have Deep Pockets;

The Future Will Tell You What You Want.

I reviewed three books in the New York Review of Books, which seemed to me to be complementary.

Together they offer a fresh interpretation of the history of public education and of school choice.

The choice zealots would have you believe that they want to “save poor kids from failing public schools,” but the history of school choice tells a very different story. School choice began as the rallying cry of Southern segregationists, determined to prevent desegregation and integration of their schools.

School choice was their response to the Brown Decision of 1954.

The states of the South passed law after law shifting public funds to private schools, so that white students could avoid going to school with black children.

Libertarian economist Milton Friedman published an essay in 1955 on “The Role of Government in Education” in which he argued for vouchers and school choice. He said that under his approach, whites could go to school with whites, blacks could go to school with blacks, and anyone who wanted a mixed-race school could make that choice. Given the state of racism in the South, his formula would have been translated by white Senators, Governors, and legislatures as a formula to maintain racial segregation forever. They loved his ideas, and they adopted his rhetoric.

The best way to remove the cobwebs in your mind, the ones planted by libertarian propaganda, is to read the three books reviewed here:

Katharine Stewart: The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

Steve Suitts: Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement

Derek W. Black: Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy

The nonpartisan, independent organization called “In the Public Interest” reports on efforts to privatize public services. Its education newsletter is called “Cashing In on Kids.”

Here is its latest updates on the DeVos education agenda:

Welcome to Cashing in on Kids, an email newsletter for people fed up with the privatization of America’s public schools—produced by In the Public Interest.

Not a subscriber? Sign up. And make sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Sure, Betsy DeVos resigned. But, as Marianna Islam, director of programs and advocacy for the Schott Foundation, says, “Betsy Devos has not really left until all of her harmful policies are overturned and policies that advance racial equity are put into place.” Retweet this

And now other news…

Which federal agency has funded more charter school facilities than any other? The U.S. Department of Agriculture. At least according to Chicago-based Wert-Berater, LLC, the self-described “leading” company in facilitating the charter school industry’s lucrative real estate sector by providing “feasibility studies.” WBOC

Is the charter school industry on the skids? Journalist Jeff Bryant looks at the charter school industry’s rate, particularly in North Carolina. “Much of the rationale for the perceived need for charter schools often seems to boil down to marketing.” AlterNet

Pro-charter money goes to California governor recall effort. The right-wing charter school backer, John Kruger, has given $500,000 to an effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). GV Wire

Georgia lawmakers eye vouchers. Georgia state lawmakers will be taking up the issue of private school vouchers in their new session. “Proponents could limit efforts to expanding Georgia’s current special needs scholarship program benefitting students with disabilities. A similar bill passed the Senate last year but failed in the House.” AP

Texas too. A voucher bill has been introduced into the Texas legislature. “Do we really have time to rehash this?” tweeted Charles Luke of the Coalition for Public Schools. “The legislature has only voted vouchers down repeatedly for 25 years!”

New Hampshire takes the money. New Hampshire’s governor and executive council have accepted controversial funding for the expansion of charter schools in the state. In Depth NH

Following the money. Pennsylvania’s online charter schools have used federal COVID-19 relief funds to purchase technology and cleaning supplies and send Target gift cards and phones to families. The Times-Tribune

And the good news…

Local Indiana council supports charter school ban. Indiana’s Gary City Council has unanimously backed a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools in support of state legislation being introduced by a local lawmaker. Chicago Tribune

Pennsylvania school district speaks out. School district officials in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County have spoken out on charter school funding. “Recently the United States Department of Education awarded a five-year $30 million grant to Pennsylvania Brick and Mortar Charter Schools to increase their academic success. All the while, many Pennsylvania Public Schools are cutting programs in order to continue to pay for charter school costs, some even becoming financially distressed due to this burden.” Skook News

Good Jobs First has studied the distribution of COVID relief funds in depth. It created a site called COVID Stimulus Watch. It published an article about the depth of corruption in the Trump administration, which distributed COVID relief funds.

In this post, the researchers at Good Jobs First reveal the federal funding in the Paycheck Protection Program for all 50 states, distributed to charter schools, religious schools, and private schools.

As you review the funding for your own state, please bear in mind that public schools received an average of $134,500 each. Also, public schools were not allowed to apply for PPP funding. Charter schools were, however, allowed to get a portion of the public school funding and then to apply for PPP funding as if they were small businesses.

Check out your own state. You will find that elite private schools with high tuition and large endowments received grants that often were millions of dollars.

In the early 2000s, media mogul Rupert Murdoch brought New York City Chancellor Joel Klein to Australia to spread the word about the “New York City Miracle.” This alleged miracle was as phony as George W. Bush’s “Texas Miracle,” all hat and no cattle. Unfortunately, the Education Minister (who subsequently became Australia’s Prime Minister) bought the tale and imposed national standards and testing on the entire country.

Pasi Sahlberg, teacher, researcher, scholar, is currently based in Australia. As a chronicler of Finnish education (see his book Finnish Lessons), Sahlberg has achieved international renown. In Australia, he heads the Gorski Institute and is trying to change the course of Australian education.

Pasi Sahlberg writes here about Australia’s refusal to own up to the dire consequences of the wrong path that it has taken. It is not too late to change course.

He writes that Australia has done a great job in controlling the coronavirus, but it has been unwilling to bring the same focus to education.

Like the United States, Australia continues to fund failure.

He writes:

Despite frequent school reforms, educational performance has not been improving. Indeed, it has been in decline compared to many other countries. International data makes that clear. Australian Council for Educational Research concluded it by saying that student performance in Australia has been in long-term decline. The OECD statistics reveal system-wide prevalence of inequity that is boosted by education resource gaps between Australian schools that are among the largest in the world. And UNICEF has ranked Australia’s education among the most unequal in rich countries.

Often the inspiration for the education reforms in Australia are imported from the US and Britain. Yet, the evidence base to support many of these grand policy changes here is weak or non-existent. For instance, research shows that market-based models of school choice, test-based accountability, and privatisation of public education have been wrong strategies for world-class education elsewhere. Yet, market models have been the cornerstone of Australian school policies since the early 2000s.

Australian education is failing because of reform, not in spite of it.

Jonathan Chait loves charters but he does not know the extensive research that refutes his ardor. New York magazine publishes his misinformed opinions without fact-checking.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, dean of the College of Education at the University of Kentucky and one of the nation’s most eminent experts on race and equity, refutes Chait here.

Here is a brief excerpt from his brilliant rebuttal:

Charter Schools do not deliver extraordinary results— in fact on average their results are quite limited. Contrary to Chait’s argument, as an academic, I can assuredly tell you that “education researchers” HAVE NOT been shocked by charter schools gains— I think unimpressed is probably a better word. Check out this extensive list of more than 30 National Education Policy Center “top experts”whose peer reviewed research findings are largely contrary to Chait’s grandiose claims about school choice. Also, Chait cited studies produced by The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) located at the conservative Hoover Institution. CREDO studies are not peer reviewed. But Chait and charter school supporters point to CREDO’s 2015 urban charter study to say that African American and Latino students have more success in charter schools. Leaving aside the integrity of the study for a moment, what charter proponents don’t mention is that the performance impact is .008 and .05 for Latinos and African Americans in charter schools, respectively. These impact numbers are larger than zero, but you need a magnifying glass or telescope to see them. Contrast that outcome with policies such as pre-K and class size reduction with far more unequivocal measures of success than charter schools— often double and triple the impact of charter schools. Also, CREDO doesn’t usually compare schools in their studies. Instead, researchers use statistics to compare a real charter school student to a virtual (imaginary) student based on many students attending a small subset sample of neighborhood public schools. In spite of criticism of CREDO’s methods and lack of blind peer review, Chait still cited the CREDO studies as important evidence demonstrating charter school success.

New Orleans is not a charter success story.Chait mentioned New Orleans as a charter success story. Notably, New Orleans charters and Louisiana have been last and nearly in most educational data (NAEP, ACT scores, and Advanced Placement scores, dropout, graduation). A near majority of charters schools in New Orleans are rated D or F. Does that sound like a success story to you? Where education reformers actually succeeded in New Orleans was in realizing a goal to close NEARLY ALL the neighborhood public schools and replace them with (primarily poorly performing) charters.

Please read Dr. Heilig’s response in full. He shreds the charter propaganda spread by conservative billionaire-funded organizations and repeated by Chait.

As you probably know by now, charter schools took federal money from two different pots in the CARES Act passed last spring. They got a share of the money allocated for public schools, then had the privilege of getting more money from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was intended to save small businesses in danger of shuttering their doors.

Now there is new relief Act, which is far more generous to public schools, but still allows charter schools to count as both public schools and not-public schools.

Carol Burris did research on the new CARES Act (which she calls CARES2) and found that once again charters will be allowed to double-dip.

On December 21, Congress passed the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021.

CARES 2 (which I am dubbing the Act for simplicity) includes $54.3 billion for K-12 schools, which is about four times more than the last bill. It will be allocated to states to give out as subgrants to Local Education Agencies (LEAs). LEAs are school districts as well as the majority of charter schools. Those charter schools that are not independent of a school district will receive their funding in the same manner as district schools.

According to the law firm Arnold and Porter, which has an excellent summary of the Cares 2 here,  “Like the requirements in the CARES Act, the Secretary of Education must allocate ESSERF (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) funding based on the state’s share of Title I, Part A funds under ESEA, and states will allocate at least 90 percent of funds as subgrants to Title I schools.”

There is also more leeway on how funds can be used—practically, schools can use it for any activity allowed under federal law.

There is an additional pot of money ($4 billion) that the Secretary of Education will distribute. $1.3 billion can be used by the Governors for public schools and higher ed institutions that were the hardest hit by the pandemic. $2.75 billion can be distributed by governors to private schools. Congress expressly prohibits in the Act the use of any of that money to fund vouchers or tax credits for tuition. The funds must be used to keep the school going, and private schools with high-needs students get priority. 

Can private schools and charter schools dip into the SBA’s Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) funding again? 

Private schools that get money from the $2.75 billion cannot. The CARES2 specifically says they cannot double-dip.

However, there is nothing to prevent a charter school from double-dipping, that is, getting both the ESSERFand PPP2. PPP2 will allow charter schools that are first-time borrowers to apply without stipulation. Suppose the charter received PPP in the first round. In that case, they could apply again if they show a 25% decline in revenue. 

In the first round, charter schools received at least $1.5 billion dollars in PPP. Once again, public schools get the short end of the stick. 

Tracee Miller, a member of the St. Louis Board of Education, writes that she was shocked and dismayed to discover that a proposal to raise taxes for early childhood education was actually a disguised effort to divert more public money to charter schools. The truth leaked out:

Emails exposed via public records requests revealed that not only did the proposal lack specificity around fund distribution, but also that the funds could be redirected to economic projects unrelated to ECE. These articles also named local individuals and organizations affiliated with the deceit, illustrating the depth and breadth of political corruption connected with one ballot measure. Only it isn’t just one ballot measure.

The individuals peddling their agenda under the guise of education equity will continue to steer public dollars toward private programs and gain political capital unless we decide that public education is too important to jeopardize for the sake of private gain. We will all be complicit in the perpetuation of inequity if we choose to let this continue when we know the reality. I feel compelled to ensure, to the extent that I am capable, that the public is as aware of the even broader reach of these local actors. In reading about my experiences, I hope that St. Louis citizens will gain further awareness of the corruption at play in our education system and choose to eradicate that corruption once and for all. The same shadow groups who publicly say one thing yet do another behind-the-scenes, as they did with the ECE proposal, are working to restructure our city’s entire public education system without input from the larger community. It is incumbent upon residents of the St. Louis region to fully unearth the far-reaching influence of these groups, to assess the impact of their operating with impunity for so long, and to ensure that the community leads the way in making decisions that will impact the city’s children and its future.

Because of intense personal pressure, both public and behind-the-scenes, I spent countless hours trying to better understand the connections between groups and the strategies they were using. What I learned will strike fear into the heart of any public education advocate. Since 2018, The Opportunity Trust has funded new charter founders, has steered these founders to specific charter sponsors, and has paid for start-up and strategic planning costs to launch new charter schools or expand existing networks in St. Louis City. They do this even as St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) struggles with under-enrollment and the possibility of school closures. This work has been executed through tactics similar to those used in their attempt to push through the tax increase allegedly for ECE, and for similar self-serving purposes.

In addition to their work in the charter sector, The Opportunity Trust has launched numerous local non-profits and supported three cohorts of fellows, including many individuals connected with the SLPS district and Board of Education (BOE), to study other school systems that have implemented similar reforms. The Opportunity Trust is not a home-grown Missouri organization, and it and its associated organizations are not here to solve Missouri problems. The Opportunity Trust is the local arm of a national organization, The City Fund, whose model seeks to expand the number of charter schools, increase charter enrollment, fund the election of school choice advocates to elected school boards, divide public school districts into factions by treating schools as independent entities that function without the oversight of an elected board, and fund the election of school choice advocates to elected school boards, including at least one current member of the SLPS BOE. The City Fund does not make it clear when it is investing in a city, actively maneuvering funding through non-profits and PACs so that the money and their motives are harder to track.

Who might these “shadow groups” and individuals be? As Miller says, “The Opportunity Trust” is the St. Louis branch of the national group called “The City Fund.” The City Fund started life with $200 million from billionaires John Arnold (Texas) and Reed Hastings (California). It took a few minutes of scouring its web pages to find its list of “investors,” which include familiar names: The Walton Family Foundation; the NewSchools Venture Fund; the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; and other less familiar names, such as the California-based Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation, which supports innovative approaches to teaching, such as Teach for America; also George Roberts, San Francisco-based billionaire and founder of the powerhouse investment fund KKR.

Their agenda is to demand more charter schools, more scrutiny of public schools, and less scrutiny of charter schools. They are there to destroy public schools, not to help them.

Miller writes:

These organizations have made a practice of using distorted data to fundraise and garner support from individuals and organizations who champion the school choice movement. A salient example of this unethical use of data is the past year’s presentation hosted by ednextstl in collaboration with WEPOWER, EdHub STL, Equity Bridge, Forward Through Ferguson, and The Opportunity Trust. The data presented at this community event, where the audience was primarily composed of charter school employees, philanthropists, and self-named equity advocates, was so slanted that a third-party representative subsequently presented on that bias during a meeting of the SLPS BOE.

It is also critical to consider the motives of WEPOWER’s education advocacy campaigns. While budget transparency and community engagement should be pillars of any public education system, these tenets are not specific to traditional public school districts, though WEPOWER treats them as such. As recipients of public tax dollars, charter schools also have a responsibility to the community they serve, yet the group has not included any charter school in the demands they have issued; to-date, SLPS has been the sole target of WEPOWER’s demands. If what they seek to achieve is truly high-quality education for all students, this same level of scrutiny must be extended to charter schools as well. Instead, they have worked harder to push their agenda than they have to truly advance the quality of education in St. Louis, as was made evident in the ECE tax proposal.

Really, it is quite disgusting to see these elites circling the neglected and abused public schools of St. Louis with their discredited solutions that have such an empty track record. Their propaganda is powerful; their track record is abysmal. Will they trick another urban district into abandoning its public schools?

Tom Ultican writes here about the charter vultures descending on St. Louis to pick over the bones of their once glorious public schools. He notes that student enrollment in the district has fallen precipitously since the mid-1960s, when it was 115,543. The drop accelerated since then and it is now under 20,000. Ultican tells the sad story of the reformers who wasted money and opened charters to further enfeeble the district.

 From 2000 to 2020, the student population in St. Louis has again fallen by more than half from 44,264 to 19,222. Some of that decline can be attributed to the continuation of migration to the suburbs which now includes Black families. However, a large portion of the drop is due to the growth of charter schools. The charter school enrollment for 2020 was at least 11,215 students which represents 37% of the district’s publicly supported students. 

Like the national trend, the privatized schools chartered by the state, educate a lower percentage of the more expensive special education students; charters 11.4% versus SLPS 15.1%.

The “reformers” have had their “fun” with the St. Louis public schools. The one thing that they have not done is to improve them. They are raiders of the public schools.

Because of declining enrollment, 11 additional public schools are on the chopping block, candidates for closure. In a recent article in Medium, St. Louis parent Emily Hubbard called on politicians and civic groups to take some pro-active steps to save these 11 schools and what remains of public education. In case they didn’t know how to help the struggling public schools, she offered some ideas:

Here are some suggestions:
* Demand commitments from all your big donors to create an endowment that will fund north city schools for years to come
* Use your strength and connections to demand that county entities pay a white flight/greenlining/educational reparations tax (perhaps that can fund the endowment?)
* Demand a charter school moratorium; refuse to sponsor or delight in these entities that play such a big part in SLPS’s struggles
* Get right to the root cause of another of SLPS’s struggles and provide universal basic income for district families
* Before giving us coats and backpacks, make sure all the parents in the district are being paid fair wages at a job that doesn’t take hours to get to
* Create more non-slummy housing for families that need three bedrooms
* Demand whoever is in charge of it to create a more equitable funding situation than property tax 
*refuse to let charter schools get access to tax breaks and capital that SLPS is unable to access because they are just a plain ol’ public school district
* do what it takes to re-do the de-seg order so that the majority of Black children are able to benefit
* Put your children in St. Louis Public neighborhood schools (and not just the majority/plurality white ones) in a demonstration of solidarity with the families you claim to speak for.
* work out a deal with the city to do something about the unused buildings, free the district from the millstones
* If you want to dismantle the public school system, please just go ahead and say so instead of being all devious 
* if you think your family is too good for SLPS, please just go ahead and say so, instead of dancing around the issue
* repent publicly for not doing the things that you should’ve to care for the children in SLPS’s care, and for doing things that harm the children in SLPS’s care

Is anyone listening? Does anyone care? Will the leaders of the city allow the Wall Street bankers, the hedge funders, and billionaires from California and elsewhere to buy the public school system and close it down?

Jake Jacobs is a middle school art teacher in New York. He is the co-administrator of the New York BadAss Teachers Association, an organization of militant activist teachers.

He writes:

Joe Biden’s recent nomination of Miguel Cardona as a relatively lesser-known, less controversial selection for Secretary of Education was telling. It shows the incoming administration’s reticence to take a side in the ongoing battle over school choice and standardized testing, just like most members of Congress and the major U.S. media.

On the campaign trail, Biden drew cheers from teachers for his promise to end standardized testing, but he noticeably never added any such policy to his website. As was well known by teachers in those audiences, federally mandated tests provide no educational benefit but are the fuel in the engine driving charter school expansion.


President-Elect Biden did vow to cut federal funding to for-profit charter schools, however this affects only about 12% of charters (who could easily change their model while still enriching their for-profit management arms). Biden has acknowledged charter schools siphon money away from public schools, agreeing to new language in the (non-binding) DNC platform to discourage charters from discriminating against high-need students but as we know well, Democrats for many years have bent to pressure from deep-pocketed industrialists seeking ever more charter schools


Not much has changed since the same billionaires threatened to fund other candidates if Hillary Clinton didn’t continue to signal support for charters. Remember Eli Broad’s explicit ultimatum to withhold campaign cash if Hillary sided with teachers against charter schools? We do. 


But Broad also donated money to then-senator Kamala Harris, and like many ultra-wealthy education reformers, Broad made good use of the “revolving door”, hiring Biden’s former chief of staff Bruce Reed (2011-2013) to run his foundation. 


AS THE DOOR REVOLVES: The same day he revealed Cardona as his education nominee, it was announcedBiden rehired Reed as deputy chief of staff, despite pre-emptive protest from progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad who objected to Reed’s past hostility to safety net programs like Social Security. A former top advisor to President Bill Clinton, Reed’s own bio touts his oversight of the 1996 welfare reform law, the 1994 crime bill, and the Clinton education agenda.


Starting in 2015, Reed was a senior advisor for Emerson Collective, the “social change” LLC founded by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs who is also close to Vice President-Elect Harris. Though it’s not clear how Reed might influence Biden’s decision-making on K-12 education, he is expected to have a “major role” as Biden’s Deputy Chief of Staff particularly shaping technology and data privacy policy. And echoing Trump, Reed calls for the elimination of Section 230 which protects internet companies from lawsuits over user postings.
In 2014, while serving as CEO of the Broad Foundation, Reed made worrisome comments to Hillary’s education advisors, suggesting in private that whole cities could be mass-charterized in the wake of natural disasters, calling New Orleans an “amazing story”. Reed also voiced support for personalized digital learning using the Summit Charters model.


TAX BREAKS LINKED TO CHARTERS: It’s great to see watchdog groups expose significant waste and fraud in the charter school industry, but because U.S. media is so silent about the political influence of pro-charter billionaires, hardly any attention is paid to the generous federal tax credits enriching investors through “nonprofit” charter school construction and financing as public schools struggle for resources. One such program, the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC), did make it onto Biden’s web page, showing he wants to expand the credit to $5 billion per year and make it permanent.


It might not be controversial to use a seven year, 39% tax refund to incentivize wealthy investors to start caring about economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in dire need of manufacturing plants and low-income housing, but why does the NMTC favor charter schools over traditional public schools which are literally crumbling on our heads? 


I tried to find whose idea it was to include charter school construction, financing and leasing deals in the NMTC. 
The program itself traces back to 1998 when a “membership organization” called NMTC Coalitioncomprised mostly of banks, investment funds, developers, LLPs and LLCs came together under the management of Rapoza Associates, a large DC lobbying and government relations firm who supplies policy briefs and “comprehensive legislative and support services to community development organizations, associations and public agencies”. Sound a lot like ALEC?


Legislation was championed by then-Speaker Denny Hastert and Texas Rep. William Archer, both Republicans. The program was signed into law by President Clinton and went live as past of the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000, but it appears charter schools weren’t included until 2004. The California charter nonprofit ExEd claims to have “pioneered” NMTC charter financing deals, boasting of dozens under their belt. By 2017, more than $2.2 billion in NMTC allocations were deployed to expand charter schools nationally.


The contention was that although charter schools receive operational funding for enrolled students, they must procure and finance their own space, thus they needed a helping hand from Uncle Sam. Today however, 27 states have enacted legislation granting some level of access to district facilities, suggesting some re-examination is in order.


Operators also contended that their charter renewal terms, usually five years, are shorter than typical mortgage terms which range from 10 to 30 years. Thus the need for charters to quickly show results introduced a perverse incentive, driving all-out obsession for good scores on standardized tests so the school can not only guarantee their charter renewal, but demonstrate to lenders they are a safe bet (or attract even more expansion capital). 
STAKES RAISED FOR TEST SCORES: Because the NMTC tax credit and a host of other federal programs give charters significant fundraising advantages over public schools, it provides financial impetus to target nearby public schools for closure. Anything that can be done to raise scores – or lower the competition’s scores – will help their chances. This not only gives rise to round-the-clock test prep, but the notorious practice of cherrypicking students. 


The shiny new facilities help attract the best test-takers, while rigid “zero tolerance” discipline policies are employed to dump “troublesome” kids back on the public schools. Even though the deck is stacked, superior test scores create the “secret sauce” narrative used to sell politicians on charters and drum up support for more tax breaks.


Over the decades, poverty-stricken areas have been repeatedly carved up and designated as “Enterprise Communities”, “Empowerment Zones”, “Renewal Communities” or “Promise Neighborhoods”. In 2004, President Bush announced the “Opportunity Zones” program which Donald Trump renewed in his 2017 tax reform law, with support from Democrats like Cory Booker. This program could potentially dwarf the NMTC because it allows tax credits and deferments for trillions in untapped capital gains income. 


Although Opportunity Zone deals are available to public schools, they would need to first sign over their property to investors. But it’s not clear these programs even work. Besides being rife with cases of abuse like the Steven Mnuchin or Rick Scott front-page patronage scandals, a University of Iowa study of 75 enterprise zones in 13 states found little to no economic benefit and noted other harmful impacts such as displacement, gentrification, or giveaways for development in up-and-coming areas that would have happened anyway. 


As chronicled by Network for Public Education and noted by Congress, the array of creative charter school flim-flams has been incalculable – from exorbitant CEO salaries, predatory leases and consulting fees to management firms charging taxpayers to buy out a school’s name and logo. Even school districts got into the act, authorizing charters schools so as to generate oversight fees that help plug budget gaps. But there’s a marked difference between sketchy charter operators and multi-billion dollar programs designed to help charters replace existing schools.


SWEETENING THE POT: The tax credits, designed by the rich for the rich, are only the first layer of the subsidy onion for charter schools though. Linked to the tax breaks are tax-exempt charter school financing bonds traded in investment markets, and then even more inducement via a secondary tranche of bonds leveraged by government subsidies to backstop the first set of bonds against default. One such program, administered through the infamous No Child Left Behind Act is the Credit Enhancement for Charter School Facilities Program, which not only assumes downside risk, it artificially buoys bond ratings and lowers interest rates for the borrower. 
These credit enhancements can be backed by federal or state funds, banks or private investors but again, the guarantees may be tied to academic performance benchmarks which precipitate discrimination against high-need students. 


To lure developers into distressed neighborhoods, enormous bond guarantee and credit enhancement funds (starting at $100 million) were created under the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) program, enacted as part of the 2010 Small Business Jobs Act. Charter school developers were among those offered access to long-term credit at below-market rates. In 2012, twelve of these CDFI fund management groups came together to form the Charter School Lenders Coalition, underwritten by usual suspects the Gates and Walton Foundations. The collaborative melded together ALL of the aforementioned programs with a stated goal of lobbying congressional reps to support more charters. 


Earlier this year, high-profile Democrats including Senators Sanders, Warren and Van Hollen co-sponsored legislation that would automatically deploy CDFIs in areas impacted by natural disasters or economic crises. 
If all these financial instruments are starting to sound complicated, it’s no accident – I’ve spared readers most of the dizzying acronyms like CDEs, CMOs, UDAGs and QALICBs, but the less everyday people understand, the greater the chance this all flies under the radar. Even the developers – be they charter operators or wealthy financial backers – require a lot of hand-holding by intermediaries to guide them through the maze of policy intricacies and applications. 


This is where yet another funding stream comes in, namely the federal Charter Schools Program, or CSP, which since 1994 has grown to into a $440 million annual slush fund for discretionary grants found to be so wasteful a third of 2006-2014 grantees never opened or quickly folded. Other recipients were found to be buying skyboxes or private jets, or unscrupulously charging themselves rent in cities and towns where local authorities are ill-equipped for oversight.


PULLING OUT THE STOPS: By the time Betsy DeVos took the helm, the U.S. Dept. of Education wasn’t just awarding start-up money to school-level charter developers but to all manner of other financial intermediaries including charter associations, nonprofits, state educational agencies, charter authorizers, and credit enhancement funds. The DeVoses know well that raining money on these entities will enrich real estate and banking interests, trickling down onto pro-charter candidates, local PACs and friendly media outlets. A week before the 2020 election, DeVos shamelessly announced the Trump Administration will start ignoring the crystal-clear prohibition on federal funds for charters affiliated with religious organizations, rupturing the separation of church and state. 


The NMTC technically expires on Dec. 31, 2020 but proposals for renewal have been very popular – the 2019 bill in the Senate had 37 bipartisan co-sponsors including Minority Leader Schumer, Amy Klobuchar and center-left Senators Jeff Merkeley and Sherrod Brown. The House version had 130 co-sponsors including Karen Bass and 22 other members of the Progressive Caucus. 


If there was an amendment to remove the exclusive carve-out for charter schools from the NMTC, it would allow the community investment to continue (for better or worse) but take the finger off the scale in the competition for educational resources. 


Such an amendment may not deter anti-union oligarchs like the Koch family bent on undermining public education. It may not deter data-mining tech billionaires seeking lucrative contracts or access to captive student audiences. It may not deter neoliberal social engineers who think their wealth ordains them to rejigger education as they see fit. It may not deter Betsy DeVos and her ilk from crusading for taxpayer-funding of religious schools.


But it could deter the garden-variety investor just looking to turn a buck, and it could bring attention to the little-understood giveaways to charter school investors. Also, it will flush out members of Congress afraid to go on record either for-or-against charters. As the battles over public education funding rage on, we hope incoming House members will infuse new energy into the fight, showing Biden, Harris and other policymakers the real-world harms and inequity built into charter school tax credits.

Last spring, you may recall, the CARES Act included $13.2 billion for public and charter schools. In addition, $660 billion was allocated to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses and nonprofits that were struggling to survive due to the pandemic. Public schools were not allowed to apply for PPP. However, many charter schools learned through their lobbyists that they could apply for PPP. In other words, they double-dipped. They took the $134,500 or so that was available in the initial allotment for each public school. Then they went to the PPP and took another bite, which was far bigger than the funding allowed to public schools.

Which raises the interesting question: Are charter schools “public schools” or are they small businesses or private nonprofits? After all, public schools were not allowed to ask for PPP money, but over a thousand charter schools struck gold.

Nevada has a reputation for some of the worst charter schools in the country, but that doesn’t matter. Some of its charters really hit the big time with PPP funding. In 2015, CREDO investigator Margaret Raymond said to charter leaders in Ohio: “Be very glad that you have Nevada, so you are not the worst.”

PPP awards ranged from $168,500 to the online charter Leadership Academy of Nevada to $4.6 million to Doral Academy to support its five brick-and-mortar campuses in Southern Nevada. Many of the forgivable loans were coordinated and handled by the same entity, Academica Nevada, a regional branch of the Florida-based for-profit company that manages some 200 charter schools nationwide and has a strong presence in Nevada.

The charters that qualified for PPP money did so because they are incorporated as nonprofits, something Nevada law allows them to do. Even pre-pandemic, being a nonprofit is often financially beneficial because it opens up additional funding opportunities, such as grants through the federal Charter School Program.

Scan the list in the article: Democracy Prep received $1 million; Odyssey Charter Schools, $2.28 million; Pinecrest Academy, $4.6 million; Sports Leadership and Management Academy (SLAM), $800,000. Pinecrest and SLAM are part of the for-profit Academica chain; SLAM was started by rapper Pitbull, widely celebrated for his misogynistic lyrics.