Public Charter Schools Thrive on Corruption and Economic Turmoil

by Seth Sandronsky

Republicans are often champions of private school vouchers, but Democratic politicians – including President Obama – have been central to the phenomenal expansion of public charter schools. Not coincidentally, multibillionaires have become huge patrons of charters, at the same time that massive cuts in school spending have made public schools less attractive. “Tumult plus big dollars from the wealthiest families in the country nurtures the growth of public charter schools.”

Public Charter Schools Thrive on Corruption and Economic Turmoil

by Seth Sandronsky

This article previously appeared in Z Magazine.

Public-private corruption lubricates the expansion of the public charter schools movement.”

Across the U.S., state and local tax revenues are down, hammering all public services. They include traditional public schools. Just ask students and teachers. They deal daily with teacher layoffs and larger class sizes generally around the nation.

A much brighter picture prevails for tuition-free public charter schools. They operate with a contract (charter) from a public entity. Stephanie Grisham with Larson Communications is a spokeswoman for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a non-profit advocacy group based in Washington, DC. Public charter school operators range from charter management organizations such as Aspire, KIPP, and Rocketship to education management organizations like for-profit Academica and Mosaica, she said. Last but not least are the freestanding independent public charter schools, or “mom and pops,” according to her.

According to the alliance, over 2 million students enrolled in about 5,600 public charter schools around the U.S. in 2011, representing a 13 percent year-over-year increase. In 2010, California led the nation in public charter schools with 983, serving over 412,000 students (seven percent of the over-all enrollment of 6 million pupils statewide). The next four states in order of total public charter schools are Arizona, 524; Florida, 520; Ohio, 360; and Texas, 284. The NAPCS compiled the 2010 figures from state education departments and state charter school groups, Grisham said.

Asked why California has the most public charter schools, she noted its 1992 law establishing public charter schools with 31 in 1993, the biggest state populace nationwide and a "great" California Charter Schools Association (a private firm). “CCSA actively advocates for the promotion and access of public charter schools, academic achievement, and increased accountability,” according to its website. The CCSA focuses in part on state governance bills and policies under the Capitol dome in Sacramento. The CCSA seeks to increase funding for charter schools at the state and local level, which includes revenues produced by parcel taxes, according to Vicky Waters, CCSA director of media relations.

Over 2 million students enrolled in about 5,600 public charter schools around the U.S. in 2011, representing a 13 percent year-over-year increase.”

What are the most recent year-over-year state budget figures for spending on public charter schools as part of the over-all budget for traditional K – 12 public schools? Such macro data is unavailable, said Cindy Chan, a spokeswoman for the Charter Schools Division of the California Education Department. According to her, figures for state funding of traditional public school and public charter counterparts exist, but as separate data sets.

What if any are the funding inequities between public charter schools and traditional public schools in California? “Large funding gaps do exist between public charter schools and traditional public schools,” Waters said. “On average, according to studies by Bellwether Education Partners and Ball State University, the gap in funding between public charter schools and traditional public schools is higher than 19 percent ($2,247 per pupil) in California. Charters receive funding primarily through block grants, which are significantly less on a per-pupil basis than the categorical funding provided to traditional public school students.

“Also, charters usually don’t have access to local school bonds or parcel tax revenues, despite the fact that charter parents in those communities are paying for them. Deferrals (state imposed delays in entitlement payments to schools), lack of access to short-term borrowing, and facilities inequities also exacerbate charter’s financial situation.

Waters continued: “(California) Education Code 47630 (a) states that “It is the intent of the Legislature that each charter school be provided with operational funding that is equal to the total funding that would be available to a similar school district serving a similar pupil population.”

We turn to California’s Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. His tax-increase initiative, the "Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act," is on the upcoming November ballot. Jed Wallace, CCSA president and CEO, expressed support for Brown’s initiative that would increase taxpayer revenue to public charter schools.

The trail leads to what she terms ‘The Billionaire Boys’ Club.’”

One prominent critic of what she terms corporate school reform is author and education scholar Diane Ravitch. She spoke before 3,000-plus people at the Sacramento Convention Center in early 2012. In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (out November 2011 in an expanded paperback version), Ravitch casts a skeptical eye on the economics and politics of education reform and reformers.

To this end, she unpacks the sometimes opaque function of private money in public education policy. For Ravitch, the trail leads to what she terms “The Billionaire Boys’ Club.” This club includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft Inc.) and the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart Inc.). Both well-heeled foundations fund the CCSA and the NAPCS. (The Gates Foundation also supports National Public Radio, which covers public charter schools and traditional public schools as a so-called alternative to corporate broadcasters.) Ravitch is a former supporter of public charter schools. What shifted her to an opponent of them is research (data and facts) on their strengths and weaknesses, she said in her critically acclaimed book.

For an illustrative slice of the public charter school pie, we turn to a case from the recent past in Sacramento. There, funds from the Gates Foundation in 2003 helped the non-profit St. Hope Foundation under current city mayor Kevin Johnson, a Democrat and past NBA all-star guard for the Phoenix Suns, to obtain a charter to operate the formerly public Sacramento High School. The Gates Foundation is also a donor to Capitol Impact, LLC, a “Sacramento-based consulting firm dedicated to improving policy and practice in California, with a particular emphasis on public education,” according to its website.

Corporate Democrats’ fingerprints are all over this public charter school scene. Take Jay Schenirer, a Sacramento City Councilman representing District 5 Now. He was a member of the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Trustees when it granted fellow Democrat Johnson’s St. Hope Foundation a charter to operate Sacramento High School. As a city councilman now, Schenirer is also a consultant/principal with Capitol Impact, LLC.

Corporate Democrats’ fingerprints are all over this public charter school scene.”

Meanwhile in California, the trajectory of a former CCSA employee to state government service is instructive. Ting L. Sun, co-founder and educational program director of the Natomas Charter School, worked for the CCSA from October 2003 to December 2006. Former GOP California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing in December 2007. At the California CTC, Sun served as a public representative until December 2011, and was commission chair from January 2010 through December 2011. In a phone interview, she confirmed her employment as a senior consultant with Cambridge Education, LLC, a privately-held education management firm, working on charter school reviews, from 2007 until 2009.

Kathy Carroll of Sacramento, a former state CTC employee, worked as attorney there from October 2006 to November 2010. She is a whistleblower who alleges that her employer fired her for speaking out on misconduct such as violations of statutory mandates (providing for fair and impartial decision-making). In a wide-ranging interview, Carroll criticized officials like Sun who serve the public interest and a private enterprise like Cambridge Education, LLC. That particular example creates a situation that fosters the potential for financial and political conflicts of interest, according to Carroll, who is opposed to such activities between public officials, private interests and public charter schools.

One example of organized resistance to public charter schools underway in Sacramento found labor organizer Karen Bernal with 50-plus protesters from the Sacramento Coalition to Save Public Education, Sacramento City Teachers Association and Occupy Sacramento in a silent rally at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria in downtown Sacramento in early 2012. Inside the library, education reformer Michelle Rhee, Mayor Johnson’s wife and past head of schools in Washington, DC, presented her ideas on reforming public education. Rhee’s StudentsFirst group, which according to Ravitch, views to pit students and teachers against each other. StudentsFirst is opening an office on Sacramento’s K Street Mall to advance a slate of education reforms that include restructuring public school teacher unions and teacher tenure. Bernal explain to youthful passers-by the significance of the protesters wearing tape on their mouths, re-enacting Rhee’s alleged classroom directive to tape shut students’ mouths who spoke when instructed to be silent.

Rhee’s StudentsFirst group, according to Ravitch, views to pit students and teachers against each other.”

The United Public Workers for Action held a conference at Laney College in Oakland to “look at how the destruction of public education is taking place in California, who is doing it and how to stop it and defend the right to a public education for all working people” recently. Carroll, of Sacramento, joined a slate of speakers there addressing K –12 and higher education issues impacting those public institutions: In her view, public-private corruption lubricates the expansion of the public charter schools movement locally, statewide and across the U.S.

Meanwhile, a weak economic recovery after a strong real estate crash is reducing vital tax revenues to fund traditional public schools. According to Jan. 27 federal Commerce Dept. figures on GDP, 2011 saw the steepest drop in the rate of state and local government spending since 1944. This trend of post-bubble government budgets assures continued weakness in the economies of the states and municipal governments. Consequently, the nation's traditional public schools face a worsening budget crisis. Such tumult plus big dollars from the wealthiest families in the country nurtures the growth of public charter schools and advocacy groups such as StudentsFirst. The BBC, led by the Gates and Walton families, has unlimited money to bankroll public charter schools. Their opponents lack such resources but are rich other ways. Will the billionaires or everybody else prevail?

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email [email protected]