How Charter Schools Heighten The Politicization Of Education

Jeff Bryant

Last year a breakthrough policy brief from the National Education Policy Center exposed some of the financial machinations charter schools engage in to further the interests of profit-seeking entrepreneurs. But what about the political machinations?

The politics of charter schools are less quantifiable that their financials but are troubling nevertheless, and the expansion of these schools will no doubt lead to increased politicization of education in local communities.

Consider the following anecdotes.

Florida Fracas

Recently a Florida news outlet reported about a charter school management company that “disappeared from the scene” after being told by the local school board to explain financial and operational problems. The company that operated four schools had racked up $1.8 million in debt after receiving $4.5 million in taxpayer money.

This seems like pretty blatant fraud, but it gets more complicated when politics get involved.

As the article explains, parents and school leaders at one of the schools, Windsor Prep, felt pretty gung-ho about their school and responded to its vanishing manager by pitching in, on a voluntary basis, to take over some school operations. However, the board still felt the obligation to address the problems posed: the missing money, the management company scofflaws, and the welfare of lots of students who need more than just enthusiastic amateurs to oversee their education.

While the local board was attempting to sort out the mess, other issues involving Windsor Prep continued to surface: unaccounted-for grant money and $300,000 in mysterious consulting fees.

Based on these ongoing concerns, the school district’s staff recommended putting Windsor Prep and the other charters on a 90-day notice of termination.

Charter school families, mostly from Windsor, flooded the board meeting to express their disapproval. Families expressed their fondness for their charter schools and complained that finding alternatives would be a struggle. School board members responded by pointing out to parents the available seats at local public schools. But many parents contended the public schools are inferior to charters. They point to the “C” letter grades the states have given these schools, even though the school their children attend, including Windsor Prep, are also rated C. Nevertheless, the parents are sure the local public schools are “bad schools.”

To make matters even more supercharged, now a state senator has jumped into the fray to plead the parents’ case to keep Windsor open. According to a local news outlet, “The senator has been a key player in legislation that has empowered more charter schools to operate in Florida and he is a vocal support of giving parents a choice when public schools fail.”

As a local columnist for the same paper observers, it’s hard to blame the parents and the school board when you have a political situation not of their making.

Florida lawmakers, he writes, “have created an atmosphere that favors charter school operators above almost everyone else.” So charter schools get enough leeway to ensnare their operations in potential financial and academic problems, and local government authorities have to step in to ensure accountability for taxpayer money. But when parents, who’ve been convinced charter schools are the shining alternative to their dysfunctional public schools, get wind of any disruption to their schools, they lash out. And politicians who helped start the whole mess into motion eagerly step in to make themselves look like heroes.

It’s hard to see how there is any positive end to this.

Consider another, yet very different, example of how charters heighten politicization.

Quaker State Quagmire

Recently a Pennsylvania state auditor alerted the Allentown school district that it may have violated state laws when it made a charter school real estate deal with a developer, according to a local newspaper.

The developer, Abe Atiyeh, had hired a consulting firm to promote two new charter schools for the district. The owner of the consulting firm pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery offenses and tax evasion, but nevertheless, the proposals for the two new charters remained on the books, and the developer was still eager for a deal.

In January of last year, the school board approved a lease with Atiyeh for the first school, which the district opened in September. Then the board approved an application for the second charter school submitted by Atiyeh to open at a building he already owned.

The deal the board made with Atiyeh to ensure approval of both schools hinged on a pledge from Atiyeh not to open more charter schools and to provide $150,000 worth of advertising to help promote the charter schools.

Where local authorities ran afoul of state law, according to the auditor, was in hiding from the public information about the two pledges from Atiyeh.

This whole affair seems like a simple matter of government transparency. But here again, because of the politics of charter schools, decision-making about charter schools is way more complicated than it seems.

As the news article reports, the state auditor stated the school district was in a “no-win” situation.

Like in Florida, charter schools in Pennsylvania have a significant advantage in gaining approval. Local school boards that block new charters are almost always overturned when the charter applicant appeals to the state. And state statutes governing charters are written with such generous consideration to these schools, courts tend to side with charter operators.

Also, as in Florida, local public schools in Pennsylvania lose millions every year to competitive charters – so much, in fact, that at least one school district in the Quaker State is thinking of getting out of operating high schools altogether.

So if Allentown had tried to block the new charters from opening, the state or the court would likely have overruled the district, and the community would be stuck with the two schools anyway, but without the benefit of the advertising money and the pledge to open no more new charters. If the district had given approval but then insisted on making its agreement with the developer public, the developer would have likely backed out.

Either way, the district loses.

Going To Get Worse

The above two anecdotes are plucked from my news feed in just the past few days, but these kinds of political cul de sacs arising from the current ways we create, operate, and govern charter schools happen all the time, all over the country.

Notice also that in both situations, the subject of education is by and large overlooked. Indeed, concerns for teaching and learning never came up because there was too much other flack in the air – the public perceptions of the schools, financial matters involving public money, political deals, and the needs of parents to have a guaranteed school seat for their children.

Regardless of how you feel about charter schools, because of the way they’ve been forged in the crucible of politics, they’ve become much more political beings than they are institutions of education. Simple mandates to expand these schools, without any attention to these political consequences, will make matters worse.

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