New Reports Reveal The Big Charter School ‘Accountability’ Lie

Jeff Bryant

In one of the testier moments in what was the testiest ever confirmation hearing for US secretary of education, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia questioned if nominee billionaire Betsy DeVos would demand the same kind of accountability from the full range of education institutions she wants included in her program for unleashed “school choice” – public schools, charters, and private schools receiving taxpayer money through vouchers.

The exchange went like this:

Kaine: “If confirmed will you insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter, or private?”

DeVos: “I support accountability.”

Kaine: “Equal accountability?”

DeVos: “I support accountability.”

Kaine: “Is that a yes or a no?”

DeVos: “I support accountability.”

Kaine: “Do you not want to answer my question?”

DeVos: “I support accountability.”

That DeVos responded to a legitimate – even essential – question with a stubborn, insipid talking point is illustrative of not only her inability to provide an intelligent, straightforward answer to most questions about education policy, but also indicative of the empty rhetoric the well-financed charter school industry uses to respond to any appropriate questioning of the rationale for expanding these schools.

There’s ample evidence – based on both DeVos’ personal efforts to unleash unregulated charter schools in her own state, Michigan, and on evidence from other states that have similar unregulated charter school environments – that much of the vaunted “accountability” of charter schools is an empty promise at best, and at worse, a curtain to hide all sorts of malfeasance and corruption.

Sunshine State Scandal

As a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy documents, “lack of oversight” and regulatory guidelines have led to a massive expansion of low-performing charter schools in Florida.

While Michigan is often called the “Wild West of charter schools,” Florida is the “Wild South.”

In 2015, I traveled around South Florida to report about how a plan for charter school expansion hatched by former governor Jeb Bush had spread financial opportunism and corruption while doing little to improve the academic performance of students. In a subsequent report, I revealed that the rise of charters as big, unregulated businesses brought with it new and special forms of ripping off the taxpayers under the guise of a “civil rights cause.”

CPD’s new report reveals the situation with charter schools in the Sunshine State has only gotten worse.

While Florida’s K-12 charter enrollment increased 172 percent over the last ten years, millions of taxpayer dollars poured into charters that quickly closed. “Many of those charters that do remain open fail to perform well,” the report states.

“Florida lawmakers have allowed charters to be scaled rapidly despite the large quality control problem that exists in the Florida charter industry,” says report author Kyle Serrette in an email to me. “Whenever new charters are approved, those decision makers believe they are getting a new ‘A’ rated school – yet in fact, 21 percent of the time they are getting a ‘D’ or below charter school. The flood of poor performing charters will only get worse until we get to the bottom of why this is happening.”

The report calls for a moratorium on new charter school expansions in the state until there is an accountability system with transparent data on the schools, a better way to identify struggling schools, and a regulatory structure of “local school advisory councils” to provide more oversight.

Serrette tells me, “Florida lawmakers have the responsibility to ensure charter schools are providing students with the education they deserve and holding themselves to the standards we would expect of any school.”

As our new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos would likely be more apt to support and spread the kind of taxpayer waste and abuse we see in Florida rather than address it. That’s, at least, is what can be assume based on her actions in Michigan.

The Myth of ‘Robust’ Charter Accountability

Charter school advocates insist DeVos has been a force for charter school accountability in the Mitten State. They point to her recent work to lobby for changes in recent bipartisan legislation governing Detroit schools as evidence.

That law sought to create a locally-based commission in the district to oversee the opening and closing of schools, including charters. However, DeVos and the political machine she amply funds in the state worked behind the scenes to have that legislation changed to eliminate the commission and include, instead, a “report card” for grading schools A–F, a mandate to close persistently low-performing charters, and an end to the practice of letting failing schools dodge accountability by switching to different authorizers. These changes are being branded as a robust stand for real accountability.

But as Michigan-based freelance journalist Allie Gross reveals, what DeVos and her allies pushed through will increase the likelihood that charter schools will evade accountability measures in the state.

In her report for The Atlantic, Gross takes a deep dive into the legislation DeVos backed and finds it is riddled with loopholes and caveats that allow low-performing charters to evade accountability.

First, the new legislation DeVos backed does nothing to address that, in Michigan, “anyone can start a [charter] school, and that there are very few boundaries when it comes to who could authorize a charter.”

Second, the new ruling DeVos and her allies pushed through does not give state or local authorities the power to close persistently low-performing charters. It pushes the authorizer to “amend its contract with the school” and gives authorizers various loopholes to exempt the school from closure. Shifting the responsibility of closing low-performing charters largely to authorizers will likely give low-performing charters more ways to evade accountability because, as Gross notes, “authorizers have a monetary incentive to keep schools open, as they get a percentage of a school’s state aid.”

Finally, the law DeVos backed legislation makes authorizers’ decisions “final” and “not subject to review by court or any other state agency,” so bad authorizers that fail to take corrective action on low-performing charters are protected from negative legal consequences.

Don’t Believe the ‘Accountability’ Claim

As education secretary, DeVos will have considerable influence on how the new federal law governing education is implemented, Gross explains.

That law allows states to design their own accountability policies, but those policies are subject to approval of the US Department of Education. Understanding how the Michigan law DeVos supported provides regulatory loopholes for charters “illuminate[s] how she could approach the issue from the bully pulpit,” Gross concludes.

Based on how charter schools operate in states like Florida – Arizona, Ohio, and Pennsylvania also come to mind – and on how Betsy DeVos provided regulatory loopholes for charters in Michigan, there is no reason to believe her claim to support accountability and no reason to believe the charter industry will use her tenure to advance accountability measures.

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