Some of the most memorable education news stories from the 2017-18 school year were the photos spreading online virally showing Baltimore school children bundled up against the cold in unheated classrooms, the enormous outpourings of teachers walking out of schools and protesting at their state capitols, and the seemingly endless litany of scandals from the charter school industry coming from Arizona, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
With a new school year starting across the nation, families, teachers, and communities may be feeling a sense of renewal and possibility, but much of the news from schools is still mired in negative reports of underfunded buildings, beleaguered teachers, and charter school corruption.
Poor Conditions, Lack of Resources
Those Baltimore school children who endured freezing classrooms last winter? They're back in the news again, only this time because their schools are too hot because they lack air conditioners. As a heatwave sent temperatures into the 90s, at least ten schools in the city and surrounding county had to close and sixty more were forced to dismiss early.
Baltimore wasn't alone. Over 200 schools across Philadelphia dismissed at noon as heat indexes in non-airconditioned buildings climbed above 100 degrees. Dozens of New Jersey schools let out early due to lack of air conditioning. And schools across Ohio – from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati – closed due to high temperatures in buildings with no air conditioning.
School funding in the Buckeye state hasn't kept up with inflation for a decade, according to a new study.
Lack of air conditioning wasn't the only problem in schools. Schools in Detroit that serve over 50,000 students had to shut off water fountains and taps due to high levels of lead and copper in the water.
Schools in multiple states are finding elevated lead levels, prompting them to tear out water fountains and faucets. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Indiana tested 915 schools in recent months and found that 61 percent had one or more fixtures with elevated lead levels. Schools in Colorado and Florida, among others, are taking steps to address lead in drinking water."
For parents with children who suffer from asthma, a chronic shortage in the supply of epipens kept in schools has added to the widespread sense of crisis that increasingly accompany school reopenings.
Lack of basic supplies is another sign of the dire straits schools face, prompting teachers to either shell out more of their own money for learning materials or use crowd-funding sites at record-high levels to beg for cash.
Low Teacher Pay
The poor building conditions and lack of resources that spurred teachers in red states like Oklahoma and Arizona to walk off the job in the spring have become subjects in more recent news stories about how teachers are using their grievances to run for office and throw out lawmakers who refuse to fund public education.
In North Carolina, teachers are using the momentum from their brief walkout in the spring to stage townhalls across the state to push more school funding. The teachers are calling for class size reductions, up-to-date textbooks, and improved teacher pay.
The labor unrest that swept across schools in red states earlier this year has now reached blue states too, as teachers in Los Angles, the nation's second-largest school district, and across the state of Washington have threatened to strike, or are on strike, over working conditions and poor pay.
Indeed, teachers across the nation continue to be among the lowest paid employees when compared to other comparably educated professions. According to a new study, teachers earn substantially less than other college-educated workers, and their status on the pay scale has worsened over time, from a differential of 4.3 percent less in 1996 to 18.7 percent less in 2017.
While the economy generally continues to recover since the Great Recession in 2008, the "pay gap" teachers experience continues to erode because of, the authors contend, "state policy decisions rather than the result of revenue challenges."
More Money Would Help
Due to the continued erosion in teacher compensation, an increasing percentage of parents do not want their children to become teachers, according to a new nationwide poll. While Americans overwhelmingly say teachers deserve to be paid more, schools are under-funded, and they would be willing to be taxed more to fund schools, 54 percent say they would not want their child to become a public-school teacher, due mostly to the poor pay and benefits teachers earn.
The increased funding Americans want for education would not only improve school conditions and teacher pay, it would improve student achievement.
According to a new study, increases in per-student spending in New York led to higher math and reading scores on state tests.
The research, Chalkbeat reports, "is the latest evidence linking increased school spending to positive outcomes for students, including graduation rates, lifetime wages, and college attendance. State-level studies in California, Massachusetts, and Ohio have also found benefits of increased spending. On the flipside, Great Recession spending cuts appeared to have negative consequences on students."
More Options Isn't a Solution
Nevertheless, when pressed with the evidence of worsening conditions in schools and declining support for teachers, recent education policy decisions and legislation have increasingly emphasized creating "alternatives" to public schools rather than doing something to improve the ones we have.
Consequently, back-to-school reports in local news outlets occasionally feature glowing articles about new charter schools and online education providers. But on balance, the positive reports about these alternatives are outweighed by negative stories about what happens when these privately-operated schools, that lack most of the regulatory and statutory guidelines placed on public schools, are allowed to open and operate freely.
With school openings just are barely underway, there is already a lengthy scandal sheet of charter schools caught for committing acts that would never be allowed in a public institution.
A recent news story from Arizona tells about an online charter school in that state that invests 70 percent of the money it gets from the state on the stock market rather than on instruction. The same Arizona news outlet found another charter school that screens out special education students has a leader accused sexual harassment and not paying teachers. And a different Arizona news outlet caught a leader of a charter school bragging about using mass suspensions to improve the image of his school,
A report from Louisiana finds a CEO of a charter school chain in New Orleans employed her sister and son-in-law in the schools and contracted with her daughter as a paid consultant. The situation has become the subject a new law the state enacted, which had never before applied to charter schools. Louisiana has had charter schools for over 20 years.
A charter school in New Jersey became the subject of a widely shared Twitter thread when the school kicked out scores of black students for a minor dress code infraction. A youth advocate and recreational counselor found the children loitering in a local park, unable to attend school because their shoes weren't an exact match to school guidelines that called for "all black" footwear.
Another New Jersey charter school caught a reporter's attention after the school dismissed sexual harassment claims against an administrator but then paid a $90,000 settlement to the accuser. Another New Jersey charter school has become the subject of a lawsuit for its excessive discipline of students with disabilities.
And yet another New Jersey charter school operation that suddenly closed was found to have stuck the state with a $10 million loan the state is unable to collect because the development company associated with the school figured out a way to be legally free of any assets the state could collect on.
In Michigan an online charter has become a subject of scrutiny for faking its enrollment, and another charter is being questioned for why it allowed the school leader to splurge on $25,000 in gift cards for an "employee retention program" despite the school running up a $954,399 deficit last year and carrying a current fund balance under legal requirements.
In California, local officials question why a couple operating a charter school continues to draw salary for a year after they left the job and used the building for a political campaign. A reporter notes, "The school has already undergone a yearlong investigation in 2015 prompted by hundreds of complaints involving governance and transparency."
Also in California, a news outlet reports a charter school that got over $30 million in tax-free bonds from the state to build new campus was suddenly closed by its district authorizer for lagging academics, a 23 percent dropout rate, and questionable financials. The school is connected to a mosque whose leader founded the charter and works for the school.
Further north, in Oakland, a former principal of a charter school admitted the school where he worked is connected to the Gulen religious movement from Turkey, led by an exiled recluse cleric living in Pennsylvania. Charter schools connected to the Gulen movement have been frequently accused of contracting with Gulen-associated companies and staffing schools with Turkish workers who kick back part of their paychecks to the movement.
In Ohio, a charter school operator is being investigated for setting up over 150 shell companies and fake bank accounts to over-charge taxpayers in both Ohio and Florida millions for school equipment and then laundering the profits by calling them as “rebates” and “kickbacks” to the owner.
The Buckeye state is still reeling from the closing of the state's largest online charter that sent over 12,000 students and their families in search of other schools in the middle of last year. The school owed the state over $80 million for faking its enrollments.
In a Pennsylvania school district, local officials decided to close a charter school just before the doors were to reopen for the new school year. The school ranked the lowest in academics in the district, failed to comply with state law for safety and staffing, and likely overcharged the district.
A Vicious Bind
There's a tendency to dismiss these stories as mere anecdotes and not truly revealing of general conditions of charter schools. But the above examples of charter school scandals are occurred within the past three weeks.
Indeed, the ever-expanding accumulation of news reports and citizen testimony from communities across the nation point to a chronic problem of corruption and education malfeasance in the charter industry that politicians and industry representatives seem little interested in acknowledging, much less addressing.
In the meantime, charter schools use deteriorating conditions in public schools as fodder for their marketing campaigns – for instance, in Detroit, a local charter used the city's decision to cut off water in city schools as a marketing pitch for parents to go charter instead.
It's a vicious bind too many families face.