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Calculating the true costs of choice in K12 education

Report raises concerns over taxpayers funding charters, vouchers and private schools
Carol Burris is executive director of the Network for Public Education and lead author of “Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools.” 
Carol Burris is executive director of the Network for Public Education and lead author of “Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools.” 

Our public education system was developed to serve all children, with taxpayers supporting the common good. Recent years have seen the growth of private, charter and voucher schools that divert funding from public schools. The legality of this practice is often challenged, yet legislators still find ways to funnel tax dollars into private schools.

How widespread the practice is—and its impact on public education—is the focus of “Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools,” which was produced by the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education (DAmag.me/gts).

Lead author Carol Burris, executive director of NPE, says, “Although parents always have a right to send their children to private schools at their own expense, they are not and never can be the model for educating all of this nation’s children, nor should they be supported by public dollars.”

When voucher programs were first raised in the ’90s, they were often voted down. Reading your report, I was struck by how many states still found a way to get what they wanted.

It’s the way they are so clever with the names. If you think about it, an “education savings account” sounds as though you’re putting away money for your child to go to college. Who would be against that?

They may have different names in different states, but it is a legislation model being pushed by the Koch brothers and ALEC and other conservative organizations, especially in red states, to get these programs going. The public is not that aware because the names disguise what they really are. And they always fast-track things.

But we do see a pretty substantial pushback right now. Charters are not as popular as they used to be, and the news media for the first time is starting to question them. So the tide is turning.

There’s a lot of money behind privatizing education as a market-based commodity funded by taxpayers. We’ll be struggling with these issues for quite a while.

The report notes that many of the charter and private schools that receive public funds are discriminatory.

What we found is nearly all of them are on some level. They may be discriminatory based on the grades that kids need to get into them, or based on disciplinary records. Some are outright discriminatory on the basis of religion or sexual orientation of students. There are schools that will exclude students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender—or even the child of a gay, lesbian or transgender couple.

Now, if this is a private religious school, I suppose one could argue that this is a religious issue, and they should be able to do what they want. But they’re getting public money, and that is the crux of the issue. The taxpayers are paying for this discrimination, and the public schools are suffering.

They claim public schools are failing, so they open a charter school and give it tax money. Now, even if it wasn’t failing before, the public school may fail without the resources.

Exactly. It’s not only the resources, but also the drain of high-achieving students and motivated students—students who can put up with the very strict discipline at many of these no-excuse charter schools.

But even more important are “stranded costs,” which many people don’t understand. Imagine that you send your child off to a private college and you pay, say, $20,000 for room and board. You don’t save $20,000 because your child is out of your house for nearly nine months. You still have to pay the mortgage, you have to turn on the lights, you have to heat the house and somebody has to mow the lawn.

And that is exactly what happens to public schools. You still have to pay. There are some studies done by In the Public Interest that show how many millions of dollars it costs schools in California every time a child leaves for a charter school.

So then what happens? You have to cut programs, you have to cut sports or you have to raise taxes.

I believe that we need to help our citizens understand that this is affecting how much money they are paying. Voucher programs were intended for kids who tried the public school, and it didn’t work out. Now, vouchers are going to any child who enrolls in a private school.

The public has never had to pay for this before, and it is raising everyone’s taxes to run three parallel school systems—the public schools, the charter schools and now the voucher schools.

Although your report is not about the quality of the education, many of these voucher schools don’t require teacher certifications or participation in state testing. So what kind of education are these kids getting?

The truth is that national studies consistently show that kids who leave public schools for voucher schools do worse. There are some states that require state tests. And when they actually measure—as they do in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis—the kids do not do better.

That’s fascinating because those who believe in this will say it doesn’t matter. All that matters is choice. Yet five minutes later, they complain about test scores in public schools. So they want to have it both ways. They want to use the test to hammer public education, but give the private schools a pass.

Were you surprised by anything when you were compiling this report?

There were huge surprises. It was much worse than I thought. I was surprised by the number of states that don’t expect charter school teachers to be certified.

I was surprised by the fact that 33 states allow for-profit management companies to manage their charter schools. They always say charters are nonprofit. Well, the school itself may be a nonprofit, but it’s being managed by a for-profit company, which is where most of the money goes. They manage the teachers, the resources and the real estate.

A good example is the Basis Charter Schools, mostly in Arizona. They always make the top of the lists of excellent schools. But they don’t keep students. Their attrition rates are horrendous. They’re managed by a for-profit company. When that happens, you can’t even see how the money is spent.

Many of these states allow conflicts of interest between the for-profit management company, vendors and the charter school boards.

So you have states where it’s perfectly legal for a charter school board member to have their own company supplying the school, and in some states, they don’t even need to report it.

Another thing that surprised me from the research is that there are 15 states with voucher and neo-voucher programs that don’t require background checks for their employees. To me, it’s unbelievable that you would hand over all this money and not know who is working for you.

If that happened in a public school, heads would roll.

Absolutely. And 29 states plus Washington, D.C., fail to require the same teacher certification requirements as public schools in their charter schools.

Another one that really blew me away was that we found that there were 22 states that do not require that the charter school return to taxpayers assets and property if the charter school shuts down or fails. One-third of all charter schools shut down within 10 years, and by year 13, it’s 40 percent.

What can our readers do to draw attention to this?

I would encourage superintendents and principals to start talking to their communities about costs. There is a superintendent in Pennsylvania who figures out the stranded costs that I explained earlier. He knows how much money goes out of his district for charter schools. Sometimes it’s millions of dollars.

That is the argument you have to make to the taxpayer. When you do your budget brochure, explain how much charter schools cost us. When you have a public forum, let the public know that if those kids came back, there would be more services for children in the public schools, and it’s very likely taxes could go down.


Tim Goral is senior editor.