In the quarter-century since the first U.S. charter school opened in 1992, on the hopeful premise of educator-led innovation, charter schools have grown dramatically. They now enroll nearly 3 million K-12 students in the U.S., and include many private unaccountable charters, whose financial operations and student performance are hidden from parents and taxpayers, and whose existence increases racial and economic segregation of students.
The landscape has changed, but NEA’s charter school policy statement, approved in 2001 and left fallow since then, has not.
That’s why, in 2016, in response to mounting concerns by NEA members and leaders about charters, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García convened a Charter Schools Task Force, whose 21 members have studied the scale and impact of charters and proposed a new policy statement that focuses on the needs of today’s students—both inside and outside charter schools.
“The bottom line is, what do we believe is public education? We believe it’s responsive to communities and focuses on student success,” says Task Force member Scott DiMauro, vice president of the Ohio Education Association.
What works, what doesn’t
The proposed policy statement, which will be discussed in a public hearing Friday and voted on by the Representative Assembly on Tuesday, asserts NEA’s opposition to unaccountable, privately managed charter schools that threaten our students and our system of public education. At the same time, it also makes clear that the few charter schools that meet the very specific criteria below are appropriately part of the public education system.
According to the proposed policy statement, charters must meet all of the following criteria to be helpful rather than harmful to the public education system:
- Be authorized and held accountable by a local democratically accountable authorizer, the same local authorizer that also authorizes other alternative school models, such as magnet or community schools.
- Be necessary to meet the unmet needs of students in the district, and to meet those needs in a manner that improves the local public school system.
- Comply with the same basic safeguards as other public schools – namely, open meetings and public records laws, prohibitions against for-profit operations or profiteering, and the same civil rights, employment, health, labor, safety, and staff qualification and certification requirements as other public schools.
The proposed policy also would require that local authorizers do a full and written impact analysis before authorizing or expanding any charter, which would assess how the proposed charter would affect students and local public schools, including the likelihood the charter would lead to school cutbacks or closures, and whether other improvements to educational programs or schools would better serve students’ needs. The district must also consider the charter’s impact on the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic composition of schools and neighborhoods.
Placing this responsibility with a local authorizer, as opposed to a state-level board or multiple authorizers, is an “essential” piece, says Task Force member Brent McKim, the president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association and vice president of NEA’s National Council of Urban Education Associations.
“You really need one authorizer that really understands the context in which that charter is being authorized, and really understands the impact of that charter on schools in the community,” says McKim. In the vast majority of states, allowing multiple authorizers has led to charter proliferation over the opposition of local communities, and a lack of accountability for charter operators.
Unaccountable? Not supportable!
The proposed policy statement also makes clear that NEA is opposed to those charters that do not meet its strict criteria. As the policy statement explains, “charters that do not comply with the basic safeguards and standards detailed above and that are not authorized by the local school board (or its equivalent) necessarily undermine local public schools and harm the public education system.” The proposed statement condemns forcefully as a “failed experiment” the proliferation of “largely unaccountable privately managed charter schools.”
In Ohio, nearly 8 percent of students attend charters, but investigations of the state’s $1 billion charter industry have uncovered deep deficiencies around student performance, rampant misspending of public dollars, and more. One prime example is ECOT (“The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow”), a fully online charter school—with the lowest graduation rate of any Ohio school—that has been ordered by a court to return $60 million to the state.
“The proposed policy statement is crystal clear that charter schools that are unaccountable and undemocratic are bad for communities and bad for kids,” says DiMauro.
It is equally clear on what would be good for students and communities, says McKim.
“Being a public school should mean a lot more than public funding. It should mean transparency and democratic oversight. It should mean that the school is responsive to public and community values, and it should mean that it is for a greater good for all the students in that community.”