Sen. Sherrod Brown Wisely Withdraws Charter Amendment
July 16, 2015
Here, we would like to think, is why.
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) offered an ESEA amendment to “improve accountability and transparency” of public charter schools. DFER, and other organizations, believed the amendment would crush public charter schools.
Although the amendment will not be voted on, it’s important that the implications be addressed.
Policy affects people’s lives, so let’s take the case of one particular wealthy suburban school district in Brown’s home State of Ohio.
Of the 84 fourth graders that went to school in the district in 2007, 18 kids didn’t graduate high school with their fourth grade peers.
What happened to them?
- 7 moved
- 1 died
- 1 transferred to Catholic school
- 9 transferred to public alternatives
In other words, other than the kids that moved, 10 percent of the original fourth grade class chose or was directed to another public school option. Even though they lived in one of the best school districts in the state, the district was not meeting their needs and they needed an alternative.
Even in “good” districts, some kids need something different.
This illustrates what was wrong with Brown’s amendment that was intended to bring greater accountability and transparency to public charter schools.
In Cleveland, 39 percent of students attend public charter schools. In urban areas, kids leave district schools not just for personal reasons, but for better academics. And to be clear, the majority of Cleveland’s public charter schools are not for-profit and do outperform comparative district schools on achievement and student growth – according to Stanford University’s gold-plated CREDO study.
Now to be fair, Brown, the NEA, and other critics were right that not all charters do well. Financial and operational mismanagement by some have sullied the reputation of all. Ohio’s long battle over charter reform, particularly with authorizer quality, is a frustrating example of politics at its worst.
Senator Brown’s ESEA Amendment, however, took the “nuclear option” approach to fixing charter school problems that are primarily in Ohio and a few other egregious states. What exactly did it propose?
1. It put the fox in charge of the henhouse.
Brown would have had local school districts (the competitor to charters) draft impact statements assessing any newly proposed charter school’s impact on a district-wide multi-year school plan. Only after the statement was made public and after a public hearing was any determination to be made to approve or disapprove a new charter school application.
First, how an interested party – the district – can objectively and legitimately represent the needs of students – particularly those that are in conflict with the district – and not their own needs, is hard to understand.
Second, districts use a variety of tactics to thwart charter schools, such as denying transportation and access to buildings and preventing payments. And, districts have had their own scandals involving attendance, grades, test scores, and use of funds (see Ohio, Georgia, and Texas, for example).
In the Brown-NEA scenario, a district would have had an unfair advantage in determining the fate of a potential competitor. And of course it also would have had more capacity and communication channels to organize support around its interests. As a result, districts can easily out-muscle a nascent charter group, especially one without a management company.
2. It made transparency good for the goose, but not for the gander.
Brown’s amendment required charter schools to publically disclose:
1. Annual student attrition rates by grade level;
2. Staff qualifications and languages spoken;
3. Annual teacher attrition rates, disaggregated by grade level, subject, years of experience and credential;
4. Fees, and if they are waived for certain students;
5. Attendance and the number of suspensions and expulsions by school year, in total and disaggregated by category.
Never mind that bureaucratic paperwork is antithetical to the charter concept. What’s stunningly ironic and inequitable is that districts and the entities they do business with don’t have those same requirements.
Brown wanted charter school management companies to be audited annually because they receive public funds. But a fair extension of that would be to audit the use of public funds by all entities doing business in the public education sphere, including:
1. Public funds transferred to unions and other organizations.
2. Public funds paid to lobbying, membership, and other organizations.
3. Public funds paid to other organizations that contract services to schools, such as transportation and food services.
Senator Brown believed that districts could balance their own as well as community and student needs. But, how did the district cited above react when students chose other educational options?
Initially, they chose to limit parent options by not agreeing to send tuition to the early college high school parents wanted their child to attend. Only a legislative change made it possible for students to attend regardless of district cooperation. Also, the district banned students educated outside the district from participating in district extra-curricular activities. The clear message is that if you’re not educated in the district, you’re not part of the community.
Across settings – underperforming urban schools to well-resourced suburban schools – public charter schools are needed for kids that aren’t well-served by the district. Yet, Brown’s amendment put kids’ futures in the hands of the very same district that isn’t helping them. Good thing it’s withdrawn.
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