If you are a charter school operator or supporter, you should take a hard look at the two year-long effort by the Obama administration, Sen. Tom Harkin and organizations such as the Center for American Progress to crack down on the expansion of the for-profit college sector (a subject on which I have reported this month for Organization Trends). Why? Because many of the same issues of quality and financial management of government funding (including Pell Grants and federally-backed student loans) could also become an issue for public charter schools, which, like for-profits (and their nonprofit counterparts), are publicly-financed and yet managed by an array of nonprofit and corporate organizations.
Certainly the sectors are different. The charter school movement is still largely one in which the presence of the corporate sector is limited (and mostly to the role of donors and supporters), while the for-profit college sector is largely a corporate arena with publicly-traded corporations controlling 40 percent of those career-oriented colleges. Charters are also largely considered to be godsends for poor and minority communities scourged by the presence of failure factories; on the other hand, for-profits, which serve the aspiring collegians in those very communities, are considered predatory because of the nature of how they earn money (student loans and Pell Grants) and the reality that they account for 44 percent of defaults while only serving seven percent of all collegians. This is probably why the very groups backing charters (including the Obama administration and Center for American Progress) are, ironically, also the most-virulent foes of for-profits.
But both charter schools and for-profits are new, innovative entrants into their respective areas of American public education and higher education. And charters share similar vulnerabilities as for-profits on the quality and financial management fronts. Over the past few years, status-quo defenders — including Diane Ravitch — have touted out the report by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Options, arguing that it proves that charters are no better than traditional public schools. The fact that the CREDO study is flawed because it matches individual charter schools to groups of traditional public school students (along with the reality that the study is really a series of reports that shows the wide differences in charter school oversight in 15 states and the District of Columbia) has not stopped charter school opponents from using it as one of their most-forceful weapons in their rhetorical campaign. As the for-profit college sector has learned with last year’s release of the Government Accountability Office’s spectacularly inaccurate and incredible report on the sector, in education, bad studies last forever and do even more damage than the verifiable facts themselves.
While the objective data on charters is mostly favorable, it isn’t exactly all positive. While charter schools have proven to do a better job than their traditional counterparts in improving student achievement (including college attendance and completion), there are still far too many operators who are performing no better than traditional dropout factories and failure mills. As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute also pointed out earlier this year in its study of failing schools, few laggard charters are turned around and even fewer are shut down; this betrays the argument made by supporters that charters, unlike traditional public schools, can be easily shut down. And as exemplified today by a report released by the Cato Institute, the stakeholders who help support charters — including philanthropies — are not doing a good enough job of picking and supporting high-quality charter operators.
Meanwhile the charter school movement is littered with stories of operators that have woefully managed their financial operations, and ultimately, the taxpayer dollars with which they are trusted. While few have been as badly operated as the Flanner House Higher Learning Center in Indianapolis, which was shut down in 2006 after city officials uncovered evidence of inflated attendance records and financial mismanagement, there are still other charters struggling with lax financial controls and the kind of woeful back-office activities that are pervasive in traditional districts.
These realities, along with the fact that just 13 percent of Americans can accurately describe charters, the continued opposition to charters among old-school civil rights groups such as the NAACP, and the demonstrable evidence that players on the status quo side are more than willing to play fast-and-loose in their rhetorical and tactical gamesmanship, means that charters find themselves just as vulnerable to mudslinging as their peers in the for-profit sector. Add in the real issues of quality that charters do actually face, and all the sudden, a sector that currently finds favor in federal education policy can suddenly find itself to be whipping boys for politicians and activists. At least in the case of charters, the failures of traditional public education are on full display; but it’s even harder to shut down a school district than it is to close a lot of charters. And as proven in Indiana two years ago when the then-Democratic majority controlling the state House of Representatives attempted to starve funding for charters, the threats to the movement (and to school reform) are still real.
So the charter school movement must take some critical steps that for-profits hadn’t done until late in the game. It starts with pushing for laws at the state level that allow for academically- and financially-failing charters to be shut down more-quickly. The sector must also engage in more-stringent self-policing, publicly and privately shame laggards (and their authorizers) to either turn things around or shut their doors. The movement must also clearly highlight examples of high-quality charters — including KIPP and Green Dot — follow their models of success and develop new ones that bolster quality. Given that most nonprofits are terrible at financial management and human resources activities, the movement should look toward the private sector for models of better practices; this includes even embracing outsourcing of operations that really shouldn’t be handled by school administrators in the first place. And boosting funding from the philanthropic center — and weaning away from heavy dependence on taxpayer funding — could also be helpful.
The charter school movement must also step up its game on the public relations front. This goes beyond basic explanations of what charters do. It includes painting portraits of what charters are doing for their students — including testimonials from those who attend them. This means actually putting the kids and their teachers front and center in campaigns, traditional and viral, that make stronger cases for why charters (and school choice) means brighter futures for children, their families and the communities in which they live. This also means building stronger ties with communities and grassroots activists, a problem that continues to plague the entire school reform movement even as parents agitate for the same reforms the movement’s activists seek.
At this moment, the charter school movement doesn’t face the same challenges as for-profit colleges; the for-profit sector (along with the rest of higher education) continues to do a poor job on improving course quality. But the favor charters find now may not remain. So charters, along with the rest of the school reform movement, must get to work on addressing the real challenges facing their schools and beating back foes who want to relegate charters to the ashbin of history.