Charter schools con: Profit motive harms education, taxpayers

Sabrina Joy Stevens, a former teacher, is executive director of Integrity in Education in Washington.
Sabrina Joy Stevens, a former teacher, is executive director of Integrity in Education in Washington.

Public education has long been considered a cornerstone of our democracy. Our schools help safeguard the freedoms we cherish by ensuring that each of us, regardless of income or background, has the opportunity to learn the habits of heart and mind to be engaged, thoughtful citizens.

That's one reason Americans overwhelmingly support our public schools.

A recent Harstad Research Poll showed that 82 percent of us rated our local public school "good," "very good" or "excellent."

Similarly, voters this month in 11 battleground states, including Kentucky, shared their policy preferences for the newly elected Congress in an exit poll by Hart Research. Their No. 1 priority, with 75 percent in favor and only 21 percent opposed, was increasing public school funding from preschool through college.

Which makes it all the more baffling why Kentucky's recently re-elected senator and majority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican state legislators and the Kentucky Black Alliance for Educational Options would want to give Kentucky public school funding away to private interests, through private school vouchers and funding corporate charter schools.

Last week, the legislature's Interim Joint Committee on Education discussed charter schools as a potential panacea to the achievement gap for black, poor and disabled students in Fayette County. A "protest" on the steps of Louisville's old courthouse urged lawmakers to pass a charter school law.

Kentuckians would be smart to continue exercising caution. Many states have discovered that what began as a noble attempt to find and foster innovations has increasingly become a way for big business to profit at children's and taxpayers' expense.

In Ohio, corporate charter schools have been responsible for all manner of fraud, waste and abuse. In June, the FBI raided Southwest Ohio's Horizon Science Academy due to financial irregularities, even though a 2009 state audit warned that internal controls were lacking and this outcome was likely.

A separate investigation by the Ohio Department of Education, under Republican Gov. John Kasich and Republican Auditor David Yost, found that the Chicago-based Concept Schools, of which Horizon is one, have engaged in "alleged sexual misconduct and tampering with test and attendance records." Charter corporations owe Ohio taxpayers over $30 million.

The profit motive behind most of these schools has led charter students to "typically lag behind district school students by weeks in reading and months in math," according to a new study. So much for solving the achievement gap.

My organization, Integrity in Education, is one of several to find millions of public dollars lost to fraud, waste and abuse by the charter industry. Instead of educating all children equally, charters have consistently excluded many of society's most vulnerable, or the very students the Kentucky Black Alliance for Educational Options claims they would help most — those with disabilities, students who are still learning English and those in the worst poverty.

The Black Alliance's stance might not be popular among the public, but it is very popular among the wealthy, right-wing foundations that fund its very existence. This includes The Walton Foundation, set up by the family members of the Walmart empire, which subjugates their workers to a life of poverty by paying the lowest wages possible and eliminating worker benefits. Other foundations include the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, and American Education Reform Council.

To pick just one of the above, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, if we look at who else it has financially supported, the list includes the racial polemicist David Horowitz who authored a ridiculous book called Hating Whitey and has asked why blacks in America don't show more gratitude toward whites for how good they have it. It has also funded the work of Charles Murray, whose book The Bell Curve theorized that African-Americans don't do as well as whites because they just aren't as smart. Strange bedfellows for an organization supposedly advocating for the educational interests of minorities caught in bad schools.

Our public education system should not be a profit-making opportunity for large charter corporations and an ideological battlefield for right-wing foundations who despise the very idea of public schools.

If McConnell wants to use his new power as a statesman, he could support programs to roll back the underlying poverty that has enormously contributed to any gaps in achievement among poorer whites and communities of color. McConnell could lead the fight to raise the minimum wage to a living wage and support other programs that would alleviate the poverty at the source of the problem.

The Black Alliance could stand by his side in this battle and, by shifting their focus to the real problem, articulate the need to restore and indeed increase funding in all the school systems where it has been cut, so we can strengthen public schools through better infrastructure, more teachers and smaller class sizes, all proven to work.

Our schools are a public good. The future of our democracy depends upon each and every child being well educated within them. We need leaders who understand the importance of spending our public funds on all our children as opposed to giving those funds to industry operatives who see our schools as their next big business opportunity.