The initial version of this article was published in educational Horizons
Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University
In 1991Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law. Numerous states followed and in a decade about 400,000 youngsters were enrolled nationwide. Even more rapid growth followed. Presently 2.9 million youngsters attend charter schools in forty three states and the District of Columbia. In 2017 charter advocates also won sufficient school board seats to secure control of the huge Los Angeles Unified School District. Prodigious sums were spent by pro charter forces to secure this victory. And you can be sure they plan to profit from their investment.
The School District of Philadelphia illustrates the particular impact charters are having on big city public schools and Catholic schools as well. It is home to 86 brick and mortar charter schools enrolling more than 64,000 students at a cost well exceeding ⅓ of a billion dollars.
I understand why these schools are popular. For years I negotiated the bleak no man’s land of the School District of Philadelphia while supervising student teachers. I found far too many Philadelphia public schools were unsafe, lacked resources, were crumbling for lack of maintenance, and were chronically underfunded and overburdened by children with all the problems that poverty brings. Little seems to have changed since then. And despite a yearly expenditure of nearly three billion dollars, about 35 percent of the district’s youngsters fail to graduate; and many who do can barely read.
Hope and Doubt
You can see why I might be a charter school enthusiast. But in my forty-six years in education I have lived through one half-baked “reform” after another, (teaching machines, competency-based education, open education, ad nauseam) and these experiences have left me deeply skeptical. I wonder if charter schools are just another example of hope triumphing over experience?
Aspects of the charter school movement feed my skepticism. For one thing, the claims made by charter school evangelists, such as that half educated true believer Sally DeVoss, would make a used car salesman blush. Proponents claim, for example, that charter schools:
* “Increase opportunities for learning and access to quality education for all students”
* “Encourage community and parent involvement in public education”
* “Provide a system of accountability for results in public education”
The first claim is false on its face. Charter schools provide life rafts for parents and students who want to abandon sinking urban districts. But by bleeding off caring parents and motivated students, charters decrease the quality of education for students who stay behind. That is why the second promise is also false. Charters suck community and parent involvement away from traditional public schools. And so far as accountability is concerned, evidence suggests that charter schools are generally less accountable. They operate with greater autonomy and less regulation than traditional public schools. So their accountability to governmental authority is lessened. That leads to abuses, fraud and waste. For instance, a Pennsylvania study showed charter school administrative costs are double those of traditional public schools. Plus they spend less on instruction and more on support services and utilities. Why? Because they’re lining their pockets with our money. 
I’m also put off by the covert politics involved in the charter school movement. One unacknowledged reason that Republicans have taken the lead in promoting charters is that they weaken teachers unions; and they routinely support Democratic candidates. Republican politicos pretend this is not their motivation, but it most certainly is a major factor, if not THE major factor.
I also distrust the fervent free market evangelists who claim that competition makes things better. If that were true, McDonald’s would not have emerged as the nation’s leading restaurant chain.
The Triumph of Hope over Experience
Despite my misgivings, I decided to take a look when a trusted friend and colleague enthusiastically described a new charter schools he founded in Philadelphia.
The school’s founder, a highly regarded former district administrator, was admirably businesslike in his approach. His minimal administrative staff seemed focused and hard working. Parent volunteers were much in evidence and actually doing useful things. This charter plainly lacked the unfortunate novelties of many Philadelphia public schools. It wasn’t dilapidated or dreary, but brightly lit and well appointed. The halls smelled of floor wax, not urine. Packs of truants weren’t lolling on nearby corners. Profanities weren’t being screamed in the halls. The teaching staff did not manifest the attitude of Captain Bligh’s crew shortly before the mutiny. There were enough textbooks and supplies for every child. And in a city where schools are often dangerous for kids and staff alike, this school seemed safe.
The founder explained how he and the teachers had successfully integrated special education students into regular classrooms. He also recounted taking creative advantage of the relaxed regulation concerning teacher certification to hire a dance teacher. And he explained how he substantially supplemented the school’s resources via grants and capitalistic enterprise—selling school uniforms, for example.
Despite a scarred veteran’s caution, I came away impressed—so impressed, in fact, that I took my students on a field trip to the school, invited the founder to speak to both my graduate and undergraduate classes, and advised some of my best students that they should consider teaching there. I conceded that they would make less, lack union representation and the protection of a detailed contract, but they might also be happier.
I even allowed myself to hope that the benefits of charter schooling might outweigh the costs. To be sure, my examination of another charter, an allegedly “Africanized” one, was disappointing. Nevertheless, I continued to hope that charter schooling might, in aggregate, prove more plus than minus.
Several years passed and the number of Philadelphia charter schools continued to grow. And, with the addition of a high school, my friend’s charter school efforts expanded as well to include some twelve hundred students. Hearing nothing but praise for the school, I continued to recommend it. Then, without warning, a series of front-page stories in the Philadelphia Inquirer announced that the charter was deeply mired in scandal. The paper reported federal and school district allegations of fiscal mismanagement, nepotism, and conflicts of interest against the school’s top management.
It also revealed that the CEO, whom I regarded as a friend, and his handpicked successor, a former policeman with only a high school diploma, were being paid more than most superintendents of entire school districts. Worse, the school’s chief financial officer was awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy and altering records. Concerns also were raised about the school’s lack of diversity (enrollment at the school was 87 percent white) and alleged favoritism in its admission practices. Worse still, my friend and several of his staff faced federal and local criminal charges relating to fraud, etc. So much for hope triumphing over experience. As the FBI and local District Attorney closed in, my cornered friend parked at a commuter rail station, took out his pistol and took his own life.
This scandal was not the beginning or end of charter school troubles in Philadelphia. For instance, in October 2008 the Inquirer announced that law enforcement agencies were investigating another Philadelphia charter school that allegedly diverted some of its thirty-one million dollars in taxpayer funds to illegally support other nonprofits operated by its parent group. And in 2006–07 this charter spent only 38.4 percent of its budget on instruction: the remainder went for niceties such as legal fees, travel, meals, and entertainment for the boss and his top staff. In addition, the school’s test scores lagged drastically behind state benchmarks; dozens of vendors were complaining that the school was stiffing them on payments; and the landlord was threatening the school with eviction.
Yes, this is old news. But similar troubles continue to the present day. For instance, the School District of Philadelphia has expressed serious financial and management practice concerns about a non-profit that runs five Philadelphia schools with 3,000 students. Chief among them is their practice of shuffling money from parent schools to the parent non-profit in such a manner that the district cannot be certain what is being done with the money. Asked whether they were diverting student funds for other purposes, the non-profit’s spokesperson replied: “We can’t say for sure whether or not that’s happening.” I found that comforting.
Two main ideas inform the charter school movement. The first is that competition is an essential ingredient in school improvement. The trouble with this argument is that competition doesn’t select the best, only the most popular. McDonald’s doesn’t produce the best-tasting or most-nutritious food, for instance, but its heart attack specials certainly are popular. A second-rate school might prove similarly competitive if it provides a tawdry but reassuring education to the children of the low-information crowd. Fearful your kids will discover you are an ignoramus? Send them to Alpha Charter where they will remain as ignorant as you.
The second main idea behind charters is that state directives are strangling public school innovations. That’s why charters are exempted from many rules restricting the operations of traditional public schools.
The trouble is that deregulation creates opportunities for mountebanks to pilfer the public purse and line their pockets. As a matter of fact, to the extent that charter operators have freedom of action, the confidence tricksters and bunko artists find opportunities for fraud and misuse of public funds. What is more, the politicians (and/or their relatives) who push charters often end up feeding at the charter school trough themselves.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Philadelphia’s experience with charter school scandals is widely shared. A Google search for “charter school fraud” turns up a million and half results. We read, for example, that Ohio charter schools, officially known as community schools in the Buckeye state, have become “cash repositories to be siphoned off.” In one case this siphoning was carried out by a former Republican state legislator who wrote the legislation creating charter schools.” What is more, that politician’s daughter is cashing in too.
Deregulation Writ Large
Charter schools are hardly the only enterprise to give deregulation a bad name. The U.S. economy was plunged into its worst crises since the Great Depression by deregulation. Many point to the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, a 1999 banking deregulation bill, as the primary cause. The act repealed Depression-era regulations and encouraged the creation of sub-prime mortgages, including no-money-down, interest-only loans to individuals with poor credit histories. Those mortgages were subsequently packaged and sold as securities. The Bush administration, blinded by the philosophy that market forces provide all the regulation necessary, ignored numerous warnings of an impending collapse. Thus did deregulation produce the conditions that triggered an economic train wreck,
Deregulation similarly precipitated the savings and loan crises of the 1980s and ’90s. In that case a new federal law permitted S&Ls to depart from their original mission of receiving savings and providing mortgages and venture into commercial loans and issuing credit cards instead. S&Ls soon were lending money to shaky ventures they were ill equipped to assess. Eventually more than sixteen hundred banks either closed or required federal assistance at a cost to federal taxpayers of $124.6 billion.
What’s the common element in both of these financial debacles? Deregulation. What is at the heart of the charter school movement? Deregulation.
Given President Trump’s support for charter schooling, the movement will multiply during his administration. If so, expect still more fraud and scandal, because whatever their merits, charters present a monumental opportunity for swindlers and charlatans.
Also expect to hear of more and worse non-fiduciary scandals — high stakes test cheating and sexual abuse come to mind—as the full fruits of reduced oversight are realized. As the cliche goes, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”
2. Pennsylvania Charter Public Schools, https://www.publicschoolreview.com/pennsylvania/charter-public-schools
3. US Charter Schools.
4. Martha Woodall, “SRC Agrees to Renew Philadelphia Academy Charter School,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 2008.
5. Martha Woodall, “Germantown Charter School’s Use of Taxpayer Funds Being Investigated,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 12, 2008.
7. Mat Apuzzo (Associated Press), “Mortgage-Crisis Warnings Ignored,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 2, 2008, A2.
8. It was the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982 that deregulated the savings and loan industry.