[This op-ed originally appeared in City & State on Feb. 13, 2017.]
If charter schools are really public schools, why is so much of the information about their operations private — even secret? New York needs to do more now — especially with President Trump’s pick of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education — to make sure that charters operate for the benefit of the public, not charter operators and their management organizations.
Charters that are allowed to operate without strong oversight can be a disaster for children and their communities. Michigan, home to Secretary DeVos, has let unregulated charters — many of them for-profit operations — proliferate to the point that charters threaten the financial viability of the entire Michigan public school system. Meanwhile 80 percent of Michigan charters show lower student achievement than the state's neighborhood public schools.
The need for more oversight in New York is clear. New York parents or taxpayers who want to know where public money is going -- for instance, how much a charter school pays its top managers — have to dig through IRS filings. Parents who want to know who is donating millions of dollars to a charter chain — and whether those millions are being spent to help students — have to search the internet for clues. Trying to find out how much charters are paying their management organizations — and for what service — is nearly impossible.
As a group, New York’s charter schools are not transparent, despite receiving public dollars, despite requirements that they accept and educate all children, despite parent calls for greater information and accountability in their admissions, financial and student discipline policies.
Many New York charters remain remarkably resistant to public scrutiny. Charter leader Eva Moskowitz — a dedicated opponent of charter transparency — even went to court to prevent the New York State Comptroller from auditing her chain’s books. She couldn’t stop a city audit, however, that showed sloppy financial practices in her operation.
If the system had real transparency, it would give the public a better sense of how charters are doing at enrolling, educating and keeping all children, includes those with the highest needs, and let the Legislature determine real penalties for any charter's failure to do so.
In New York City, we have charter and neighborhood public schools sharing the same building, yet the public school will have three times the number of special education student and four times the number of homeless children as the charter school.
Real transparency would also let the public know how much charter operators — and their management organizations — actually take home, including payments from board members and other contributors, along with the identities and fees of their vendors. It would help determine which charters actually need free space and which could be tapping their own bank accounts rather than relying on the taxpayers.
The public can go to the city's Department of Education website for itemized data on every single public school. Why should charters be exempt from the idea that the spending of public money should happen in public?
Expanding charters while reducing oversight will be only part of the DeVos agenda, which will also include voucher schemes and other privatization efforts. If we had any doubt on their impact, just ask Michigan parents, who saw their neighborhood public schools drained of resources by an unregulated, “Wild West” charter sector, which not only failed to perform but weakened all schools. Students, whether urban, suburban or rural, lost. The only winners were those trying to make a profit off of Michigan school children.
But New York has the opportunity now to lead in the opposite direction and to protect a precious resource. To do that, we need to make sure policies for all schools are transparent and public dollars are being spent fairly and for the benefit of all children.