Open the books on charter schools

Michael Mulgrew 1187

When President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos held a meeting at the White House with the “education community” on Feb. 14, it showed the deep disconnect between his administration and the reality of education in the United States.

Only two of the nine people invited were representatives from public schools; the other guests were educators or parents representing charter schools, private schools and home schooling. Yet 80 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren attend public schools.

During the meeting, Trump also praised a “Nevada charter school” that he visited; as reporters later pointed out, the school he visited was actually a religious school that regularly excludes students with disabilities.

Trump and DeVos both support taxpayer-funded vouchers for children to attend private and religious schools. In fact, the Trump White House’s bias against public schools is so clear that any alternative would probably find favor.

Trump and DeVos trumpet the rhetoric of “school choice,” but they are silent on accountability. In her home state of Michigan in 2016, DeVos fought tooth and nail against state legislation with bipartisan support to provide oversight and set standards on how and when to open and close schools. DeVos vigorously fought for and still defends the state’s unregulated charter sector, where 80 percent of the charter schools are operated for profit. In her view, a charter school should close only when the company operating it cannot attract enough students to turn a profit.

As I argued in my op-ed piece that appeared in City & State on Feb. 13, charter advocates like to proclaim that charter schools are truly public schools, but they hold their data as close as any private corporation. In New York, charter schools receive millions of public dollars, but they are not transparent about their spending or their admissions and student-discipline policies.

If the system had real transparency, it would give the public a better sense of how New York City charters are doing at enrolling, educating and keeping all children, including those with the greatest needs. Real transparency, in turn, would allow the New York State Legislature to determine penalties for any charter’s failure to fulfill its obligations.

If you want to know how much a New York charter school pays its top managers, you have to dig through IRS filings. Parents who want to know who is donating millions of dollars to a charter network — 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 is nearly impossible.

Eva Moskowitz even went to court to prevent the state comptroller from auditing the books of Success Academy. She couldn’t, however, stop a city audit that showed sloppy financial practices in her operation.

Real transparency would 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 of their vendors and the fees they charge. It would help determine which charters actually need free space and which could be tapping their own bank accounts rather than relying on taxpayer dollars.

The public can go to the city Department of Education website for detailed data on every single New York City public school. The public has the same right to know how charter schools are spending taxpayer money. Why should charters be exempt from this scrutiny?

New York City’s co-located charter and public schools are the clearest examples of the failure to hold charters accountable. These schools may share a building, but the public school will have three times the number of special education students and four times the number of homeless children as the charter school.

We need to make sure charter schools operate for the benefit of their students, not their management companies and their Wall Street backers. We have the opportunity in New York State to lead the way in demanding transparency and accountability from the charter sector. With a push to expand charter schools and private-school vouchers nationally sure to come soon from Washington, D.C., now is the best time to act.

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Related Topics: President's Perspective, Charter Schools
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