Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I’m here to submit comments regarding the potential approval of a Cheatham County Charter School. I’m no expert in this area, but it is one that I’ve followed very closely for over a decade. I will be as brief as possible, but this is a complicated subject matter and I would greatly appreciate your indulgence.
It’s no secret that I’ve been a vocal critic of some of the decisions made by this board and administration. I realize you have a difficult job, but I also believe that some of those decisions have lead to Cheatham County becoming a target area for poachers of public education. I don’t know the position of this school board on the application, but generally, Charter schools don’t open in successful, cooperative districts. However, my goal tonight is to provide you with information that I hope you find useful as you move forward in your deliberations.
Nationwide, 561 new charter schools opened last year, while 206 were closed, and we’ve recently heard of the additional closings in Nashville. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools can close at any time and they have a history of instability and questionable finances.
Charter schools have strayed far from their initial mission in the early 90’s. What was once viewed as an innovative way for teachers and parents to band together to help failing students has become nothing more than an additional revenue stream by the wealthy few paid for by the taxpayers of local communities.
The “school choice” debate has been going on for nearly two decades, but none so heated as recently. We are currently embarking on dangerous territory with high stakes testing, unfair teacher evaluations, and Common Core. A student’s academic success, nor a teacher’s value cannot possibly be determined by a state test alone. The PARCC system is being used as an excuse for college readiness, but the only test scores colleges really care about are those on an ACT or SAT. Regardless, Charters will claim they achieve higher scores on state tests like PARCC and EOCs (end of course exams) therefore on paper, it may seem they are doing a better job than a traditional community school. Recent studies disagree.
On average, Charters are no more successful than traditional public schools in improving math or reading scores. They are no more successful in attendance, grade promotion, student conduct or achievement. Contrary to self serving propaganda, they do not offer any tangible benefits to students, or to local communities. Approximately 75% of Charter Schools perform the same, or worse than our local schools. In fact, Stanford University’s 2013 CREDO report (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) found charter students have significantly lower learning gains in math and reading than those in local public schools. (pg. 38).
Education has become “big business” nationwide. Out of state corporations spend millions of dollars in lobbying efforts in states they believe they can gain a foothold, and legislative presence in Tennessee is staggering. It seems far more about profits and monetary gain than it is about education. These privately operated schools are not held accountable like public schools nor held to the same standards, yet tax dollars are used to fund them.
Public Education is NOT an industry, but it’s being treated as such by investors, hedge fund managers and lawmakers alike. If Charter Schools truly had to abide by the same rules and regulations as our local schools and you remove the profit incentive, I highly doubt these so called “investors in public education” would be so quick to open Charter?
Our parents are unhappy with the current status quo. A Charter School will sell some of those parents on the idea that they are a better alternative to our current schools in “exchange” for “Greater Accountability”. That’s just not true. They have to meet their own determined benchmarks. Not those set forth by the local district. It’s important for parents to understand exactly what a charter school is and how it truly impacts their kids and local communities. Charter Schools are not “public schools”. Be weary when they say things like “we have more flexibility to do the things we want to do”. For instance, they are not required to provide on site services for special needs students. They can contract with the School Board to provide these services at other schools but they don’t have to do it themselves.
Make no mistake, Charter Schools are a lucrative business; and time and time again, the Federal Courts have agreed with that assessment. They are contractors of the government receiving millions of public funds but are accountable to no one but their shareholders.
When parents have issues, they will call the School Board only to find out that you have no way to help them because our locally elected Board members have no say or control in what goes on at a Charter school. You will have to tell parents to call the Charter’s Board of Directors or the State Department of Education to deal with the Nashville bureaucracy and maybe, just maybe they will get some assistance within 30 days, but your phone will still ring, and your inbox will still get messages when parents don’t get an answer.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Jimmy Hopper about his proposal and he knows my feelings on this. Mr. Hopper came to Cheatham County High School through the Teach for American program, which is another questionable program that we have allowed in our schools. However, that discussion is for another day. I will admit, Mr. Hopper has been a great addition to Cheatham County High School. The first time he and I spoke over a year ago about TFA, he was not a licensed teacher and that is a concern we all should have about TFA participants. However, he is the exception to the rule and is pursuing the appropriate credentials, and that’s great, but his apprentice license is less than one year old! I’m not sure working for the GOP in Washington and two years in a high school classroom qualifies someone to run an entire school. From what I’ve observed, he is a good teacher, with great ideas and the kids love him, and he is exactly the kind of educator we want to encourage in our classrooms. It’s very disappointing that he fell in line with the pro charter TFA motto and is spearheading this initiative instead of seeking to put the ideas in practice in our existing schools.
Research consistently shows negative impacts from charter schools in local districts. If a charter school is approved, taxpayers are funding two systems of public schools under separate regulatory practices. The general public needs to understand, that the funding that is traditionally earmarked for a local public school is diverted to fund the privately operated Charter. This puts a further strain on struggling systems and more often than not, forces community leaders to raise property taxes and other tax options to make up for the lost revenue. Losing even a small percentage of our revenue to a Charter school will put us in very real danger of very real cuts, including teachers, curriculum and classes and none of us want that.
To put this in perspective, in Nashville, all available new revenue for Metro-Nashville Public Schools is going to charter schools, which currently serve only 5% of their students. The average annual growth in cash outlays for charter schools has exceeded 50% since 2008, versus only 4% for the rest of the district. Memphis is $157 million in debt, but must continue to pony up charter school funds. In 2003, the charter school budget was $1.9 million. Now it’s $82.9 million- up from $57.8 million last year. That’s over a $20 million increase in ONE YEAR. EIGHTY MILLION in just 10 years!
I believe this Charter school will cost us more than it will contribute. We simply can’t afford another liability. Charter schools are private entities, managed by private corporations that operate outside the purview of the law and outside the spirit in which they were designed and the taxpayers shouldn’t be required to fund it. If they truly believe they are innovators of education, then they should fund this “public” school with their own money. There is no law prohibiting a privately funded school from being open to the public.
Charter Schools are like Kudzu; brought in for a seemingly good reason, but in time becomes invasive and uncontrollable.
Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO)
National Charter School Study – 2013
The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts: Final Report
Institute of Education Sciences
National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance
FISCAL IMPACTS OF CHARTER SCHOOLS:
LESSONS FROM NEW YORK
Robert Bifulco, Syracuse University
Randall Reback, Barnard College
Mathematica Policy Research
Molnar, 1996; Arsen, Plank, & Sykes, 1999
National Labor Relations Board (Case ID 13-RM-001768)
U.S. Census Bureau