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Time to shed some light on corporate-backed charters

This op-ed was originally published on NJ Spotlight:



The time has come for New Jersey taxpayers to take a close look at corporate-sponsored charter schools in New Jersey. So-called school-choice advocates are pumping millions of dollars into political and advertising campaigns to protect the status quo when it involves the quasi-secret operations of privately managed charter schools in cities like Newark and elsewhere. The strike a wedge between Newark’s parents to draw the attention of taxpayers away from their financial shenanigans.
First of all, it is vital to recognize the difference between a community charter school and a corporate charter school. The Newark Teachers Union has asked for more transparency in the management of corporate-backed charter schools. The Newark Public Schools have two monthly meetings where the school board and superintendent can be held accountable for the actions of their school. When was the last time the citizens of Newark were invited to a KIPP board meeting? What about Uncommon Schools?
Also, as these charters have grown, banks and corporations have developed ways, and found alternative credit routes, to provide capital to charter schools at favorable rates. What are these rates? And what are they funding? Have taxpayers and state legislators had an opportunity to review these credit applications?

Why are Newark’s corporate-run charters so afraid of transparency and democracy? Are Newark taxpayers allowed to run for election on a North Star Academy school board? Where are their financial statements? Where are their attendance reports? How are they spending taxpayer money? And why must the union be asking these questions?
Second of all, corporate-charter advocates try to make the argument that Newark parents are “voting with their feet” and leaving public schools. But this is very misleading. Strong community schools like Dayton Street School were closed, forcing students from their communities. And still a vast majority of students elected to choose traditional public schools at their first option when they filled out their choices under One Newark.
On top of that, the corporate charter industry throws millions of dollars into advertising their schools and broad claims of undocumented success. When was the last time you saw a billboard or TV commercial advertising your local traditional school? Or the many successful magnet high schools in Newark? There is no true choice here, just a financial tidal wave to push parents towards the corporate charter schools. They burn the village down, and then yell as loudly “This village has failed it’s citizens!”
It is also very misleading when charters tote their successes without providing any evidence beyond their press release. As much as they promise “blind lotteries” are used to select their students, the numbers don’t hold up. Newark’s charter schools somehow manage to end up without the more challenging populations. They have far lower number of special ed, LEP, and poverty students.
And as the charters expand, they continue to cream off select student groups, leaving the traditional schools with a more concentrated population of more challenging and more expensive students to educate -- while draining away the very financial resources needed to provide these students with a quality education.
But despite this creaming process, charters in general don’t show all that much success over a traditional public school. The film “Waiting for Superman,” which was little more than a valentine to the charter industry, touted that 17 percent of charter schools were more successful than public schools. That means 83 percent are the same or less successful. If this is truly a blind lottery, then the charter providers need to play Powerball. I would say they have had a lot of luck, but that would be unfair to teachers in the Newark Public Schools. We educate all students, and we are proud of that. No matter what their IEP’s say. No matter what language their parents speak or if their parents are not involved in their lives. No matter if they are homeless or coming to school hungry every morning. That is what a Newark educator does, and shame on corporate-sponsored so-called school-choice advocates for denouncing that work for their financial and professional gain.

Lastly, the state legislature has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to post a charter-school moratorium bill at legislative education committees that would allow taxpayers and educators to hear publically what exactly is going on in these corporate charters. Compel them to freely share the methods they use to achieve their undocumented claims of success, and just as importantly, order them to share detailed finances with the people who provide their profits.