Tolles, Washington Post

In a recent column in the Columbus Dispatch, Ron Rice Jr. of the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools opened his piece with this statement. “The early stage of the 2020 presidential campaign has featured a lot of rhetoric about charter schools. Too much of it has been divorced from the reality of what charter schools are.”

He’s right. There is an overabundance of rhetoric being broadcast by all kinds of organizations which serves only to expand that growing, undrained swamp near the Potomac.

In a time when we have a way-over-his-head former television reality show host attempting to misdirect the nation by creating division and chaos, it’s nice to hear a non-presidential candidate offer a view of our current reality.

But the headline that came with Rice’s column provides something else, a clear and open invitation to the public:

Cut through the rhetoric and go visit charter schools.

What a wonderful idea! I certainly hope that my fellow citizens will take Mr. Rice up on his offer to see what they can find out about these peculiar institutions which are privately managed but publicly funded.

Indeed, and for many reasons, there has been a lot of rhetoric about charters. And if anyone should visit one of these schools, we’d like to suggest some questions that visitors might ask to cut through the rhetoric and headlines to better understand the DNA of charters.

While there are many areas of interest to examine about these schools, let’s look at a few topics which the public should be concerned about and question when they visit these buildings.

Governance and Oversight. How is the school governed? How are the board members chosen? Since they are not democratically elected by registered voters, like public school board members as they run for office in their communities, whom do they represent? Are the board members of charter schools American citizens? Do the board members live in the school attendance area? How many other charter school boards might the governing board members be serving on at the same time?

School Management. What about the company that manages the school? Does it own the building in which the school is housed and use operating profits diverted from classroom costs to buy real estate? How much of the school budget is applied to rental costs? Does the management company also own the property where the school is housed? Is the management company part of a national chain and not deeply rooted in the community? Has the management company or school leader populated the board with individuals who may be conflicted with regard to whose interests, rather than the students, come first?

School Leadership. While we’re at it, folks who might visit charters need to find out about the school leader and the background and training that individual brings to the job. A lot of charters use imposing titles such as CEO and Superintendent in their listings. But aside from the title, does the school leader have a professional educator license and graduate training in teaching and school administration? A previous background in the classroom? Public school experience? What percentage of the total charter school budget goes to administration? What is the relationship between the school leader and the management company operating the school? Has the school leader been able to appoint some of the governing board members that may be responsible, in concert with the management company, for their hiring and evaluation?

Instructional/ Classroom Staff. There aren’t as many questions to ask about charter school teachers inasmuch as state law requires the classroom-level staff to be licensed. However, a visitor needs to ask a few appropriate questions about the teaching staff. How many are completing their first year at the school? How many have worked at the school more than two years? How many have prior public school experience or left a school district to work at the charter being visited?

And we haven’t even talked about State Report Card data. Or excessive administrative costs as compared to public schools. Or how public funds conveyed for a public purpose are being converted to acquire private property for the management company. Or other issues that the public should be concerned about with these offspring of a deregulation and privatization environment.

Yes, there are a lot of questions an informed citizen would want to pose in order to become more informed about charters, and these are but a few of a list of sample questions that should be asked of any charter school advocate and building leader that might be part of a school visit. The reason for these particular questions is simple.

Ohio law exempts charters from about 150 sections of the state code which apply to public schools. By way of illustration, there is no requirement for a charter school board member to be a qualified voter, viz., citizen, nor is there any minimum educational requirement or professional license required to administer a charter school. That’s right, none.

Said another way, in charter world, as Cole Porter once put it, anything goes.

Having it Both Ways – Slane Cartoons

In 2014, for example, an investigation by the Akron Beacon Journal revealed that some Ohio charter school governing boards were populated by non-citizens. The following year, Plunderbund examined the issue and reported that a national charter school chain operating in Ohio and other states “acted to employ teachers, some of whom were holders of H1B visas as part of their visitor status in this country.”

Hire non-licensed administrators, appoint non-citizens to the governing board, and allow profit to influence decisions on executive compensation, teacher salaries, and whatever is left to go into the classrooms. Take public funds for education and allow private companies, many of which are national chains and located out-of-state, to acquire property rather than allow public school districts to further invest in the community. Perhaps Ohioans, in thinking about current public policy that supports two parallel systems of education, could channel Charles Manson, who famously said that “no sense makes sense.”

But in the case of charters, when you look at the legal exemptions and the anti-democratic nature of  their governance, no sense is just that.

Yet the questions posed here barely touch the surface in examining a school type that contains so many contradictions. But those contradictions provide opportunities to privatizers in the form of management companies and investors, the very people that disparagingly refer to “government schools” while they engorge themselves with public (yes, government ) money to create what are corporate schools.

As we cut through the rhetoric and consider Ron Rice’s offer to visit charter schools, citizens should be thinking about these schools that call themselves public entities but are decidedly something else. Yet we must visit these schools in response to the invitation provided by an exec with their trade organization and ask some questions about licensure and school experience, governance, oversight, management organizations, finances, executive compensation and average teacher salaries.

Yes, it’s time for voters to inform themselves about charter schools, critically examine their nature and purpose, and cut through the rhetoric offered by Mr. Rice and those who wish to privatize one of the key elements of every community. Public education is about democracy and the investment citizens make in their schools, not about enabling private companies to convert public assets into profit and acquire private property that otherwise should belong to the taxpayers.

For these reasons, the term “public charter school” is in fact an oxymoron. The very use of that term is a fitting example of the kind of rhetoric Mr. Rice has encouraged us to avoid.

Let us help him to cut through the rhetoric in this election season and take him up on the suggestion of visiting these privately operated schools which convert public funds for their own purposes. The Ohio Department of Education provides this interactive list of charter schools and contact information which can assist the public in finding out more about them.

Thanks again for the offer, Ron Rice. And good luck with your school visits, Ohio voters. Let your elected public officials know what you find out about these corporate schools that want to have things both ways, yet want more and more of that “government” money.

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