Second thoughts on charter schools



February 5, 2019 - 10:10 AM

Everyone loved Ralphie.  He seemed the perfect dog for my son’s family—just the right size and age.  He was good-natured, house-trained and playful.  He went home with the family the day they first saw him at the rescue center. 

Out for a walk a week later, Ralphie pulled off his leash and bolted.  After two hours of searching and chasing, it became clear why Ralphie had been turned back to the shelter not once, but twice. 

Today, Ralphie continues to be a valued pet, but his interest in escaping is now curtailed by a strong chest-halter lead.

Learning about Ralphie made me think of my developing perspective on the charter school movement.  Initially charter schools appear to be exactly what is needed to correct problems facing Kansas’ schools, and some school reformers advocate for the 2019 legislature to approve broadening the charter school statute. 

Yet, examination of the effects of loosening charter regulations reveals genuine flaws that need restraint.  

Charter schools are public schools but they select students who attend and have leeway to operate outside traditional public school policies according to each state’s laws.  

Currently, Kansas charters must be approved by and receive oversight from the school district in which they are located, follow the same accreditation policies as the school district and must reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic make-up of the school district.  

Kansas has one of the strongest charter school laws in the nation but in states with looser charter policies and less oversight than Kansas, major problems have developed.

As public schools, all charters must admit students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or special needs; however, in some states there appears to be little enforcement of the mandate.  

Texas law permits charter schools to cherry-pick students through admission requirements that include asking about students’ disciplinary histories. In California charters may require financial donations from families.  

Dismissed charter students go back to their assigned school districts and this sets up opportunity for a disproportionate number of high-need students in public schools.  

The siphoning of public school funding associated with charters is also troubling.  In each state, including Kansas, school districts must pay the per-pupil state allocation, including additional funds for special education, to a charter located within the district (i.e., state per-pupil funds move with the student).  

In a recent analysis Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker found that without careful planning, charters deplete the resources of public schools.  Baker writes that when public school revenues decline, districts reduce overhead expenditures.  

This situation transferred to Kansas could be especially problematic to small town and rural districts due to tight budgets and economies of scale. For example, a charter and a public school in a small district likely would have difficulty duplicating fixed expenses like the major cost of transportation.  This could leave both schools with fewer dollars for music, athletics and other pursuits which most Kansans agree are needed for students.  

In some states charters expand through multi-state conglomerates that often operate on for-profit models.  Most charter corporations are found in large, urban areas not on the Kansas prairie, at least so far. Moreover, many Kansans fear the outside control that national charters exert.