by Paul Dunphy
As charter schools
take an increasing toll on the Northampton public school system,
forcing deep cuts in teaching staff and programs, more and more
people are questioning the origins of this privatization initiative
and wondering why the city has no control over its cost.
Northampton's financial obligation to charter schools in Hadley
and Haydenville is expected to be more than $800,000 next year and
will only grow as tuitions rise and the schools expand. The city
will have little choice but to continue trimming the public system.
Charter school budgets cannot be cut. Charter schools operate outside
the local democratic process.
In substantive ways, charter schools are the opposite of public
schools. Charters are publicly funded but privately run, governed
by self-appointed boards of trustees. While public schools are required
to serve a broad range of students, charters are free to focus on
a narrow theme or curriculum, appealing only to certain students
and their families.
Also, charters are free to limit enrollment, far different from
public schools which often struggle with large classes and crowded
buildings. Charters do not need to hire certified teachers. Nor
must they deal with one of the most expensive obligations facing
public schools, serving children with severe disabilities.
Charter school funding is also conveniently secure. Charters receive
financial priority over public schools. Their money comes off the
top of a community's state education aid. It does not matter whether
state aid increases or decreases or what financial contingencies
a public school faces, charter schools get their money first. Guaranteed.
The architects of the charter initiative, during the administration
of Gov. William Weld, knew that communities struggling to adequately
fund their public schools would not likely vote to support new charter
schools. So Weld's advisors short-circuited the democratic process.
They vested the state Board of Education, dominated by Weld appointees,
with the power to establish charter schools. And they arranged that
charter funding would be deducted from state aid before it reached
Meeting what amounts to a huge unfunded mandate requires that communities
either increase property taxes (difficult under Prop 2 1/2), shift
funds from other municipal departments or, as in the case of Northampton
this year, cut back on public schools.
When you look at the skewed regulations and the enormous cost -
and the increasing hardship for children in public schools - you
wonder how proponents of privatization have pulled off this incredible
coup. And where has the media been during the process? The explanation
is only too familiar: Money and power and the media fascination
with something "new."
Almost 12 years of Republican governors has meant constant support
for privatization from the powerful state Board of Education. In
an incredible conflict of interest, the chairman of the board also
serves as the executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative
think tank that has raised millions of dollars to get charter schools
up and running.
Pioneer is part of national network of right wing policy centers
and charter school action groups including the Hoover Institute,
the Heritage Foundation and the Walton Family Fund, backed by corporate
giants such Wal-Mart, the Gap and Old Navy.
Also, large for-profit charter school management companies have
played an influential, although quiet role in shaping the state's
charter school policies. For-profits such as Edison, Advantage Schools
and SABIS International now manage 10 of the state's 35 commonwealth
charter schools. Together those 10 schools enroll well over half
of all the children attending charter schools in the state.
Meanwhile, the media, too rarely willing to invest in any substantive
independent analysis, has been content to parrot conservative handouts
dating to the Reagan era declaring that public schools are "failing"
and only competition from the private sector can spur improvement.
No independent studies have yet confirmed the academic success of
charter schools. No independent studies have documented any significant
However, charter schools have an immediate appeal to parents who
feel the local public school is too large or unresponsive (or in
many cases too diverse). The difficulty is that charter schools
only grow at the expense of the public system. By draining away
millions of dollars, a few small charter schools necessarily lead
to larger and more poorly staffed public schools.
One of the great triumphs of charter school proponents has been
their success in framing the language of discussion. They have trained
the media to accept the cleverly Orwellian phrase "school choice"
to characterize privatization. The harsh reality is that neither
tax payers in Northampton nor the parents of the city's public school
children have any choice. Charter schools are imposed and funded
from the top. It will take a change at the top before the true costs
of privatization are fully explored.
Dunphy is vice chair of the Williamsburg School Committee and an
education policy analyst with Citizens for Public Schools.