Standards Deviation: Discrimination in Charter Schools

While the proposition to legalize marijuana has taken up the most oxygen of Massachusetts’ ballot initiatives, another issue is just as consequential: charter schools. Question 2, if approved, would expand existing charter schools and/or authorize the creation of up to twelve additional ones. Earlier this year, the measure seemed poised to pass, with one poll in March finding nearly 75 percent support. But over the past few months, several prominent political figures in Massachusetts – including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh – have come out in opposition to Question 2 by raising concerns about how it would reallocate money intended for other public schools. Voters have been receptive as a recent WBUR poll found only 41 percent of respondents now support the measure, with 52 percent opposed.

Although issues of funding allocation do merit public consideration, the problems with charter schools run deeper than just who gets what money; citizens should also be concerned with how charter schools spend the money they do receive. As publicly-funded schools, they should be held to the same educational standards as public schools. However, charter schools across the United States often fail to pull their own weight, especially in the realm of special education, as they take in a smaller proportion of special needs students than public schools. This practice is unfair to the students, parents, and taxpayers of school districts everywhere: special needs students should retain the ability to attend charter schools as they please – just like everybody else – and public schools shouldn’t have to disproportionately support special education programs while simultaneously losing funding to charter schools.

Though privately run, charter schools are still considered “public” because their funding comes from the education budgets of the cities and towns they serve. Parents may choose to send their child to a charter school as an alternative to their district’s standard public school, and funding is allocated on a per-student basis. Specific details vary by state, but typically charter schools receive the same amount per student as would have been spent on that student in their regular public school district. Some charter schools also receive private donations and funding, which are not always publicly disclosed, as charter schools are not always forthcoming with making their budgets public.

Technically, charter schools are “open to all children” who desire to attend and must take in all who apply, but if the amount of students applying exceeds the capacity of the school, most charter schools claim to employ a random lottery system. However, this is where the process gets murky. A Washington Post fact-checking report and analysis of charter schools claimed that there is “no empirical evidence” to support the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools’ claim that charter schools are “generally required to take all students who want to attend.” Furthermore, the Post’s piece illustrates how some charter schools use admission tests and other push-out techniques to avoid taking in low-performance students.

Charter schools across the United States often fail to pull their own weight, especially in the realm of special education, as they take in a smaller proportion of special needs students than public schools.

These exclusionary practices conflict with the public aspect of charter schools. Unlike public schools, where all students are provided with access and potential to succeed, charter schools often determine which students will have the opportunity to fulfill their potentials and, more importantly, which will not. While these schools, intentionally or not, have excluded low-performing students from participating in a charter school experiment – a deplorable but understandable practice, a more sinister exclusionary operation exists with respect to special needs students. Many charter schools take in a disproportionately low amount of students in need of special education. In Massachusetts, charter schools have consistently taught a lower proportion of special needs students (usually around 75-80 percent of the total) than state public schools in each of the past eleven years; in Los Angeles from 2013-2014, the percentage of students with severe disabilities at public schools was more than three times higher than that at local charter schools. If charter schools wish to retain their public funding, which would otherwise go to schools that cannot and do not discriminate against special needs students, they should be held to the same expectations as those public schools. In order to combat this systematic discrimination, however, charter schools must first become more transparent about their finances and operations. Without taking care of the underlying issue of concealed business practices, any legislative action can be worked around surreptitiously; for example, even if states implement a mandatory minimum percentage of special needs students for charter schools, without oversight they can continue to selectively accept only the highest-functioning of the special needs students who apply. Moreover, if charter schools are going to receive public (and private) funding, they should have to disclose their finances so that school districts can ensure that proper funding is being directed towards special education.

A recent episode of Last Week Tonight explained that many charter schools are overseen by amorphous education management organizations (EMOs) – private companies specializing in education. Unlike public entities (like the school themselves), these privately-held companies can solicit private funding and donations and are not legally bound to release their finances, a provision that ultimately conceals the exact spending practices of many charter schools and belies their public attributes. Moreover, most charter schools are reluctant or even non-responsive to requests for information about their contracts with their EMOs; in its fact-check, the Washington Post sent Freedom of Information Act requests to more than 400 charter schools, and only 20 percent responded with the requested contract information.

Even if charter schools are eventually forced to become more financially transparent, that’s only a first step. State governments also need to reform the way these schools are allowed to operate. (It’s up to state governments because education varies too much between states for federal action to be reasonable or enforceable, and relying on local governments would be tricky given that many charter schools serve multiple municipalities.) Most importantly, there needs to be more independent oversight regarding which students get to attend charter schools; otherwise, the schools would still have the ability to exclude special needs students. Making the lottery process more transparent or perhaps even having the school district run it (rather than the charter school itself) would significantly reduce the potential for discriminatory selection practices. Potentially and perhaps more drastically, state legislatures could offer charter schools an ultimatum: either match the proportion of special needs students in their student bodies to that of other local public schools, or significantly cut their funding. None of these measures seems forthcoming; despite advocacy groups and baseline statistics that indicate a lower rate of disabled students at charter schools, few politicians have even taken notice. In some states like Pennsylvania, government officials have been outspoken about how charter schools drain public funding, but the discrimination angle remains largely untouched by legislators.

The same can be said of Massachusetts where many of those opposed to Question 2 have emphasized the detrimental effects such expansion will have on public schools, but no one has started making steps toward anti-discrimination as of yet. Whether or not Massachusetts voters approve the expansion of their state’s charter schools, the charter school system clearly could use some re-examination. Even if most charter schools don’t deliberately discriminate against students requiring special education, just having the capacity to be able to do so is problematic enough. Considering that charter school funding could be directed toward improving special education at schools that don’t have the ability of self-selection, it’s crucial to make sure that money is being spent fairly and responsibly. It is up to the lawmakers of Massachusetts and other states to recognize these issues and right the wrongs charter schools continue to commit.

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