Follow the Money

Stories by Del Stover

Two decades ago, not a single penny of taxpayer money was spent on charter schools. This year, public funding for charters will run into the billions of dollars. That’s a lot of money to invest in an education policy with still-unclear consequences for America’s public school system.

So, 20 years after the first charter school -- City Academy -- opened in St. Paul, Minn., it’s really quite astonishing to look at the momentum of the charter movement. In recent years, the number of charters nationwide has climbed by 400 to 500 annually; today, approximately 5,300 of these schools of choice serve more than 2 million students. An obvious question presents itself: What accounts for this growth?

Part of the answer is money. Private money.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to ASBJ’s readers. You already know advocacy groups -- some of altruistic intent, some driven by a more raw ideology -- aggressively champion charters as a strategy to improve public education and provide families with more school choice. And you’ve no doubt heard of the multimillion-dollar grants being distributed by some of the nation’s largest and most influential foundations to fuel the growth of these schools.

Yet, many may not be aware of just how much private money is being spent to promote charters -- or how that money is being put to use. Did you know the Walton Family Foundation alone handed out nearly $75 million in school choice and charter-related grants in 2010? Or that wealthy, out-of-state campaign contributors gave $233,000 in recent years to help charter-friendly Democrats run for office in Florida? Or that a single company, which earns a sizable share of its revenue from virtual charters, has spent nearly $500,000 in state-level campaign contributions since 2004?

That money must have made a difference. To some degree, this investment in advocacy efforts, political campaigning, marketing, public policy papers, and research must have played some role in creating the 70 percent approval rating that charters currently enjoy with the American public -- a reality reflected in the growing bipartisan support that’s seen in state legislatures and Congress.

This is support that’s all the more remarkable given the lack of evidence to give confidence to policymakers. Despite the widespread financial and community support charters receive -- as well as billions in public funding -- research shows most are not outperforming traditional public schools on state tests, and their long-term effect on academic achievement remains in question.

Today, charters are governed by a wide variety of laws and rules across the nation. In some states, chartering authority rests with the local school district. In others, state education agencies or other bodies can authorize these schools, and the educational results vary. So does the impact of charters on traditional public schools. In some cases, they end up as a rival school system that takes money from the community’s traditional schools; in others, they are proving a useful resource to their communities.

The National School Boards Association takes the position that charters can have a role in sparking innovation, as an alternative education setting for families wanting something different, or even as an escape from a difficult local situation. But NSBA also argues there should be some ground rules: Charters should abide by the same regulations as traditional public schools, and they should be held accountable to the same degree.

Finally, NSBA believes local school boards should retain authority over charters, retaining their role as the public trustees overseeing education services within their communities.

In the articles that follow, ASBJ won’t answer the question of whether the private money being poured into the charter school movement is appropriately spent -- or if the nation’s expanding reliance on charter schools is sound policy. Nor will ASBJ examine the sizable sums of money that the teachers union and many traditional education groups spend to influence public policy. It’s left to you to draw those conclusions.

However, examining how and where this private, pro-charter advocacy money is coming from -- and how it’s being spent -- shines a spotlight on a complex, partially out-of-sight political campaign to promote charters as a viable option to traditional public schools.

And, hopefully, you’ll also be more aware of the growing political and financial interdependence that’s being created as a growing service industry coalesces around charter schools -- an industry with a vested interest in the financial funds flowing to charters, and through charters, to them. Hundreds of millions of dollars already have flowed through the nation’s more than 700 charter schools operated by for-profit groups, as well as large for-profit virtual charter school operators.

So, read on. Today, private money is being spent in an effort to reshape the face of public education and, by default, to affect your work as a local school leader. The more information you have, the more prepared you will be to advocate with your state and federal policymakers about the laws and regulations you know are needed.

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