Vietnam, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Poland all have one thing in common – according to the latest results of the OECD produced PISA exams*, their students perform better at 15 on average in Science than their American counterparts who land at 25th in the world. American students also place 40th in the world in Math, so when assessing the future workforce, it would be fair to say that when compared to their international counterparts, the US may find itself behind the curve if it would like to remain a world leader in STEM industries.
Additionally, there has been an anti-immigrant movement in America gaining traction with some politicians suggesting slashing the issuance of H-1B visas, a tool the American tech industry heavily relies upon to recruit workers with skills they cannot find in the local job market. This presents American STEM companies with an issue: how can they compete with their international counterparts in a global marketplace when American students are performing worse, and they cannot recruit people with the necessary skills from overseas?
It is not headline news that America’s educational system has issues – concerned parents have been looking for alternative options for their students for years. 87% of Florida’s youth is currently enrolled in some form of public school education, and households with children in private schools make 174% of the income of households with children in public schools, indicating a private education is likely out of reach for most students. Given the current state, one would imagine that at least giving parents without the means to pay for a private education, a choice about where to send their children would be a definitively good thing (since one could argue the group-think in the current educational system produces unsatisfactory results if you look at our world rankings), however the answer may not be that simple.
There are great examples of charter schools across the nation creating environments that foster innovation and facilitate learning, as are there examples of public schools doing the same. Charter schools have received significant support from some of the wealthiest families in America, including Bill & Melinda Gates, The Walton family, and the DeVos family that currently has a member as the Secretary of Education (Betsy DeVos) and invested heavily in charter schools in their home state, Michigan. In theory, there are many good reasons why the idea of charter schools may look enticing, but a deeper dive into the reality tells a different story about the majority of the growing number of for-profit charter schools across the country.
In Ohio, from 2001 to 2015, state auditors discovered $27.3M of improperly spent taxpayer funds* in their state educational system, 70% of which was going directly to for-profit, private charter schools. Charter schools have already begun opening in Florida over the past few years, and so far despite a few success stories, the lack of oversight has resulted in misused funds and people with problematic backgrounds containing clear red flags, using taxpayer funds to open and operate new schools. A woman from Boca Raton that was previously convicted of defrauding the government through a federal meal program she ran, was hired to manage a start-up charter school in Lauderdale Lakes*, and a man from Coral Springs with a dire financial history (including bankruptcies, foreclosures, and court-ordered payments) was awarded $100k to start a charter school in Margate that wound up closing two months after it opened*.
Am I personally opposed to the idea of all charter schools? Not at all. I believe competition in the right environment can drive innovation and produce results that benefit society. However, in my opinion when it comes to education, we need a specific set of particularly stringent rules in place to ensure the system isn’t abused, as education is different from what clothes you buy, or what car you prefer – in my opinion, it’s something everyone has a right to as a member of society. When you allow profit to be a motive, unfortunately, the results thus far have proven that the majority of for-profit charter schools simply cost taxpayers more money per student, to produce at best, similar performance to their public school counterparts, while draining the funds from our already underfunded public schools, resulting in worse conditions for the students left behind.
In my opinion, to address the problem one would need to introduce national legislation that bans for-profit charter schools and ensures non-profit charter schools are held to the same performance standards as their public-school counterparts in order to receive taxpayer money. Our current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has spent a significant amount of money in her home state lobbying to ensure specifically that for-profit charter schools are not held to the same performance standards as regular schools, and during her confirmation hear she refused to revise her opinion. National regulations should be in place that ensure states take necessary precautions before approving someone for public funds, and make sure superintendents’ qualifications meet necessary requirements. However, more importantly, systemic issues in the way education is taught, and the school system is funded, need to be addressed in order to accelerate the reversal of America’s fall in world educational ranking – but both of those issues take on a life of their own.
When assessing the impact that the profit motive has on schools, one simply needs to take a look at Michigan – where Betsy DeVos has been able to implement most of her charter school agenda while destroying the Detroit educational system that happens to be filled with mostly minority youth. Thus far, the rules that DeVos lobbied for have been about establishing a private industry where underprivileged communities are forced to spend their money on substandard education. Her family is proud to have given close to $10M over the last two decades specifically on lobbying Michigan’s state government into using taxpayer funds on for-profit ‘Christian’ schools (in a nation where the Constitution specifically states the government cannot endorse any one religion), most of which have recorded student test scores in reading and math below the state average* (Michigan ranks 42nd in the nation in education rankings, placing it very close to the bottom, according to US News*).
In Detroit, there is no shortage of school choices, just in school quality. Except in Brightmoor, there is only one high school left for parents to send their children free of charge, since it drove the public schools there into bankruptcy, since schools are funded by the number of students they serve and charter schools can choose to deny students they believe may not perform as well. This is problematic because both the charter and public schools share the same public education budget and target community, so for-profit charter schools suck the money out the public system to put it into the pockets of wealthy individuals while usually providing a worse education. Here, the for-profit charter school that forced out the surrounding public schools is Detroit Community Schools, and, the superintendent’s salary recently sparked a local outrage as it became public knowledge that he was making $130k per year despite over a decade of abysmal test scores, and coming in with no educational experience or credentials*. Not a bad start for his newfound career.
Then of course, there’s Hope Academy, the charter school that has been serving Grand River and Livernois for 20 years while consistently maintaining grades among the lowest in the state since its founding, culminating in 2013 when it came dead last – two years before its charter was renewed and it was approved to continue receiving taxpayer money*. The operator of Woodward Academy was allowed to expand his brand/school into new markets/communities despite the fact that the school has been near the bottom of overall achievement year after year, since its inception in 1998*.
There are some major benefits that charter schools can provide when the situation calls for it and it is implemented correctly, as they encourage diversity in voices and opinions and that can lead to better results than a system where everyone everywhere learns the exact same thing the same way. However, watering down education, polluting it with religious propaganda and selling it to children for a profit, as Betsy DeVos has attempted to do in her home state and would like to implement across the nation, is not the answer.
- Business Insider – “The latest ranking of the top countries in math, reading and science is out – and the US didn’t crack the top 10” (Dec 6th, 2016)
- Education Law Center & Rutgers Graduate School of Education: Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card (Sixth Edition, January 2017)
- Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com – “Charter schools misspend millions of Ohio Tax Dollars as efforts to police them are privatized” (May 30th, 2015)
- Sun Sentinel – “Florida’s Charter Schools, Unsupervised. Taxpayers, students lose when school operators exploit weak laws.” (June 2014)
- The Washington Post – “A sobering look at what Betsy DeVos did to education in Michigan – and what she might do as secretary of education” (Dec 8th, 2016)