by David Safier
It’s been said before in greater depth, complete with facts and figures, but the Weekly's Tom Danehy cuts right to the chase, as usual, in this week’s column.
Records show that charter schools spend public money like drunken sailors with almost no official oversight, with protection from having to make full financial disclosure almost gleefully provided by the Legislature, and virtually no public outcry from those who claim to give a crap about where taxpayer money is going. It's hypocrisy, plain and simple.
Charter schools say they’re not getting as much money as district schools, and they’ve gone to court to get what they think is their fair share. It would make it a whole lot easier to figure out if charters are getting what they should if we knew the specifics of where and how they spend
their money the taxpayers’ money.
I’ve done my damndest to sort out the funding equity issue for charters and district schools. I’m pretty good with numbers. I’ve listened to the arguments. I’ve looked at the spread sheets. But I haven’t found anyone who has sorted this thing out to my satisfaction. The problem is, there are too many slippery variables: providing transportation for students or not; providing food services or not; providing adequate special ed and ELL programs or not. Then there’s the different types of bonding charters and districts have available to them. This isn’t just a problem of trying to compare apples and oranges. We’re trying to compare a couple of banquet-sized financial smorgasbords here.
For this old classroom teacher, the money issue boils to one question. How much is being spent to educate that average kid in the average classroom? That’s got be the starting point for any discussion of funding equity. If the money allocated to charters for educating that middle-of-the-pack kid is significantly more or less than what district schools get, we should look at making some adjustments. But if the amount is close to the same, then we can leave that discussion aside and shift to other questions about special needs education, outside-of-class services and the like, while districts and charters get together and lobby the legislature to bring our education funding out of the cellar for all public schools, district and charter.
Someone with enough determination and endurance can find reasonably specific figures about how school districts spend their money. That’s the way it should be. It’s our money, so we should have some idea of how it’s being spent. But charters? All you’ll find in their financial reports are large dollar amounts divided into vague, unhelpful categories. Like Danehy said, we don’t know where taxpayer money is going when it’s handed to charter schools, so there’s no good way to figure out how much money goes directly to the student in the classroom.
As hard as it is to ferret out financial data on independent nonprofit charters, it’s flat out impossible when the schools are run by for-profit Charter Management Organizations. An impenetrable, free-enterprise firewall hides how taxpayer money is being spent. Prime examples: BASIS charters are run by the for-profit BASIS.ed; More than a dozen Imagine Schools in Arizona are run by Imagine Schools Inc. based in Virginia; Arizona Virtual Academy is run by the publicly traded K12 Inc. (currently trading at $21.84 on the NY Stock Exchange, down from $37.85 in September). These for-profit companies suck up 70% or more of their schools’ funding, then spend it with no transparency or accountability.
Arizona charter school laws were created to give the schools as much latitude and as little oversight as possible. It was all about letting the invisible hand of the marketplace sort things out. That free market ideology has led to uncompetitive no bid contracts, not to mention incestuous financial and employment relationships that would make a cutthroat capitalist blush. If public charter schools want to argue they’re not getting as much money as they deserve, they should let We The People know how they’re spending our money. Then let’s talk.