Charter Communications Officer Makes Nice In an Op Ed, But Tells a Few Stretchers

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Charter school leaders are looking for a kumbaya moment after being rocked by recent stories of corruption and profiteering, which led some Republican candidates to step away from them and adopt a harder line on increasing charter oversight and transparency. (Don't worry, charter folks, Republicans don't mean it. If they're reelected, they'll be your friends and apologists once again.) So charters are sending out the spin doctors to staunch the bleeding.

Prime example: an op-ed in the Arizona Republic by Rhonda Cagle, chief communications and development officer for Imagine Schools, a national charter chain with over a dozen schools in Arizona. The headline reads, Everything you need to know about Arizona charter schools. Actually, it's not quite everything, and what Cagle states as fact has a whole lot of spin mixed in.

The op-ed begins by saying charter schools have been under scrutiny lately — true fact. Also that scrutiny can be a good way to stimulate dialog — another true fact. And that lots of families choose to send their kids to charters — yet another true fact. It ends by saying we shouldn't be asking whether or not charter schools are better, we should applaud the number of viable educational options presented to students and their parents, both charter and district schools. I agree. Good schools for your children are where you find them, and charters are part of the mix.



All that is fine, pretty much down the middle. But at other times, Cagle's assertions aren't as hard and fast as she makes them out to be.

Do charters get $951 less per child than district schools when you consider all funding sources as Cagle says? That's way too simplistic. Depending on how you tweak the data, charters get more, less or pretty much the same amount per child as districts. It's an open, hotly debated topic without a clear answer.



Are charters public schools as Cagle maintains? Well, maybe, but it's closer to accurate to say they're publicly funded independent schools. Some people interpret that to mean they're private schools or public/private hybrids. I'm not weighing in on the argument, but the idea that charters are public schools, end of discussion, is hardly the settled matter Cagle makes it out to be.

But those are quibbles. Where Cagle really misleads the reader is in this one short paragraph.
By law, Arizona public charter schools are required to accept all students. Public charter schools enroll and provide educational services to special education and English Language Learners. Arizona’s law is intended to prevent public charter schools from “cherry picking” students.
The paragraph treats two hotly contested issues as if they're so obviously true, they barely deserve mention. Not so.

One of the big lies told by charter school advocates is, since they have open enrollment, meaning they have to accept any student who applies, they don't cherry pick students. In fact, there are plenty of ways for charters to select the students they want. They can locate their schools in high rent areas to make it more difficult for low income students to attend. If they don't provide transportation, which is true of most charters, that makes it hard for students who live further away to get there. If they don't provide lunch, students who qualify for free or reduced lunch are discouraged from attending. They can make liberal use suspensions and expulsions to get rid of unwanted students. And they can stop accepting new students after the 6th grade. Mix and match those and a few other tricks of the charter trade, and it's easy to end up with a cherry-picked student body, violating the spirit of open enrollment without violating the letter of the law.

To say charters "provide educational services to special education and English Language Learners" is close to a flat-out lie. Some provide the services, but many others don't. There's a reason lots of charters have few or no special education or ELL students. They don't have the specialized staff needed to teach those students, so if parents with a special needs or ELL child apply, it won't take long for them to find out they've come to the wrong place.

The headline for the op ed reads, Everything you need to know about Arizona charter schools. It would be more accurate if it read, Everything we want you to know about Arizona charter schools.

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