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There are times when something is better than nothing. When it comes to the charter school bill in front of the legislature, this is not one of those times. Nothing is the better, or, to put it another way, the least bad option.
It looks like the charter school bill making its way through the legislature isn't going anywhere. After it passed the Senate, House Speaker Rusty Bowers stopped the bill from getting a hearing in committee. Bowers said he doesn't have the votes to pass it and he's probably right.
The bill's purported goal is to clean up the corruption and profiteering running rampant in some charter schools. People who have been paying attention have known about this for years but a series of articles in the Arizona Republic exposed the seamy underbelly of the charter world to more people, including some Republican politicians who have done their best to look the other way. Not all charters are guilty. Many are run with the primary intent of educating their students, not fatten people's wallets. But as The Republic demonstrated, the bad charter operators are truly bad operators.
The bill's sponsors claim its purpose is to increase charter transparency and lay down some regulations, making it harder for people to game the system. Actually, it does very little, and it does that badly.
Before we look at the bill itself, let's take a look at what's been going on around the bill to see what we can learn.
Here's one clue to what's in the bill: when it passed the Senate 17-13, all the Republicans voted for it. All the Democrats voted against it after trying to amend it to give it more teeth. Seeing as how Republicans created Arizona's charter schools a few decades back and have protected charters from greater regulation and accountability ever since while Democrats have been the ones calling for more transparency and regulation, it makes you think the bill is meant to act as a fig leaf to cover up the naked corruption taking place in some charters, not improve the charter school system.
Here's another clue about the bill: it was created with the help of the Arizona Charter School Association, a private nonprofit whose purpose is to promote charters and make sure nothing gets through the legislature it doesn't approve of. The ACSA gets half its yearly funding, $1.5 million, from the Walton Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the family that brought you Walmart. The Walton Foundation spends about $190 million a year on education, mainly promoting a privatization/"education reform" agenda.
Final clue: the bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee. This is one of those "With friends like Brophy McGee, you might as well hang around with Rep. Eddie Farnsworth" situations. (Farnsworth, the poster child for charter school profiteering, recently made between $10 million and $30 million by selling his for-profit chain of charter schools to a nonprofit company run by his friends.)
Brophy McGee had stiff competition last election from Christine Marsh, a former Arizona Teacher of the Year who was running on a pro-education platform. To counter Marsh, Brophy McGee said she was Shocked! Shocked! at the charter corruption revealed in The Republic and promised to sponsor legislation to clean things up. Brophy McGee eked out a win, then got together with the ACSA to write the weak bill passed by the Senate.
What's in the bill?
It says charters must have boards with at least three members, and one of them cannot be a part of the operator's family. That leaves room for two family members and a friend on the board. Not much of a change.
It also says charters can't buy goods or services from family or members of the board. The exception is if the board decides the purchases are in the charter's best interests. That means the current system of buying from friends and family is still in place so long as the board—you know, the two family members and a friend—gives it a thumbs up.
The only good part of the bill is that the Attorney General can prosecute people who violate the rules for buying goods and services, such as they are.
But you can toss out all the new rules when it comes to Charter Management Organizations. Many charters contract with CMOs to do their hiring, buying and general accounting. Some CMOs control the curriculum as well. In other words, CMOs basically run some charters, especially the large charter chains. The bill says its rules don't apply to CMOs, which means the biggest operators in the charter business can keep on doing business the way they always have.
If the bill passes, Republicans can say, "See, we did what you wanted. We reformed charter schools." That would be the end of any possibility for serious reform. Better the bill goes away. That leaves the possibility of working on some genuine reform next session when the legislators have an election looming before them.