Is ACA Safe?

Tazwell Brandabur

The Charter Features

12/21/19

Charter schools have long been the center of an intense debate at the local and national level– a debate that’s intensified with the coming presidential election. At this point, the three frontrunning Democratic candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, have openly called for a ban on charter schools.

Sort of.

Daunting as the stances of some in D.C. may seem, Lara Fabrycki, ACA’s founder and former Director, believes that the proposed ban poses no risk to ACA. “I don’t think anything’s going to happen,” she says.

Close reading of campaign plans and rhetoric proves her correct. To understand why ACA is safe from any such ban on charter schools, some understanding of the terms associated with charter school policy is required.

The charter school system is a complex beast, one that can take years to understand. Ms. Fabrycki notes, “I know people who’ve worked in charters for years and still don’t (understand the system).” The important distinction, the one that ensures ACA is safe, is the division between for-profit and nonprofit.

Three front-runners of the current presidential race have lined up against for-profit charter schools. ACA is a nonprofit charter school. None of them have proposed any policy that would threaten ACA.

In a Texas town hall meeting in early 2019, Mr. Biden said, “I do not support any federal money … for for-profit charter schools — period.” Biden said, “The bottom line is it siphons off money from (conventional) public schools, which are already in enough trouble.” 

Senator Sanders announced in May that as president he would ban for-profit charter schools. His main issue with for-profit charter schools seems to be the union-busting and anti-labor activities possible in a privatized public school setting.

Senator Warren takes a similar stance. In October 2019, she announced a campaign plan for public education, in which she was clear, “I will fight to ban for-profit charter schools.”

The current administration’s position is also clear.

President Trump has repeatedly asserted his support for charter schools, though his specific position with regard to for-profit schools is not clear. In a presidential proclamation issued May 2019, he said, “I commend our Nation’s successful public charter schools, teachers, and administrators…. Nothing better proves the value of… charter schools than the ever-growing demand from students and families…. A recent survey found that 59 percent of parents would prefer to send their child to a different type of school than the one to which they have been assigned.” (The Charter can find no evidence of this survey.)

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has long been a proponent of charter schools. In a 2015 speech to the South by Southwest EDU convention, she questioned the relevance of the federally managed public school system, and pointed to charter and online schools as the way forward. “What students really need won’t originate in Washington,” she said, “it will come from… entrepreneurs, philanthropists, teachers, and parents.” She has also supported voucher programs, which are federal initiatives that pay private schools taxpayer money to accept public school students. These programs are highly controversial, as private schools, unlike charters, have little federal oversight in terms of curriculum and student acceptance policies.

The difference between for-profit and nonprofit charter schools, though important, can be subtle.

As Kat Sullivan of the National Alliance for Public Charter schools put it, there are some things that “all charter schools have in common. All charter schools are public schools. They are tuition-free, open to all students, and held to the same (or higher) accountability standards as their district public school peers.” 

Both subsets of charter schools can be managed either by an appointed board, as is ACA, or by a separate organization.  Non-profit schools managed by a charter management organization, or CMO, are functionally the same as independent non-profit charters like ACA, with one difference.

A CMO often manages three or more schools at once, so the resulting ‘economy of scale’ allows the organization to save money by buying supplies (textbooks, furniture) and administrating in bulk. As CMOs are non-profits, they must then invest any surplus federal funds back into the students’ education.

For-profit charter schools, on the other hand, are run by Education Management Organizations, or EMOs. These are similar to CMOs, except EMOs are run as private businesses, for profit. Instead of reinvesting the funds saved by buying bulk, EMOs take surplus federal funds as profits once they have met the basic standard set for them by the district. EMO-managed schools make up a tiny fraction of the total charter schools in the US; only 12%, according to the national alliance for public charter schools.

The problem with EMOs occurs when they don’t meet the standard for education- taking taxpayer money and failing to adequately educate students. They short-change both the US government and the students for which they’re responsible.

One of the ways some EMOs cut corners is by over-relying on online-only education and registering classes with too few teachers.

Dian Schaffhauser, an independent journalist writing in 2018, noted the K12, a large EMO now operating as an online school, had misrepresented the ratio between teachers and students in its report to the government, resulting in reduced teacher to student contact. Schaffhauser wrote that K12 “on average provided students with less live teacher contact time per week than students in conventional schools had in a day.”

Another problem with EMOs is the disconnect between the management and the parents. Ms. Fabrycki noted that one of the benefits of “management from within” is the ability to tailor aspects of the school to the parents and students needs, right down to the schedule.

When she was helping found ACA, her team experimented to find the best fit for families wherever they could. “We knew what parents needed…. If you bring in a manager (from an EMO) who doesn’t understand the families, he’ll know what he’d want out of a director.. how he’d want to assemble a team, but not what the students needed.”

Another criticism of charter schools is the alleged lack of oversight. Many are calling for charter schools to meet the same accountability requirements that conventional public schools do– among these are Mr. Biden and Senator Warren.

Ms. Fabrycki again sees no reason to worry about new legislation coming from a new administration in Washington, as ACA and all charter schools operating in Oregon are already meeting these requirements. She noted that even though charter schools have more freedom in choosing curriculum, schedule, and staff than do conventional public schools, they are still tightly managed.

She says, “We actually have stronger oversight (from the school district) than traditional public schools, and are required to meet the exact same standards for student outcomes as they are.” 

Furthermore, charter schools in Oregon are also expected to meet these standards with a much smaller budget per student than conventional public schools. A study conducted by 74 Million.org found that charter schools receive 27% less funding per pupil than do conventional public schools.

If a conventional school fails to meet state standards, they often receive increased funding. If a charter school doesn’t keep student outcomes up to par, they can also be subject to shutdown by the school district. In 2018, the Portland School Board closed Trillium Charter School, a PreK-12 school that catered to special needs and LGTBQ students, due to failure to meet academic outcome goals.

Charter schools in Oregon are expected to teach kids as well or better than conventional public schools, with less money per student, and are subject to shutdown if they fail to do so.

Thus far, ACA has maintained nonprofit status, and met academic requirements. There is no evidence at this point that new legislation from DC could directly harm, or indeed effect, ACA. The school, however, is not entirely in the clear, says Ms. Fabrycki. Despite being relatively safe from national threats, Fabrycki says that, for decades, “groups within the state have been actively campaigning to make it harder for schools like ACA to function effectively and as they were intended.”

Sources:

Brandon, Lewis. Analysis: New Analysis Shows How a $13 Billion Funding Gap Between Charter Schools & Traditional Public Schools Hurts Underserved Students. 15 Apr. 2019. https://www.the74million.org/article/analysis-new-analysis-shows-how-a-13-billion-funding-gap-between-charter-schools-traditional-public-schools-hurts-underserved-students/. Accessed 20 Dec 2019.

Svitek, Patrick. Biden makes first Texas trip as a 2020 presidential candidate, pitching new education plan. Texas Tribune, May 28, 2019. https://www.texastribune.org/2019/05/28/joe-biden-first-texas-trip-2020-candidate-pitches-education-plan/. Accessed 2 Dec 2019.

AP news. Warren vows to ban funding to new charter schools. The associated press, Oct 21, 2019. https://apnews.com/80722461b6394778b554fa9486dce299. Accessed 2 Dec 2019.

Elizabeth Warren. Public Education Plans. Elizabeth Warren campaign website, 2019. https://elizabethwarren.com/plans/public-education. Accessed 2 Dec 2019.

Starting a Public Charter School. Oregon Department of Education. https://www.oregon.gov/ode/learning-options/schooltypes/charter/Documents/Starting%20a%20Public%20Charter%20School.pdf Accessed 3 Dec 2019.

Charter Schools 101. National Education Association. http://www.nea.org/home/60831.htm Accessed 4 Dec 2019.

Plank, David; Arsen, David; and Sykes, Gary. Charter Schools and Private Profits. The School Supeintendent’s Association. https://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=14510. Accessed 3 Dec 2019.

Charter Schools in Oregon. The Encyclopedia of American Politics (Ballotpedia) https://ballotpedia.org/Charter_schools_in_Oregon Accessed 2 Dec 2019.

CMO and EMO Public Charter Schools. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. http://www.publiccharters.org/sites/default/files/migrated/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/NAPCS-CMO-EMO-DASHBOARD-DETAILS_20111103T102812.pdf Accessed 2 Dec 2019.

Sullivan, Kat. Are Charter Schools For Profit? The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 16 Jan 2019. https://www.publiccharters.org/latest-news/2019/01/16/are-charter-schools-profit  Accessed 12 Dec 2019

Gibson, Ginger. Bernie Sanders Calls For End To For-Profit Charter Schools. 17 May 2019 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-sanders/bernie-sanders-calls-for-end-to-for-profit-us-charter-schools-idUSKCN1SN2KA Accessed 15 Dec 2019

Schaffhauser, Dian. Report: Profit Motive Pervades Online Charter Schools and Blended Programs. The Journal. 20 March 2018 https://thejournal.com/articles/2018/03/20/report-profit-motive-pervades-online-charter-schools-and-blended-programs.aspx Accessed 19 Dec 2019

Trump, Donald. Proclamation on National Charter Schools Week, 2019 Issued on May 10, 2019 https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-national-charter-schools-week-2019/ Accessed 19 Dec 2019

Sconyers, Nancy. What Parents Want; A report on parent’s opinion of public schools. 1994. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED400079.pdf Accessed 5 Dec 2019. 

Weller, Chris. Trump’s education secretary supports school vouchers — but studies suggest they don’t help students. 27 Feb 2017. https://www.businessinsider.com/do-school-vouchers-work-2017-2 Accessed 18 Dec 2019.

Plesset, Emilie. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reopens the charter school debate. 13 Mar 2018. https://www.pbs.org/weta/washingtonweek/blog-post/us-education-secretary-betsy-devos-reopens-charter-school-debate Accessed 18 Dec 2019.

MacGuidwin, Scott; Narayanan, Ajjit. School Vouchers, Pros and Cons. 25 Nov 2015. https://publicpolicy.wharton.upenn.edu/live/news/1076-school-vouchers-pros-and-cons Accessed 20 Dec 2019.

Carr, Sarah. Betsy DeVos’ Big Education Idea Doesn’t Work. Slate News and Politics. 23 Jan 2017.https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2017/01/betsy-devos-big-education-idea-doesnt-work.html Accessed 10 Dec 2019.

DeVos, Betsy. Prepared Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to SXSW EDU. 6 Mar 2018. https://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/prepared-remarks-us-secretary-education-betsy-devos-sxsw-edu. Accessed 19 Dec 2019.

Erica L. Green. Betsy DeVos Back 5 Billion in Tax Credits for School Choice. 28 Feb 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/28/us/politics/devos-tax-credit-school-choice.html Accessed 15 Dec 2019.

Miller, Elizabeth. Portland School Board Revokes Trillium Charter School Sponsorship. 27 Feb 2019.https://www.opb.org/news/article/portland-trillium-charter-school-board-revokes-sponsorship/. Accessed 19 Dec 2019.

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