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Charter Schools and the Two Minutes Hate

November 6, 2019

November 6, 2019
By Matt Beienburg

“In the old days, before the glorious Revolution…it was a dark, dirty miserable place where hardly anybody had enough to eat and…children no older than you are had to work twelve hours a day for cruel masters, who flogged them with whips if they worked too slowly and fed them on nothing but stale breadcrusts and water.  But in among all this terrible poverty there were just a few great big beautiful houses that were lived in by… rich men … called capitalists [charter school owners].

They were fat, ugly men with wicked faces…dressed in a long black coat, and a…top hat. This was the uniform of the capitalist [charter school owner], and no one else was allowed to wear it.  The capitalists [charter school owners] owned everything in the world, and everyone else was their slave.”

1984, children’s history textbook issued by the party of Oceania, revised 2019.

The Ministry of Truth may no longer have George Orwell’s whimsical imagination behind the warnings it delivers to our youth, but fortunately, members of our media have shown us that only slight alterations of Orwell’s party lore are needed to understand the nefarious villains seeking to keep us down today.

These knavish charter fiends steal children from our public schools, subvert the public order of our education system, and enrich themselves at the people’s expense. All while pushing us around in their top hats.

Sadly, this cartoonish narrative is only slightly exaggerated from what’s being churned out by today’s political and media elites.

Most recently, the Arizona Republic continued its yearlong re-education campaign to excite public outrage against the charter school model with an exposé on one of the fastest growing charter networks in the state, the American Leadership Academy (ALA). 

The Republic repeats the party dogma that Arizona charters “receive more in state per-pupil funding than traditional school districts,” seemingly to inform readers that charters a.) cost the public more money, and b.) enjoy bloated budgets from which to fill their private coffers.

Yet strangely absent is any admission of the fact that Arizona’s legislative budget office finds that charters receive over $1,000 less per student on average than districts when accounting for all funding (such as local property taxes, which the Republic seemingly finds fitting to gloss over). In other words, charters actually cost taxpayers less and have leaner bottom lines. (It is true that districts educate a slightly larger proportion of special needs students than charters—roughly 13% of their students vs 10% for charters—which generates additional district funding, but this comes nowhere close to negating the overall disparity between the two.)

Moreover, as if to uncloak the very inner circle of the capitalist Brotherhood, the Republic likewise sounds the alarm that ALA’s budget included $47 million paid to companies owned by the school’s founder or relatives. And to what nefarious ends did this money go? According to even the Republic itself, “The payouts include more than $30 million to the management company that employs the schools’ teachers and staff” and “millions to another firm… for operational, academic, financial, and human resources services.” In other words, it went to paying teachers and staff and keeping the whole operation running.

But worse yet, the management firms receiving these payments are apparently so far removed from the goals of student learning that their staff were “also paid a bonus for each ALA student who received a ‘proficient’ or ‘highly proficient’ score” on state tests. It’s almost as if the administrators’ salaries were tied in some way to the actual outcomes of their students…

What’s more, while the Republic assails ALA for failing to disclose related party transactions in its previous audits, it seems even this charge may land on shaky ground. As Justin Olson of the Education Freedom Institute recently highlighted, the Arizona Accountancy Board that is looking into the school has expressed doubts that ALA actually acted incorrectly.

Of course, the larger campaign has little to do with ALA in particular, as the newspaper—like the chorus of partisan charter opponents vying for political office across the country—simply fundamentally objects to a model in which private actors are empowered to innovate and operate schools that parents want desperately to send their children to, especially if there is any risk that the charter operators might make money doing it. That’s why, in the midst of its failure to discredit charters’ academically, the Republic has sought to brand even the highest performing charters like the BASIS network as nefariously subverting the guardrails of public education.

As I have written before, any wrongdoing on the part of charter operators—as with district administrators—should be dealt with swiftly by entities like the state charter board. But to those who are outraged simply by charters’ ability to legally contract with the state to deliver a service via their own means (at a rate determined exclusively by the state), where is that same outrage against the host of other private contractors operating throughout the layers of government? The private doctors receiving Medicaid reimbursements to care for the sick? The private outlets providing DMV services to Arizonans after hours? Or perhaps most glaringly, the private companies profiting off of multi-million dollar contracts to build and renovate district school facilities—the very same companies who finance the election campaigns to authorize those deals in the first place.

Some might find this selective outrage a curious double-standard. But then, the Ministry did always have a soft spot for doublespeak.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.



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