Robbing Public Schools to Fund Charter and Private Schools: An Approach that Threatens our Democracy
The 2012-2013 state budget signed into law by the governor on June 30 expands a corporate tax credit that provides funds for students enrolled in public schools to attend private schools. Fifty million dollars in tax breaks will be provided to Pennsylvania companies that provide scholarship money for students in the lowest-performing schools. Another $25 million in corporate tax breaks was also added to the original Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program to pay for students already in private school, bringing the total to $100 million.
Started in 2001-2002, EITC funds have been used to pay tuition for students to attend private and religious schools that are not accountable for the money they receive or the results they achieve. In fact, Second Mile, the charity founded by the recently convicted Jerry Sandusky, has received almost $1.4 million in contributions since the 2004-2005 budget year. In spite of what those with something to gain – the charter and religious schools and those whose agenda it is to privatize and destroy traditional public education – will tell you, these funds come from Pennsylvania’s taxpayers and will come right out of the budgets of public school districts, leaving fewer dollars to educate the vast majority of students.
The lobbying is intense and large sums of money are changing hands thanks to some wealthy individuals, locally and nationally, who want to see public education privatized and the profit motive at work in guiding our children’s education.
Since charter schools are touted by some as the solution to problems with some public schools, it’s worth considering whether they really do a better job of educating students. The results of a rigorous study conducted by Stanford University demonstrate that alternative doesn’t necessarily mean better. In fact, the study showed disappointing results in terms of test scores, one measure of a student’s success.
“Compared to the educational gains the charter students would have had in their traditional public schools, the analysis shows that students in Pennsylvania charter schools on average make smaller learning gains,” the study says. “More than one quarter of the charter schools have significantly more positive learning gains than their traditional public school counterparts in reading, but their performance is eclipsed by the nearly half of charter schools that have significantly lower learning gains. In math, again nearly half of the charter schools studied perform worse than their traditional public school peers and one quarter outperform them.”
The results for online (cyber-charter) schools in Pennsylvania are even more troublesome. The Stanford study found, “In both reading and math, all eight cyber schools perform significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts.”
This data reinforces previous research carried out in 2,403 charter schools in 15 states as well as the District of Columbia and published in June 2009 by the University of Arkansas’ Education Research Center. That study showed that charter school performance is sometimes equal to, and sometimes lower than, the performance of traditional public schools.
Even Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, agrees that the results of school choice – including vouchers and charter schools – are disappointing. In an Op-Ed article published by The New York Times on May 4, 2010 titled “Why Charter Schools Fail the Test,” he reviewed an evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program conducted by The University of Arkansas. This non-partisan, rigorous study looked at the effects of school choice policy. Murray concluded, “The latest evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the oldest and most extensive system of vouchers and charter schools in America, came out last month, and most advocates of school choice were disheartened by the results.” Over 3,000 students enrolled in the choice program were matched with students from traditional public schools. He noted that they had, “Achievement growth rates that are comparable to similar Milwaukee public-school students.” He further concluded, “This is just one of several evaluations of school choice programs that have failed to show major improvements in test scores, but the size and age of the Milwaukee program, combined with the rigor of the study, make these results hard to explain away.”
What’s more, according to the Keystone Research Center, an independent, non-partisan group, the 2009-2010 PSSA test results demonstrated that three quarters of Pennsylvania’s students are now on grade level. And Stephen Herzenberg, its executive director, is quoted as saying, “Pennsylvania was the only state that improved in all categories at all grade levels from 2002 to 2008. When it comes to EITC students, it is impossible to assess how well they are doing.”
If charter schools are not the answer to educational improvement, what does work? Small class sizes to provide individualized attention and instruction, pre-kindergarten programs implemented by qualified teachers, full-day kindergarten, parental involvement, enhanced career and technical education, rich learning environments, maximized instructional time, improved programs and funding for Special Education students, and addressing the needs of English Language Learners, among others.
These strategies are not new. In fact, they’ve been well-documented as highly effective approaches which are becoming increasingly difficult to achieve as funding for public education is squeezed as never before. Public schools have made America great. While one can argue that there’s not enough funding to go around, we are putting both our democracy and our future ability to compete globally in danger if we continue down the road of funding charter, private, for-profit and religious school education at the expense of traditional public schools.