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How money is corrupting charter school purpose

This op-ed was original published in the News & Observer on March 25, 2015.


The new charter school movement is a compilation of money, marketing and the mistaken use of the free market theory, which is suppressing the schools’ founding ideology that supported innovative, energetic educational think tanks and lab schools to enrich and inform public education.

The new charter school movement lacks innovation, has minimal quality control, promotes conflicts of interest, is a breeding ground for fraud and makes for-profit corporations wealthy on our tax dollars.

I supported the creation of charter schools. However, the charter school movement has morphed into a money machine and is bad for altruistic charters as well as traditional public schools. I think parents deserve choice. However, I also believe we should strive for quality choice, which means we need a strong authorizing board that values quality and sets high standards.

The word has gotten out that charter schools are huge money-making machines. Corporate and education management companies are raking in millions from taxpayers. Taxpayers, regardless of whether they have children in schools, might want to start paying attention to the huge amount of taxpayer dollars these companies are consuming with absolutely no transparency and no accountability. Hard-earned dollars are disappearing into a black hole.

Simply search online for “charter school issues in Michigan 2015” or “charter school issues in Ohio 2015” to find out why these states are trying to change a trend that includes low-performing charter schools and out-of-control charter management companies. In Michigan, over 65 percent of the charter schools are performing worse than Detroit Public Schools. In Ohio, 10 charter school boards had to sue their education management operators (EMOs) to get financial records.

Money, money, money is controlling the new movement. An emphasis on profit centers is outpacing learning centers, and North Carolina is ripe for the taking. Our state legislature has set the stage for North Carolina to be taken over by profit mongers. Charter school fraud is no longer the exception but is becoming the norm in far too many regions. A huge conflict of interest exists when legislators who make the rules regarding charter schools receive millions of dollars of donations from these for-profit companies.

It was a personal wake-up call for me when state lawmakers approved two virtual charter schools. Other states are stepping away from these companies and this approach due to low student scores and high dropout rates. Our state has even awarded a contract to a company that has been investigated for deceptive marketing practices and sued by investors.

This action served as yet another painful reminder of how North Carolina has forgotten charter schools’ original objective, which was to improve public education. Meanwhile, we had three charter schools close in Charlotte because of mismanagement of funds in 2014 due to fast-tracking charter school approvals.

The promoters of charter schools get an A-plus for marketing that charter schools offer a superior product even though report-after-report discredits this. There are good charter schools, of course, and those are the schools we tend to hear the most about.

However, low-performing charter schools are starting to outnumber good charter schools in North Carolina and nationally because the charter school movement has lost its way. Even higher-performing charter schools are not immune from the misuse of public funds for private gain.

The theory that the free market works to weed out weak charter schools while improving traditional public schools is clearly misguided when you look at Michigan and Ohio. Most charter schools close due to mismanagement of funds. Only a small percentage of charter schools with chronically poor performance have been closed by charter school authorizers.

After 20 years of charter schools in North Carolina, the number of poorly performing charter schools is growing. There is no evidence the free-market theory has played any role in closing these schools, nor is there evidence to support the idea that free-market competition is improving traditional public schools.

The new charter school movement, backed by big money, has infiltrated North Carolina. Our children are the ones who will lose as profit-mongers consume more tax dollars. North Carolinians – whether promoters of choice, traditional public schools or simply taxpayers – the new charter school movement is corrosive to all.

Linda Welborn

Linda Welborn is a member of the Guilford County Board of Education and a registered Republican.