And what does it have to do with you?
“I’ve heard of charter schools,” the woman told me. “But I really don’t know understand them.” People are not familiar with schools often run by a private group but using taxpayer dollars.
Imagine a school created with a business-like contract or “charter”. This charter sets it own rules for the school and exempts it from the usual rules about classes, staff, budgeting and administration.
Many charter schools are created and run by local school districts but some are independent charters. Cost to local school districts for these independent schools this year was almost $60 million statewide. In our Senate District, school districts will pay an estimated $1.3 million in the next two years for these independent charter schools.
Last week, as a member of the Senate Committee on Education, I participated in a ten hour hearing on a bill that allows for unlimited charter school expansion. It also creates a politically appointed board to authorize the charter schools. The bill pays for the expansion out of the money given by the state to run all public schools.
Hundreds of people from all over the state came to testify on the bill. Charter school advocates were quizzed by committee members. They were asked how the schools were paid for and how more of them would affect our traditional public schools.
Lawmakers and citizens also expressed concern about private corporations running charter schools. Nation-wide almost a third of charter schools are run by private companies - about a fifth of these are for-profit companies.
Lisa Scholfield, a parent from Sauk County said, “I don’t want my child’s school in someone’s portfolio. This bill is all about money and control.”
PAVE is an organization that invests private money in charter schools. The CEO and president Dan McKinley testified on what led his organization to invest in charter schools. “Good governance, leadership, financial controls and improvement in education,” said Mr. McKinley. “We raise funds and invest them.”
I asked Mr. McKinley, “Where do you get your money?”
“From a diverse board,” he answered. His brochure boasts of the $66 million invested with ‘financing partners since 2001.” Board members and donors include the Milwaukee Insurance Foundation, law firm Quarles and Brady and Wisconsin Energy Foundation.
The most disturbing testimony came from the Department of Public Instruction, the agency responsible for overseeing public education. Michael Thompson, Deputy Superintendent, called the bill a “blank check” made out to independent charter schools by local communities. He described multiple ways local schools would lose - even if they were hundreds of miles away from the nearest independent charter school.
School districts are already bracing for a reduction of $750 million dollars in equalized aids (general aid) and a $90 million cut in categorical aids (special aid). He explained this bill would further reduce those aids by removing the cap on independent charter schools. Students leaving a district to enroll in an independent charter school no longer count as enrolled in the school district. And the district loses state aid for those students.
Decisions about how to deal with that loss of money - cutting services or increasing property taxes - would be forced on the school board by an un-elected statewide charter school board. The charter board would be unaccountable to local school districts and local voters.
Even if school districts wanted to, they would not be able to compete with charter schools. Districts are constrained by levy limits and cannot raise money for new ventures; this is not so with corporations funding independent charter schools.
There is no need for this bill. Wisconsin already has more charter schools than 43 other states. Why take away the authority of the local school board to approve a charter school? School boards have already approved 98% of the charter proposals before them.
Public schools face cuts and revenue limit reductions totaling over a billion and a half dollars in the Governor’s proposed budget. These cuts are unprecedented in our state’s history. Adding to the problem will only further hurt our local schools and cash strapped local taxpayers.