Study: Unaccountable, privately-run charter chains hurt students


by Colleen Flaherty/Pictured: Gordon Lafer presenting EPI study 

Due to massive budget cuts to Wisconsin schools, Jeff Herringa is a librarian who, starting next year, will be the only librarian for five different Milwaukee schools.

“If I were in one school five days a week, I could be more involved with students,” said Herringe. “The students are getting hurt the most, the teachers second.”

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“It is a personal thing, not just because it’s my job, but because I have a four-year-old,” said Ingrid Henry-Walker, another Milwaukee educator. “I’m concerned with public schools being around and still being strong.”

Wisconsin educators are worried, and not just because of budget cuts. The current administration and state legislature have made repeated, radical steps to strip public school funding while funneling money into unaccountable, corporate-backed schools.

On Thursday, Gordon Lafer, a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute, released a study examining these efforts by Wisconsin legislators. In particular, Lafer looked at legislation that aimed to close several public schools and replace them with less accountable, privately-run charter schools.

“There’s a large range of charter schools, but the kind that has been promoted very heavily by some legislators and by corporate lobbyists around the country is a model that partly replaces teachers with technology, that here in Milwaukee is the Rocketship chain of schools,” said Lafer while presenting his findings. 

According to the report, Rocketship is  “a low-budget operation that relies on young and inexperienced teachers rather than more veteran and expensive faculty, that reduces curriculum to a near-exclusive focus on reading and math, and that replaces teachers with online learning and digital applications for a significant portion of the day.”

Another telling sign that corporate-run chains are poor replacement for public, community-supported schools is that Rocketship, while technically a nonprofit, uses a licensed software company called DreamBox, supplied by for-profit vendors, whose investors happen to sit on Rocketship’s board.

“What they do now with Dreambox, they sell it to one company in California, Rocketship, and it goes to hundreds of schools. The more Rocketship expands, the greater Dreambox’s profits,” said Lafer. “It’s not about what’s best for students, it’s what’s best for the schools financially.”

As Rocketship focuses its spending on expansion and profit, all without being held accountable to an elected school board, radical legislators are pushing to fund taxpayer dollars into corporate charters like Rocketship while slashing the budget for public schools. According to the report, “Wisconsin is second only to Alabama in the severity of its cuts to K–12 funding since the Great Recession began.”

The so-called accountability legislation—one that many politicians, right-wing think tanks, chambers of commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council support and replicate—creates the very problem of failure in the school system by draining money from the poorest school districts. Lafer noted that the same chamber of commerce officials who promote Rocketship in Milwaukee send their own kids to enriching, well-funded schools with art, music and small classes.

“The fact that what’s considered the gold standard for poor students in Milwaukee is considered unacceptable for kids in the suburbs is just wrong,” said Lafer.

Lafer gives several recommendations that would bring accountability and transparency to all schools that receive public money, including:

  • all schools funded with public tax dollars uphold the same standards of transparency and open records as traditional public schools
  • all publicly funded schools uphold the same standards of ethics and prohibitions against conflicts of interest as are demanded of public officials
  • all publicly funded schools be governed by a board of directors elected by parents or by the broader community whose tax dollars provide its funding
  • all such schools devote at least as high a share of their resources to instruction as do traditional public schools
  • any school whose population includes a lower-than-average share of students who are poor, disabled, or otherwise disadvantaged has its funding reduced accordingly, with the remaining funds going to those schools that serve a disproportionately large share of such students

This, according to Lafer, will provide a real system of equality that judges schools by academic merit, one that “aims not at enriching a class of investors or carrying out ideological crusades, but at enabling all the city’s children to flourish to their full potential.”

Reader Comments

  1. Wisconsin has the opportunity in the upcoming elections to change the disastrous path that has occurred in education. The obvious choice in by voting for Democrats who support a quality, well-funded and yet balanced approach to education reform. There are many examples but the one I will mention is the charter school in a nearby city that for years was allowed to rob our public schools of funds and resources while it from the beginning performed far below local public schools on state tests. And only after years of this profiting individuals and a continued firestorm of controversy did they announce only a few weeks before school was to begin that they were closing the school leaving those students in the lurch. The worst of it? The next year there they were in a different location, different name, same company and so far the same results.

  2. I have been retired for almost 3 years now after a 41 year career in public education. I have never seen the profession take such a daily beating by politicians and the public in general as it is taking now. This lack of respect and compensation is starting to have its effects be seen. Enrollment in teacher prep fields in college are dropping like a stone. More and more people are leaving the profession not because of students but because of the abuse they have to put up with from politicians that couldn’t handle a classroom if their lives depended on it and from parents that just don’t care about what their kids do or don’t do. I guess the old saying is true(slightly modified to fit today’s society) Architect’s mistakes are covered with brick and ivy. Doctors’ bury their mistakes. Lawyers’ mistakes are put away in cells. Politicians’ mistakes just make them more money and political power. And teachers’ mistakes grow up to become Architects, Doctors, Lawyers, and worst of all, POLITICIANS!!

  3. I have been teaching sophomores US History and seniors economics and government at the same high school in Oregon for the last 35 1/2 years.
    We have not had a licensed librarian in
    our high school since 1988. We have hard working teacher aides who get the assignment for the library. Those mothers of ex-students do as good as is possible. They may even care about kids more than the person with the license. Since I’ve been here so long I remind current staff and administration that it is a false choice. Having a librarian license And caring about kids is how ouw librarian s were before we eliminated them forever!
    What a loss, that two generations in our town do not even know enough to miss…so sad, all the ignorance!

  4. Did any teacher actually have to read this to know what the outcome was? If I had a child in school anymore, I certainly would have moved out of Wisconsin. I’m glad my children are out of school. ALEC is taking over our country through our children. Wake up people!

  5. I agree with Education votes: “all such schools devote at least as high a share of their resources to instruction as do traditional public schools.”

    This article was about charter schools and Rhee Ali Tee’s comment puts the focus on the problem of deregulated charter schools’ administrations being to legally, and/or illegally divert charter school taxpayers’ education dollars to personal gain. There is a need for NEA to lead a National campaign that pressures state governments to enact laws requiring minimum percentage greater than 50% of a charter school’s budget must be spent on classroom personnel salaries and benefits.

    Having minimum of 50% or more of a charter school budget required to be spent on a classroom personnel in every state with charter schools will not end corruption but it will provide a tool for decreasing opportunities for corruption and also provide a means of holding charter school administration that are in it for the money accountable when audits uncover failure to comply with the law.

    Having a law in place is important. But, the schools budget is a reflect of a school’s values and a law requiring more than 50% of a school’s must be spent on classroom personnel reflect that the belief that is people in the classroom that are most valued.

    If such a law as minimum requirement of 50% or greater must be spent on the classroom is in place, it is unlikely that the business plan of Rocketship charter school would not have had the financial fuel to get off the ground.

    In California by law public schools are required to spend a percentage greater than 50% of a district’s budget that varies according to the type of district: minimum percentage depending on what type of district: elementary – minimum 60%, unified (both elementary and secondary) – minimum 55%, and high school – minimum 50%.

    However, charter schools have no minimum requirement on having to spend their budgets on the classroom. And, if California had for its charter schools a similar requirement for a minimum amount above 50% of a charter school’s budget had to be spent on the classroom, Rocketship’s business plan for replacing people with machines would have been impractical and trashed!

    Jim Mordecai

  6. What has been kept out of the media is that over the last three years there have been many cases involving misappropriation of funds and charter schools–L.A. even closed a school where 2.7 million was stolen. I’m a teacher and I dislike administrators and the central office–but without proper oversight the multitude of unreported incidents will blossom.

  7. My name is Jeff Herringa (correction). My biggest concern is that we only have about 32 licensed school librarians for about 168 schools at the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). If we had at least full-time library assistants at each school with weekly school library visitations, this would be a good start.

    Unfortunately, many schools have minimal library assistance and others have no library services at all.

    15-20 years ago, full-time librarians and library assistants were commonplace. Now, they are the exception to the rule…

    1. Washington state is now getting charter schools, thanks to the passage of I-1240 almost two years ago. The Yes on I-1240 got millions donated to their campaign.
      Many of our schools in Tacoma no longer have a librarian. Many have teachers working in the libraries, and many elementary schools do not have their libraries open five days a week.

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