January 4, 2024

Mike DeGuire: Colorado charter schools need more transparency and accountability

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Mike DeGuire has been a teacher and an administrator. In this commentary published in Colorado Newsline, he explains the need for greater transparency and accountability in Colorado charter schools. 

Colorado charter schools have expanded significantly in the past decade, with 16% of students now attending charter schools, yet current state laws governing their operations are woefully inadequate to ensure full transparency and accountability for the public funding of charter schools. Charter schools utilize taxpayer dollars and, at the same time, charter schools allow private interests to invest in their growth and development.

Charter schools have two primary funding sources: one from the taxpayers and the other from investments often executed with little public knowledge of intent or interest. Specifically, investments from billionaires, private foundations, and hedge fund managers reap tax advantages when they donate large sums of money to charter schools. After tax codes were changed in the early 2000s, “banks and equity funds that invest(ed) in charter schools in underserved areas took advantage of a very generous tax credit,” HuffPost reported. “According to one analyst, the credit allows them to double the money they invested in seven years.”

The real estate industry also stands to benefit by promoting charter schools and helping them buy up property, or rent, in inner city communities.

As one example indicates, the Rocky Mountain Prep charter school chain in Denver  received $4.5 million from billionaire MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, in October 2022. Two months later, the KIPP charter school chain received $6 million from the same billionaire. These investments were in addition to the per pupil allocation these schools received from taxpayers in Denver.

When a child enrolls in a charter school, funds move from the public school to the charter school. Taxpayers may not be aware that their dollars are funding a structure that helps a private company or group of investors reap rewards or gain tax incentives. Moreover, the taxpayer may start to see their local neighborhood school struggling because the funds are flowing into the charter school.

Researchers have demonstrated that charter schools operate differently than their public-school counterparts. In their exhaustive study of charter schools, Kevin Welner and Wagma Mommandi describe 13 practices that many charter schools use to control their enrolment. These practices are not always regulated by state laws, and “when charter school enrollment is ‘biased’, it severely undermines our ability to compare funding, growth, or achievement.”

In her research, Helen Ladd, distinguished professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University, documented four ways that charter schools “undermine good policy making.”  She states that charter schools “make it difficult for publicly elected officials to develop coherent education systems, to adequately attend to the educational challenges of child poverty, to promote the racial integration of students, and to ensure strong public accountability and oversight for the use of public funds.”

Ladd recommends that “charter schools should be subject to more stringent accountability procedures than traditional public schools … Policymakers need to provide more complete information about individual charter schools related to the quality of their financial management, student outcomes, and also to their internal school processes and practices.”

To address these inherent problems with the current system of approving, funding, and regulating charter schools, the Colorado legislature needs to change current charter school lawsThese are possible legislative measures that could address some of the current inequities:

  1. Transparency & Accountability Parents’ Education Bill of Rights: All parents deserve access to critical information regarding school fees, dress code, disciplinary policies, enrollment practices, promotion and retention policies, the present authorization and financial status of the school, free and reduced lunch policies, and access to transportation.
  2. Taxpayer Education Protection Act: All taxpayers have a right to know how public funds are being used responsibly in publicly funded schools and not spent on gifts and enticements to expand their enrollments and increase their funding.
  3. Transparency in Publicly Funded Charter Schools Act: To protect students and public funds from exploitation by those in the charter school system, states should implement strong transparency measures that allow parents and taxpayers to oversee the management and expenditure of public funds.
  4. Protect Public Infrastructure Investments Act: When taxpayer funds are used by charter school operators to purchase or construct buildings, private interests should not be able to take ownership of that property without adequately compensating taxpayers for those investments.

Citizens remain in the dark about how charter schools are spending their taxpayer dollars. It is time for the Legislature to protect both taxpayer investments and to ensure equity, transparency, and accountability in the public education system.

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