November 21, 2022

Ruth Coniff: What you don’t know about the UW System’s new charter schools should worry you

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In Wisconsin, taxpayers are about to get even more charter schools, whether they like it or not, and whether they know anything about these schools will spend their money or not.

The UW System’s Office of Educational Opportunity (OEO), created by the Wisconsin Legislature in 2015,  is well on its way to overseeing more K-12 schools than the superintendents of most of Wisconsin’s 423 school districts.

Currently, the OEO, the UW System’s charter school authorizer, lists 10 independent charter schools it has authorized on its website. Three more schools haven’t opened yet but have signed contracts with the office. With 13 schools, the OEO has enough schools under its umbrella to be one of Wisconsin’s 20 largest school districts. Yet there is not much publicly available information about how the office is choosing to approve new charters, or even which schools it has already approved.

Among the schools the OEO has recently authorized are Veritas Classical Academy, a charter school in Eau Claire that plans to use the conservative Hillsdale College curriculum, and Mill Creek Academy in Waukesha, part of a network of schools run by National Heritage Academies (NHA). NHA, a for-profit company, was singled out in a report covered by the Washington Post on for-profit charter operators that use “creative workarounds” to dodge state laws against for-profit charters by setting up nonprofit organizations to launch schools and then extracting most of the money from them.

Ruth Coniff raises some important questions about what the public doesn’t know.

The dearth of public information about new charter schools that OEO is in the process of authorizing, including how close they are to being approved and a schedule of public meetings about them, frustrates public school advocates. They want the public to be better informed about these taxpayer-financed schools.

“The refusal of the Office of Educational Opportunity to provide even the most basic gesture of transparency in disclosing the names of schools that have applied for authorization on its website is not just a divergence from the practices of previous charter czars, it appears to be an active attempt to conceal those names,” says Heather Dubois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.

Wisconsin is serving as an example of how charter schools can dodge accountability and transparency. Here’s an example involving just one of these chains.

Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain,” a report published last year by the Network for Public Education, describes how for-profit charter operators make money by setting up nonprofit schools and then providing all of the expensive services, from facilities to curriculum, at a net gain.

The report singled out charter operator National Heritage Academies for its “creative workarounds,” setting up nonprofit organizations to launch schools and then extracting profits from them.

NHA has already opened one school in Wisconsin, Milwaukee Scholars, and has now had its second school, the Mill Creek Academy, approved by OEO.

Former New York principal Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, explains that NHA “locks schools in with a ‘sweeps contract’ where virtually all revenue is passed to the for-profit management corporation, NHA, that runs the school.” Burris described NHA’s attempted $1 billion sale of 69 of its more than 90 schools to a new corporation created just for the purchase as a “massive transfer of public dollars into private wealth.”

In states like Wisconsin where charter schools can be authorized by people who are not actual taxpayers in the affected districts, taxpayers are handed a bill for a school without any say or prior knowledge of what they are getting. The buyer cannot beware because the buyer is kept unaware.

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