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Jersey Jazzman notes that charters in his state are on the horns of a dilemma: on one hand, public school advocates are suing to block charter expansion, because they drain away public school funding: on the other hand, charters want to join a lawsuit that would allow them to share in a settlement intended to provide equity for public schools in impoverished districts. JJ is a very smart guy but he doesn’t seem to understand that what matters most is not consistency but being in the right place when the money spigot is turned on. Charters are public when that’s where the money is; charters are not public when it suits them to avoid mandates.
This was a long time coming: the Christie administration happily encouraged the expansion of charter schools without seriously thinking about appropriate oversight, regulation, and funding of the sector. Now the state has to contend with a system that imposes fiscal burdens on school districts that host charter schools, even as those districts have no meaningful say on charter school proliferation.
The fact – which I have validated empirically – is that charter school expansion is not a revenue-neutral policy. As school districts lose students to charters, they are unable to adjust immediately to enrollment declines, because districts have fixed costs like buildings and personnel that can’t be quickly scaled back.
But charter operators appear to be unconcerned with this reality; repeatedly, they have demanded they get everything they think they are owed, even when school districts are facing serious financial pressures. During Christie’s time, this meant charter budgets weren’t touched, even as host districts’ were slashed…
As Bruce Baker and Gary Miron pointed out years ago, charter school regulations like New Jersey’s lead to an absurd situation: the public pays for school buildings that many times used to be owned by a school district – in other words, the public – but wind up in private hands. Sometimes those hands are nonprofits aligned with the charter school; sometimes they are for-profit companies, paying off their mortgages with funds the charters receive in per pupil payments from hosting school districts.
In either case, the public is paying for a building that the public will never own. And in most cases, these are buildings that are paid for, at least in part, with local funds, even though the state is the entity that gets to decide whether charters will be granted or renewed.
This lunacy is at the heart of the serious conflicts of interest, lack of transparency, and just generally bad policymaking that surrounds New Jersey’s charter school facilities…
The legal status of charter schools has always been open to debate, but it’s clear at this point that they are not government actors. As such, they can claim immunity from oversight regulations that other governmental entities, such as school boards, must abide by. Why, then, should the taxpayers simply turn over revenues for charter facilities when they won’t even know who, if anyone, is profiting off of this system?
There are a lot of aspects of charter school policy we can debate, but this one if clear: If the public pays for a school building — including a charter school building — the public should own the building. If New Jersey’s charter schools want more funding for their facilities, the price to be paid is that those facilities stay in public hands, with public oversight and complete transparency.
If you think I’m wrong, I’d love to hear your argument. But it seems clear to me that New Jersey’s charter schools can’t have it both ways: if you want public funding, you can’t have privately owned buildings.