Last week there were numerous radio reports that Missouri Lt. Governor (and one of a bevy of GOP gubernatorial candidates) Peter Kinder was all worked up about the recommendations of the Ferguson Commission Report that concerned education. Seems the report neglected to mention charter schools, the favorite GOP fix for the failing schools one finds in the poorest parts of the U.S.
True – some Democrats talk the charter school talk as well, usually in the name of allowing innovation – or as seems to be the case for some state senators representing urban St. Louis, despair that the legislature will ever provide adequate resources to bring urban public schools up to the level of those in the suburbs – where, significantly, nobody wants charter schools. But for the most part, charters tend to ring specifically Republican bells.
The partisan bias has become more pronounced now that we have some experience with charter school performance and opponents have begun to push back. Recent studies evaluating charters show that their results are, overall, no better than those of public schools. Some do better, some do worse, some show little difference – despite the ability of charter schools to cherry-pick the best students and exclude problem children. There is also the problem of financial malfeasance that has cropped up with some regularity:
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) reports that 2,500 charter schools have failed since 2000. The list includes “ghost” schools that collected public funds but never served any students. These include 25 charter schools in Michigan that were awarded federal grants of between three and four million dollars in 2010-2011 but never opened. CMD estimates that during the last twenty years the charter school industry has received over three billion dollars in federal tax dollars that should have gone to public schools.
But hey! What’s a little fraud and corruption if you’re an ideologically-committed conservative? Charters, especially for-profits, fit well with the extreme free market religion espoused by many on the right. They can operate free of regulations that govern most public schools; they circumvent the hated federal government’s role in setting educational policy; and they are free to hire non-union (and even unaccredited) teachers. Finally, many Southern states seem to be taking advantage of the lack of oversight to violate constitutional strictures against religion in publicly-funded charter school classrooms. For example, an outfit called Responsive Education Solutions (RES) rakes in federal dollars, $82 million in Texas alone where it is a major player, and in return delivers lots of that old time religion:
For a student enrolled in an RES charter school to pass biology they have to study “Knowledge Units,” workbooks that overtly and underhandedly discredit evidence-based science and teach creationism as science in public-school classrooms. Responsive Ed not only discredits science, the opening section of a workbook section on the origin of life plagiarizes the Christian bible and states, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” The so-called science curriculum also states emphatically that “scientists question the validity of the conclusions concerning the age of the Earth” to mislead students into believing there is serious scientific debate about the age of the Earth, the nature of the geological record, and validity of biological sciences.
You can see why all this potential right-wing bounty might appeal to some wingers despite the indifferent educational record racked up by charter schools. But there’s even more to the Republican love-affair with charter schools. And by more I mean the private money that greases the political system.
In Missouri, it doesn’t hurt that Rex Sinquefield, the billionaire who has been in the process of buying the state on the installment plan for the past several years, counts charter schools along with other efforts to privatize education as one of his main priorities. The aforementioned Peter Kinder received over $250,000 from Sinquefield in 2008 when Kinder was running for his second term as lt. governor. Almost any state politician, regardless of party, who’ll say a good word about charter schools, has gotten a bite of the dough that Sinquefield regularly doles out – which means that lots of Missouri pols will continue to ballyhoo the virtues of charter schools as the answer to all educational ills.
In 2008 Kinder also received big donations from the charter school crusader, hedge fund owner Paul Singer. Why is a hedge fund manager located in New York donating to a Missouri supporter of charter schools? According to a story that appeared in the Washington Post, investment bankers like Singer, along with real estate types, see big opportunities in charter school expansion that will allow them to profit off the publicly-funded schools:
As a result of this change to the tax code, banks and equity funds that invest in charter schools in underserved areas can take advantage of a very generous tax credit. They are permitted to combine this tax credit with other tax breaks while they also collect interest on any money they lend out. According to one analyst, the credit allows them to double the money they invested in seven years. Another interesting side note is that foreign investors who put a minimum of $500,000 in charter school companies are eligible to purchase immigration visas for themselves and family members under a federal program called EB-5.
The tax credit may also explain why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg partnered with the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, to promote charter schools; donated a half a million dollars worth of stock to organizations that distribute charter school funding; and opened his own foundation, Startup: Education, to build new charter schools.
The real estate industry, which already receives huge tax breaks as it gentrifies communities, also stands to benefit by promoting charter schools and helping them buy up property, or rent, in inner city communities.
So charter schools have something for every Republican. They hit all the right ideological notes, satisfy the GOP one percenter patrons, and bring in the dollars.With all that who cares if they’re effective?
No wonder Kinder is so aggressive in pushing charter schools as a solution to the issues of education in Ferguson. He gets a chance to criticize the Ferguson report (which earns points with Missouri GOP racists) while avoiding any discussion of the report’s actual recommendations – which stress equity in funding across all school districts – and significantly increased funding to support the “whole” child, something that the legislature (and a GOP governor, should there be one) will likely never touch since it might mean admitting that Missouri’s inadequate and unbalanced system of taxation should be addressed by something other than a flat tax. On top of that, Kinder’s commitment to the charter school cause pleases many of the ideology über alles crowd while stimulating the largess of rich men who plan on getting even richer off charter schools. Hog heaven for Republicans.
Edited slightly for clarity 12/31/15