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Nolan: Don't trust a charter school network whose objective boils down to profits

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St. Louis Public Schools parents and charter funding

Carron Johnson (center) gets on a bus carrying a protest sign as Nicole Williams, chief of staff for St. Louis Public Schools superintendent Kelvin Adams, coordinates logistics with other people taking a bus ride to Jefferson City to lobby lawmakers on Feb. 9. There were about 20 people on the bus and more who went by car to lobby lawmakers on House and Senate bills which would change provisions known as 'local aid' for how public and charter schools are funded.

Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

For about three years I worked for an organization that was invested in growing the charter school movement locally and around the country. Thankfully, I moved on, and now I fully support charter school reform, such as the reforms included in the new regulations for the federal charter school program proposed by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. Here is why.

I fully began to realize what I was a part of during lunch when I had a chance to talk to the chief executive of The Opportunity Trust, Eric Scroggins. I rattled off a list of ideas I had for turning the public schools in the St. Louis district around.

That wouldn’t work, he responded. He said the objective was to burn the system down.

For Opportunity Trust and so-called reform movements like it, the key to school improvement is to replace public schools with charter schools, or public schools that act like charter schools. That is when I lost all faith in what charter proponents were selling.

And where do these charter schools go to get start-up and expansion funds? The federal Charter School Program.

President Bill Clinton started the federal Charter School Program to provide some funding to support schools free of district management in order to be able to try out new ideas. The initial program budget was small. Now it consists of multiple programs that give $440 million dollars a year to charter chains, for-profit schools, and even the organizations that lobby the Department of Education for looser regulations and more funding.

Since the program began, hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on schools that never opened, and schools that opened and then closed. Millions have gone into the pockets of grifters and fraudsters looking to profit from that free government money. It is time for change and reform.

The same special interest groups that promote organizations like The Opportunity Trust are fighting the very reasonable rules that Cardona has proposed to help clean up the mess. With a campaign of misinformation, the charter lobby led by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools promotes the extreme right’s support for stopping the proposed regulations.

As a Black woman, I find it hard to believe any news outlet that promotes fearmongering about critical race theory and features an op-ed that criticizes the regulations because their frequent use of the words “diversity” and “racial” has the best interests of my children at heart.

So what do these regulations actually propose that have angered the far right and the charter lobby?

Applicants must assure that their schools will not make segregation worse. That is intended to address a serious problem, specifically the white flight of families from integrated school districts to charters. A letter submitted to Cardona signed by 67 public education advocacy and civil rights groups documented that North Carolina’s Charter School Program expansion sub-grants were awarded to several charter schools that had a far greater percentage of white students and far more affluent students than district schools.

The proposed regulations would also stop charter schools run by for-profits from getting Charter School Program funds. National chains such as Academica, National Heritage Academies, Accel and Charter Schools USA have built real estate empires using tax dollars given to charter schools. The largest for-profit chain, Academica, has 56 related companies at the same address. It is no wonder it tweeted the U.S. Department of Education to back off the proposed regulations.

The one regulation that the charter lobby objects to the most is the requirement to do an impact analysis to see if the school is needed or wanted by the community. Given that more than 40% of charter schools close within their first 10 years, an impact sounds like common sense to me. This particular regulation is also in line with the implementation of the City-Wide Planning Committee and its call for a moratorium on the opening of new schools. The guidelines here locally were met with strong opposition from The Opportunity Trust and its supporters.

I have been on the inside of the reform/charter school movement. Its ultimate objective is to destroy our public school system by replacing it with a system of charter and voucher schools. These new regulations will not stop that. I wish they were stronger. But at the very least they could help ensure that our federal tax dollars will be given to charter schools that have better intentions than many of the schools that are receiving Charter School Program grants now.

Making sure that federal tax dollars are spent judiciously and wisely is a principle that I will always support. Further, I believe that regulations like these should be proposed right here in the state of Missouri.

Gloria Nolan is a St. Louis native and mother of two St. Louis Public Schools students.

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