Since Betsy DeVos’ appointment as Secretary of Education, controversy has ensued regarding the condition of the public school system, the ethics of for-profit schools and the efficacy of charter schools. President Donald Trump’s administration recently proposed a $168 million increase in charter school funding, but this decision may not positively impact education. While some charter schools offer resources and support — for example, for students with disabilities — that many public schools fail to provide, their privatization of academic leadership and use of taxpayer money wholly undercut the public school system and fail to address problems that affect the majority of students.
One of the biggest issues that plagues public education is the lack of federal funding. The U.S. government pays for approximately 13 percent of total expenditures for public schools across the country. Depending on the state, states pay a little less than 50 percent, typically funded by income tax. The rest is paid by local governments, usually through property tax.
Because a large portion of the funding is provided by the local governments, disparity in quality of education is monumental. This is especially prevalent in low-income areas in which taxes received by schools are considerably less than in higher-income areas. Many public school systems are considered “failing” because they do not have adequate funding for the volume of students, and students may be predestined to perform worse at schools where they lack opportunities.
Various politicians and charter-school advocates have argued that charter schools are the antidote to the crippling problem. However, privately administrated schools that use taxpayer money, also known as “public” charter schools, may create more issues than they solve.
Charter schools are publicly funded but unaccountable. They are not governed by elected officials, they control the amount of students that enroll and many are not transparent with the money received from taxpayers. Charter schools are championed as schools that accommodate disabilities, provide more help with English-language learners and promote diversity. In reality, their demographics are startling.
An in-depth Washington Post analysis published in late March comparing Arizona public schools to BASIS, a chain of 18 charter schools in Arizona, found that the school chain heavily over-enrolled Asian students and under-enrolled Latino students. Just 1.23 percent of students enrolled had a learning disability, compared with the 11.3 percent enrolled in Arizona public schools. The school has no free lunch program, while over 47 percent of Arizona public school students receive reduced-price or free lunches. BASIS schools do not provide transportation, making it difficult for working families to get kids to and from school. These charter schools intentionally poach high achievers from public schools, all while leaving less-affluent and disabled children in the public system. Charter schools should be for students who are unable to receive a proper education in the public system. Students from poorer or more rural areas or students with disabilities are the demographics that charter schools should be targeting. Instead, wealthier and already high-achieving students are chosen, which continues to widen the inequality gap.
More than half of students at BASIS will not graduate once enrolled. Theoretically, this could tank their ratings among schools in Arizona, but it actually achieves the opposite. Because the students who stay are academically advanced and have taken countless AP classes, BASIS schools are highly ranked for college readiness, so more parents express interest in charter schools. The founders of the school once operated publicly, but when the founding couple decided to operate out of a privately-owned company, their salaries were hidden. They charged $46,000 in travel expenses during their first year of operating BASIS, paid for with public money. These schools have absolutely no accountability, and legal action can be extremely difficult because they are not held to the same standard as public schools.
Public education is not something that can be thrown away and replaced with a new system. In order to properly educate students across the country, the public system must be amended and proper funding for schools must be enacted. Funding for education is only 3 percent of the annual federal budget. Serious reform is desperately needed across public schools. Charter schools may be appropriate for some students, but this is a very tiny fraction of the population. If the Trump administration wants to reform the education system, funding for low-income public schools is a good start.