Charter schools were created to serve as incubators of good practice, and have the freedom to operate independently with public funds, assuming they meet certain accountability standards. But the rapid expansion of charter schools throughout the country has some worried that they lack critical elements of transparency, accountability and quality, according to a new collaboration between the American Federation of Teachers and advocacy group In the Public Interest.
Cashing in on Kids, as the venture is called, looks into concerns that have been raised with five different for-profit charter school operators: K12 Inc., Academics, Imagine Schools, Charter Schools USA and White Hat Management. The group claims the operators do a poor job of serving students and taxpayers, and that private interests have trumped the public good.
"This is a simple exercise of following the money," says Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, one of the nation's two largest teachers unions. "How many times do people simply get up on a pedestal and say we care about kids, and then you realize that they care about profits, they care about tax deductions, they care about privatizing the public system?"
For each charter operator, the website compiles a collection of news stories, official documents, reports and investigations of the operator, which Weingarten says is intended to serve as a resource for the public.
"This is not an opinion website," she says. "If accountability and transparency should go all ways, let's look at the accountability and transparency in terms of charter schools, not just in terms of public schools."
On the page dedicated to Charter Schools USA, for example, the group points out the for-profit operator contributed more than $200,000 to political candidates and organizations during the 2012 election cycle. In contrast, thus far in the 2014 election cycle, AFT has given more than $2 million in political contributions, according to OpenSecrets.org.
In response to the website and the claims against the organization, Colleen Reynolds, a spokesperson for Charter Schools USA, told U.S. News in a statement the organization "supports those who support accountability, equitable funding for all students, more pay for great teachers and the right for parents to make a choice in their child's education."
Rhonda Cagle, vice president of communications for Imagine Schools, another charter operator highlighted by Cashing in on Kids, says she would direct anyone with questions about the operator to look at the company's annual report, which it posts on its website. Additionally, Cagle says the company is in the process of converting all of its operations into a nonprofit entity.
"I would encourage folks to look at the growth and the learning gains that we are inspiring and supporting in 36,000 students who attend our campuses," Cagle says. "We're like any other publicly operated school. We are held accountable to the same state standards. We're held accountable to the same performance requirements that any other school is required to meet and we certainly take those responsibilities seriously and we meet them."
And Jeff Kwitowski, senior vice president of corporate communications for K12, says many of the claims purported by Cashing in on Kids are not true.
"It is unfortunate the AFT is pushing an 'us vs. them' narrative, rather than focusing on working together to improve public education to help meet the educational needs of every child," Kwitowski says in a statement to U.S. News. "Not every child is the same. Children need options in education. Powerful lobbying organizations that actively oppose educational choice are at odds with parents who want the freedom to choose public school programs for their children."
Still, Weingarten maintains she is not against charter schools and the website takes only public information that has been reported on the five operators highlighted.
"I am not anti-charter, and there are many people that run great charter schools that are very well-intentioned and well-meaning," she says. "But there are also people within the so-called charter school movement … who are really all about profiteering."
She says the website will also focus on charters that serve as examples of good practice. "If we can see thoughtful education practices, effective schools, it's not simply a matter of focusing on the negative," she says. "If there's positive, you focus on the positive, too."
Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, says in the future the group plans to dig deeper into the details of contracts of for-profit charter operators and may also look into privatization concerns with school voucher systems, which in many cases allow low-income students in poor performing public schools to use public funds to transfer to private schools.
"Our reason to be is to make sure the public interest comes first in all of these sectors, as the amount of private involvement increases," Cohen says. "Education is at least one, if not the most important public thing we do together as a country. … There is nothing more important to the public good than education."