Are charter schools like polluting industries? That’s a provocative analogy, but two University of Connecticut researchers explore it in a recent paper. They contend that, while some charter schools may help students, the sector needs stronger regulation to prevent harm to students and school districts.
“I would argue that, even if there are benefits, that does not give you carte blanche to not regulate or mitigate the harms that occur,” Preston C. Green III, the paper’s lead author, told me.
The paper, “Beware of Educational Blackmail: How Can We Apply Lessons from Environmental Justice to Urban Charter School Growth?,” is pending publication in South Carolina Law Review and is online at the Social Science Research Network. Authors are Green, the university’s John and Maria Neag professor of urban education, and doctoral student Chelsea Connery.
Pursuing the connection between schools and polluters, the authors argue that environmental justice principles can be used to mitigate risks from unchecked expansion of charter schools.
The concept of environmental justice arose from concern that factories and waste facilities targeted low-income, Black or Hispanic neighborhoods where they would face less effective opposition. Often, the projects promised benefits that didn’t materialize: Jobs were few or went to workers from other communities. But the harms — pollution and health risks — were real. The take-it-or-leave-it nature of the transaction gave rise to the term environmental blackmail, hence the title of the paper.
The paper notes that charter schools often locate in economically marginalized communities where families are dissatisfied with the local public school district. (It cites polling that finds charter schools are much more popular with Black and Hispanic Democrats than with white Democrats). Research is mixed on whether charter schools produce the benefits they promise, the authors write.
The paper identifies three types of harm that can be caused by the growth of charter schools:
- Increased stress on financially troubled school districts.
- Predatory real estate deals that divert resources to for-profit businesses.
- Loss of rights for students who enroll in charter schools.
When students leave district schools for charter schools, state operating funds typically follow, sometimes leaving the districts strapped. Over time, districts can cut costs by reducing staff and closing schools. But Green and Connery say districts often have fixed costs – for example, pensions, retiree health care and debt – that can’t be easily reduced when they lose students.
In Indiana, the biggest growth in charter schools has been in Gary and Indianapolis. District enrollment has declined by 57% in Gary Community Schools and 31% in Indianapolis Public Schools since the state began expanding charters a decade ago. The state took over Gary schools in 2017 because of money problems. (IPS recouped some of its lost enrollment via “innovation” agreements with charter schools).
Predatory real estate deals often involve charter schools paying inflated prices, sometimes to businesses that have a relationship with the schools. The paper cites an Ohio auditor’s report that found some charter schools were paying twice the normal rent for buildings and a New Jersey newspaper investigation that found charter operators charged exorbitant rents and loan rates.
Indiana has seen some of that, but the state’s major charter school scandal involved two online schools, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy. A state audit found the schools received $68.7 million in state funds by inflating their enrollment figures and improperly paid $85.7 million to vendors with ties to officials and employees of the schools.
Loss of student rights often involves matters of discipline, including high rates of suspension and expulsion at “no-excuses” charter schools. Another issue is the use of dress codes to prohibit Black girls from wearing Afrocentric hair styles. State Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, filed a bill in 2022 to ban “race discrimination based on hair,” but it didn’t get a hearing.
Green and Connery conclude that it will take stronger laws to limit the harm that can result from charter school expansion, just as it took stricter laws and regulations to make gains in environmental justice.
By coincidence, the paper lands during a heated national debate over proposed guidelines that would reset priorities for $440 million a year in federal grants to launch new charter schools. Green said the proposal reflects “a recognition that something needs to be done” about the impact of charter schools.