Proponents of the charter movement as a quick fix for broken urban schools got some please-God-no news last week. The Missouri State Board of Education pulled the charters of all six Imagine schools in St. Louis. This means a third of charter schools that have opened here since 1999 have closed shop.
Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit charter school operator, was done in by the same academic, financial and leadership failures that have finished off other charters here. At times, Imagine seemed more interested in its remunerative and successful real estate deals than in its mandate to educate inner-city children. As pathetic as exam scores have been at the city’s unaccredited public schools, Imagine’s scores were worse. (I know!) Meanwhile, the city’s other large for-profit charter operator, EdisonLearning, which manages a handful of mostly low-performing schools, is reportedly on its way out, too.
Indeed, despite receiving more taxpayer dollars per student than regular public schools and operating with considerably less regulation and oversight, most St. Louis charter schools perform worse on standardized tests than government schools.
Charters managed by nonprofit groups appear in better shape academically and financially, though here too there has been failure and corruption aplenty. One problem for parents trying to unravel the charter mysteries is that the line between nonprofit and for-profit is blurry. The schools themselves must be nonprofits; though sometimes they are founded by small, local nonprofit groups, sometimes by large, out-of-state nonprofits, and sometimes by large, out-of-state for-profit corporations, as was the case with the now-defunct Thurgood Marshall Academy, which was shuttered after its president — brought in to save the failing school — was convicted of stealing more than $7,000, including $800 in lunch money, before it closed in 2005.
Nor is small and local nonprofit status a guarantee of success. Back in 2001, state Sen. Pete Kinder and several local pastors opened two tuition-free charters. Paideia academies soon became two of the lowest performing schools in the city — and that is saying something. The schools finally folded in 2010, and its chairman stands accused of looting more than $250,000 of public money to use for a side business. Across town, the now-defunct Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy charter schools were so deeply in debt they were taken over by the unaccredited public school district, while owing 100 creditors more than $5 million.
CHIEF AMONG THE SUCCESS stories is Construction Careers Center (managed by the public school district), and Gateway Science Academy (operated by Chicago-based Concept Schools, a large nonprofit consulting group) whose students tested twice as high on average as regular public school students. St. Louis Charter School, managed by a large Delaware-based nonprofit, has scored slightly better than government schools. Also showing promise is the Grand Center Arts Academy, managed by the Chicago-based nonprofit American Quality Schools. (Acceptance there requires an audition and parents’ signature on a commitment form, including a promise to check the child’s homework every night.) The local newspaper, no friend of charters, recently praised the local Knowledge is Power Program charter school, managed by the nonprofit KIPP Foundation, as “the right sort of charter …”
“KIPP does charters right,” wrote the editors. “It… will be a part of the solution.”
Following the Imagine fiasco, charter school proponents, among them Mayor Francis Slay, were at pains to point out that this is how alternative education is supposed to work. Good schools survive, bad ones are shut down. Contrast that to the public schools, where no matter how bad they fail, they continue to operate.
Imagine’s closure by no means signals the end of charter schools. In fact, state lawmakers are set to vote to extend charters statewide. Rural Missourians, tired of years of school consolidation or hungry for alternative forms of public education, are demanding the same choices as their urban counterparts. Though hopefully they will meet with better success. Here, at least, the lesson seems to be that large, out-of-state, for-profit corporations may not be your best bet for a sound education. However, the fact that any schools have succeeded in this chaotic urban environment is more miracle than judgment on the failure of the free market to turn things around.
In the end, this business of school choice and charters and vouchers seems to me mere pruning round the edges, rather than hacking at the roots of the problem, which is, as we all know, the breakdown of the traditional family. When we come up with a quick fix for that, the rest may take care of itself.