(this is Part II -- my second article on the school privatization movement)
"Charter schools were a movement, but now charter schools are an industry. They have lobbyists -- they walk around in thousand-dollar suits, some of them." - Dan Gaetz, Florida freshman senator (R) and former Okaloosa school superintendent (see http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/11/neo-liberalism-the-leveraging-of-charter-schools-with-public-and-private-funds/)
No Child Left Behind
George W. Bush was the first to authorize federal funding to stimulate charter school development in the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB also strengthened requirements that states implement minimum standards testing to be eligible for federal education funds. Unbeknown to most Americans, this policy was actually initiated by Clinton, although not stringently enforced. As attorney and progressive education reformer Danny Weil (*see below) points out, the true purpose of NCLB wasn't really to improve the performance of low income minority students -- or it would have made some effort to guarantee their school districts more equitable funding. Its main purpose was to use standardized tests to massively highly the poor performance of these schools -- to further bolster support for the burgeoning school privatization movement.
Bush junior wisely left responsibility for school voucher programs to the states. Uptake of school vouchers by low income minority parents has been spotty. This is really no surprise, given that vouchers (limited to the "per pupil equivalent") cover only a fraction of the tuition charged by private schools.
"Throwing Money" at Charter Schools
The low per pupil equivalent -- which ironically highlights progressives' claims of serious underfunding -- has also been a major problem for the charter school movement. According to the Education Policy Studies Laboratory (http://www.lwvny.org/advocacy/education/charter_sch_bib032307.pdf), no charter school is likely to succeed without substantial for-profit or non-profit funding to supplement meager per pupil funding limits. What I find even more ironic, in view of the conservative rallying cry of not "throwing money" at public schools, is the vast amounts of private sector money being invested in publicly subsidized schools.
Make no mistake, charter schools are big business. Large charter school chains like Green Dot, KIPP, Alliance Schools and YES Prep Public Schools are squeezing out many of their community-based competitors. Moreover, owing to generous support from the US Department of Education, the non-governmental financing sector for charter schools has grown leaps and bonds. Presently 25 private, non-profit organizations collectively provide over $600 million in direct financial support to charter schools. In addition, Standard and Poor and Moody's list over 70 rated charter school bonds totaling over $1 billion.
These private funding sources leverage a variety of federal monies to supplement low state and local "per pupil equivalents." In addition to Title I funding, the US Department of Education has awarded $50 million of grants through two programs administered by the Office of Innovation and Improvement: the Credit Enhancement for Charter School Facilities Program and the State Charter School Facilities Incentive Grants Program. This supplements four federal programs administered by other federal agencies that charter schools can access for their facilities needs: the Public Assistance Grant Program (administered by FEMA), the New Markets Tax Credit Program and the Qualified Zone Academy Bond Program (both administered by the US Treasury), and Community Programs (administered by the Department of Agriculture).
Should We Allow Conservative Philanthropists to Run Our Schools?
A final source of charter school funding is the New Schools Venture Fund created in 1998, which hosts funding by conservative-leaning mega charities, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walmart family foundation.
Why do millionaires and billionaires donate hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools? Danny Weil calls it priming the pump. Neoliberals have strong ideological reasons for seeking to dismantle traditional public education. They know that the charter school movement has the potential to capture billions of public education dollars for profit-oriented ventures. However owing to the low per pupil equivalents for disadvantaged students, new privately run charter schools are unlikely to succeed without outside support. And despite claims to the contrary, corporate donors know that "throwing money at schools" allows them to attract and retain the best teachers -- and in the long run, improve student achievement.
Moreover in a number of cases, these donors have been invited to serve as board members on charter school chains with major governing responsibilities -- offering them an extraordinary amount of control over curriculum, textbooks and potentially the ideological bent of the schools they oversee (e.g. whether they teach evolution or its fundamentalist Christian alternative Creative Design).
For-profit Companies: Circling Like Sharks
The massive growth in charter schools and the funding to support them has also led to a burgeoning industry that applies for and distributes grants, in addition to hundreds of companies that sell "educational products and services." And although technically all charter school financing schemes are non-profit -- they generate a phenomenal number of for-profit contracts for companies marketing curriculum and textbooks, computers, software and administrative, clerical and security services.
One example is Ignite, an educational software company founded and run by the former president's brother Neil Bush. It sells its wares to Florida charter schools, thanks to another brother, ex-governor Jeb Bush. (See http://progreso-weekly.com/2/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1592:evidence-that-bush-family-profits-from-florida-education&catid=43:this-aint-disneyland&Itemid=62)