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When I was laid off from my charter school in the twin cities for financial reasons, my family first blamed, of all people, the president of the United States.
“I thought Obama was supposed to support schools?” my cousin, a Romney supporter, asked me in an angry tone when my news broke.
The past semester has been ridiculously enlightening to the complex and sometimes-unpredictable state of charter school finances. It has been among the most poignant lessons I’ve learned in my Teach For America experience.
Few outside of a charter school’s administration truly understand how budget-related decisions are made, though I feel I’ve learned at least the gist of it through my teaching experience (and, you know, being laid off). While charters are publicly funded, I now realize that organizations that approve and monitor charters, called authorizers, wield a lot of power in these budget decisions.
From what I’ve seen, in Minnesota, charter schools face limited financial scrutiny. (Concerns about the oversight of charter school administration, operations, and finance have triggered reports and legislative action over the past few years – so I’m not the only one who has noticed this issue.)
Those who approve and by-and-large monitor charters can be any non-profit whose overall budget is over a set amount. Taking a look at the different authorizers that oversee charters in the twin cities, it’s clear that they’re not all in the K-12 education business full-time, but rather moonlight as overseers for specific schools, for a variety of reasons. While they most likely have good intentions, it at least begs the question of “what do they know about K-12 education?” While I’m very much still a newcomer to educational policy and budgeting, I’ve had enough discussions with veteran educators of many affiliations (TFA and non-TFA, Republican and Democrat, administrator and classroom teacher) to know that the present system is less than ideal for long-term student stability.
What’s more, as charters are typically a single school in a single building (save those developing their own full districts), a small budget blip or a bad enrollment year can mean quick layoffs, something that larger traditional districts typically can smooth over or avoid. Limited oversight is allowing this to sometimes be used as a standard budget-balancing maneuver instead of a rare occurrence.
Minnesota, the first state to allow charter schools – and there are many in the state – may face greater challenges than other states where charters are less common or not allowed.
It’s undeniable that charters can have clear benefits. However, the lack of transparency, accountability, and predictability can also undeniably harm student learning. As I begin at another school, I have a reignited passion to work my hardest to promote stable, educationally-challenging environments for all students.