The Texas Tribune published a concerning article, “When Public Money, Private Firms Intersect in Schools,” by reporter Morgan Smith about some charter and virtual schools providers’ unwillingness to provide information despite their receipt of public funds to educate Texas public school students.
The article indicates “almost 100 of its 393 pages” in a charter school’s recently approved application, including “sections on the school’s plan to support students’ academic success, its extracurricular activities and the ‘extent to which any private entity, including any management company’ will be involved in the school’s operation,'” was blacked out “because the information was copyrighted,” according to the Texas Education Agency.
Ms. Smith perfectly summed up the troubling nature of this state of affairs:
“In Texas, commercial entities cannot run public schools. But when a school’s management — including accounting, marketing and hiring decisions — is contracted out to a private company, the distinction can become artificial. Such an arrangement raises questions about how to ensure financial accountability when the boundary between public and private is blurred, and the rules of public disclosure governing expenditures of taxpayer money do not apply.”
The Texas Tribune also requested an overview of salary records and marketing expenses at full-time virtual schools across the state. In all but one case, the schools responded that “the records were not available or that they were not subject to public information laws.”
The article further cites Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, who notes that without financial transparency it is difficult to evaluate the costs and benefits of full-time virtual schools.
Raise Your Hand Texas previously voiced similar concerns in a white paper issued late last year, noting:
“It is difficult to determine whether virtual schools have been cost-effective overall. The current funding structure is such that the costs to the state are the same as for students enrolled in traditional classrooms. The costs to the districts operating virtual schools are undetermined at this point due to the fact they are not publicly disclosed in an accessible way…Contract costs between the host district/charter and private providers are unknown at this time. The general costs for operating these schools, and more specifically, the cost per student, cannot be determined from public records.”
While the passage of Senate Bill 2, which provides for greater oversight and limited gradual expansion of charter schools, was an important step, this article is further confirmation of the need for better understanding of how and where charter and virtual schools are spending public dollars.