Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Charters raid money from tax payers

They said charters would offer needed competition to community schools, but they didn’t say the competition would be about public dollars.  Last week Albany Times Union reported on the city’s Albany Leadership Charter High School for Girls “asking for $15 million in tax-free public financing to buy the brand-new charter high school for girls built by the Brighter Choice Foundation.”
Here’s the cute part. The nonprofit Brighter Choice Foundation, which runs all 11 charter schools in Albany and  erected the building at a cost of some $10.1 million, is directing its Charter Facilities Finance Fund to ask the city to back its selling tax-exempt bonds to investors so it can  buy the school building and — are you ready for this? — lease it back to Brighter Choice.

Forget about whether the deal sounds dodgy, because it does. If the deal also sounds a bit familiar, it may be because Thomas Carroll, the prime mover behind the Brighter Choice charter schools, has been profiting from a similarly questionable real estate tax loophole for the past several years, a story exposed earlier this year by Juan Gonzalez in the Daily News.
Critics say Carroll’s latest charter real estate trick runs counter to the purpose of the city providing tax free bonds, which is to jump-start job creation and promote economic development. No jobs will be created here; the school is already up and running. Where’s the public benefit in financing a project that’s already completed?



The paper cites Brighter Choice Chairman Chris Bender’s bright expectation that the high school’s sale would “replenish the revolving line of credit” it holds with the Walton Family Foundation, the charity run by the family that owns the nonpareil union-busting Wal-Mart.
As the paper notes, that cozy arrangement “could create another potentially controversial scenario in which Brighter Choice is essentially using the proceeds from the sale of tax-free bonds to bolster the account from which it builds new schools to compete with the city school district.”
Supporters say the school does create jobs —some two dozen new ones — but that’s denied by an Albany schools spokesperson who says it’s more a case of job shifting than job creation, given that 200 public school staff members, including 100 teachers, were laid off in the last two school years.
We should note that Carroll, the little man on the charter school stair, is the honcho behind School Performance Inc., which in turn runs the  Charter Facilities Finance Fund that wants to make deal for the city.
His adventures in education aren’t restricted to the state’s snow belt.  President of the charter-flacking Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, Carroll is also president of the Empire Foundation and CHANGE-NY, both far-right-of-center organizations that mask conservative ideology as fiscal prudence. Ripping off Albany’s tax base must be the new style in protecting the public’s dollars.
On paper, charter schools can be useful experimental nonprofit projects offering urban students small classes and intimate surroundings in schools run by teachers, parents and community leaders -- and in schools covered by a union contract. Successes, especially in the charter school industry's claim to closing the shameful achievement gap between white students and children of color-- could then be imported into community public school curricula and pedagogy. Fine in theory. That's not how it works in practice. Charters are frequently run by for-profit operators who cream students out of district- or municipally run schools and either refuse to admit special education and English language learners or steer them away in the case of school lottery winners -- all in order to boost their statewide test scores -- while keeping unions out and teachers as at-will employees (though fresh organizing successes are changing that union-free picture, at least incrementally). Actually existing charter schools don't as a rule militate to increase the public pot of dollars going to education. In too many cases, they instead drain money from the community schools and --devilishly-- serve sizably as investment opportunities in land and in various for-profit urban redevelopment schemes by hedge fund managers and other Wall Street speculators. The attacks on public sector unions that are ongoing in every state and territory, which are sold as budget-tightening measures and common-sense economies, are all about privatizing education and other public services, and the bulk of vocal charter school supporters are union haters. These attacks are first-rank union issues.
Michael Hirsch is a staff reporter for New York Teacher newspaper.
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