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Learning Curve

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It's the money, stupid

More than a decade into Indiana's charter school experiment, people still ask what, exactly, are charter schools?

If I'm being charitable, I explain they are public schools authorized to operate without many of the regulations placed on traditional public schools, in exchange for greater accountability. But given Indiana's popular new practice of charter flipping -- turning a poor-performing charter school into a voucher school or hunting for a new, less-rigorous sponsor instead of shutting it down -- the accountability requirement is pretty much out the window. I don't think I'll even bother with that explanation any longer.

If I'm feeling less charitable, I explain that charter schools are an effort to weaken and destroy teacher unions. Charter operators hire primarily young, inexperienced teachers; work them to death and then decline to renew their contracts when they should be giving them raises.

But news of a symposium in New York today offers the best explanation yet. It's all about the money. "Bonds and Blackboards: Investing in Charter Schools" was the topic of the one-day symposium at NYC's Harvard Club. Here's the description: "A one-day symposium to help Wall Street – especially the tax-exempt bond market – understand the value of investing in charter schools and best practices for assessing their bond credit."

Yes, because it's all about helping Wall Street, right? Speakers included a representative from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; charter school investors Alliance Bernstein, Hamlin Capital and Nuveen; commercial bankers; bond underwriter RBC Capital Markets; and rating agency Standard & Poor's.

They at least had the decency to invite some representatives of the charter school sector, including the State University of New York, a charter authorizer. The educators are just the means to a lucrative end, of course. As we've discovered in Indiana, if they stand in the way of bottom line, they can be easily dispensed in favor of a more cooperative party.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at