Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Behind the drumbeat for charter schools

Behind the drumbeat for charter schools

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Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 07:00:05 PM PDT


Let's say you have an existing product that needs improvement. You come up with a replacement you're really excited about. After more than a decade (PDF), the replacement product is better than the original 17% of the time. It's worse 37% of the time.
At this point, if you choose to plow forward with the new product without stepping back and sincerely trying to figure out what lessons can be learned from the respective successes of each product, you're proving one of two things about yourself. Either you're really, really stupid, or you have a motivation separate from the question of quality.
That's where the question of school reform stands now -- charter schools, of course, are the new product that is worse more than twice as often as it's better. And yet they are the favored approach of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a large cadre of super-wealthy donors, and many influential reporters. They're touted in the new film Waiting for Superman (which I haven't seen, won't pay to see, and about which I'd refer you to Dana Goldstein's excellent article in The Nation). They're everywhere -- and as Nicholas Lemann writes in the New Yorker:
It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama.
The issue is not whether schools should be improved. Under almost any circumstances the answer would be yes; under current circumstances in the US the answer is definitely. The issue is how improvement should be carried out. Of course there are fantastic charter schools out there, and ones that are doing excellent work serving specific populations. There are lessons to learn from those schools. Then, there are also lessons to learn from many public schools, but somehow we hear a lot less about that. We also tend not to hear enough about how many of the most successful charter schools are benefiting both from large infusions of money that public schools don't get and from extremely motivated students and parents.
Unfortunately, by now the forces arrayed behind charter schools as the answer are so great that before we can even embark on the project of real improvement, we have to identify the ideology (and the funding) underpinning the charter schools-or-bust movement and make sure the facts are known.
First of all, charter schools are big business, and they're often extremely sketchy business. The charter schools that get the publicity are often the ones started by an educator with a vision, run by a small group of true believers. Those schools exist, and for the students who have access to them, they are a wonderful thing. But evidence suggests they're outnumbered by schools like these:
City Controller Alan Butkovitz yesterday blasted the Philadelphia School District's Charter School Office for failing "to monitor charter schools," which spend millions in taxpayers' dollars.
Butkovitz released a scathing report citing financial mismanagement, excessive executive salaries and "opportunities for possible fraud" at 13 charter schools his office investigated over the last 14 months.
"Many charter schools, through leasing agreements and associated nonprofits, are transferring taxpayer-funded assets to nonprofits that are not accountable to the school district," the report said in one of its key findings.
Imagine Schools runs 71 charter schools in 11 states and Washington DC.
But regulators in some states have found that Imagine has elbowed the charter holders out of virtually all school decision making — hiring and firing principals and staff members, controlling and profiting from school real estate, and retaining fees under contracts that often guarantee Imagine’s management in perpetuity.
The arrangements, they say, allow Imagine to use public money with little oversight. "Under either charter law or traditional nonprofit law, there really is no way an entity should end up on both sides of business transactions," said Marc Dean Millot, publisher of the report K-12 Leads and a former president of the National Charter Schools Alliance, a trade association, now defunct, for the charter school movement.
"Imagine works to dominate the board of the charter holder, and then it does a deal with the board it dominates — and that cannot be an arm’s length transaction," he said.
The lack of status as a federally approved nonprofit group is proving to be one of Imagine’s biggest challenges. So it often gets involved with schools at their inception, recruiting board members or hitching its wagon to nonprofit groups that can obtain a charter, as it did in Las Vegas, where it teamed with 100 Black Men of Las Vegas to open an elementary school, the 100 Academy of Excellence. The school opened in 2006, and the county school board soon began documenting problems. It found the school’s bookkeeping under Imagine to be lax, and it said that the school lacked enough licensed teachers.
The school has had three principals in four years, two of whom were pressured to resign after complaining that there was not enough money for essentials like textbooks and a school nurse. The state said that by paying Imagine for necessities like furniture and computers, the school had violated regulations requiring competitive bidding. It further violated state law by running a deficit, which left it in debt to Imagine.
(Read more about Imagine here.)
Expanding this system will make a few people rich, but that's not what the public education system is supposed to do. Yet when you look at the people pushing for charter schools broadly as a system, it's money every which way, and somehow we're supposed to overlook that. Heaven knows lots of major media organizations do:
Consider, for example, arecent article in the New York Times depicting the battle in three New York state Senate primary races.  On the one hand were hedge fund managers and supporters of non-unionized charter schools who were identified as favoring "education reform" on four occasions, "school reform" on another, and simply "reform" on yet another.  Opponents of charter schools were never given that label, even though teacher unions and others who don’t think the track record of charter schools is very good in fact favor lots of reforms – such as teacher peer review to weed out bad educators; rigorous national standards; expanded pre-K programs; reducing economic and racial isolation in schools, and on and on.

What’s particularly galling in the Times story is that in any other context, it is doubtful that the paper would have employed the good-guy "reformer" label to a group of extremely wealthy hedge fund managers who wrote enormous checks to influence the political process, while withholding any positive label from a grass roots effort by workers to resist change that they thought would be harmful to both them and their clients (schoolchildren.) 
That, of course, is one of the central things going on here: big money going after yet another union, this time in the name of what's good for kids. Even when the evidence suggests it isn't what's best for kids, and while much is made of the waiting lists at some charter schools, many parents don't seem to think much of this so-called reform either.
Which brings us to elections. Even as the New York Times and the Washington Post and Arne Duncan and hedge fund managers are all about charter schools -- not just the 17% of charter schools that are outperforming traditional public schools, either -- charter school and other education "reform" advocates were recently dealt some losses at the polls in the Washington DC mayoral primary and the three New York state senate primaries mentioned above. Again, it's portrayed as "reformers" vs. teachers unions. But, as Diane Ravitch writes of the DC mayoral race:
The election was widely viewed as a referendum on Rhee, who attained a national reputation in her role as schools' chancellor. Her allies considered her bold and combative; her opponents considered her divisive and mean-spirited. In the closing days of the Fenty campaign, she went to the districts where Fenty had his strongest support—the largely white districts in the city's Northwest section—to rally voters.
When the results came in, Fenty was trounced in largely black districts. In Wards 7 and 8, his opponent, Vincent Gray, won 82 percent of the vote. In Northwest Washington, where white voters predominate, Fenty won 76 percent of the vote. Fenty decisively lost the black vote and decisively won the white vote. D.C. public schools are about 5 percent white, so it is a reasonable supposition that the anti-Fenty vote was fueled to a large degree by parents of children in the public schools. Gray won handily, 53 percent to 46 percent.
Journalists attributed Fenty's loss to the power of the teachers' union, but such an explanation implies that black voters, even in the privacy of the voting booth, lack the capacity to make an informed choice. When the Tea Party wins a race, journalists don't write about who controlled their vote, but about a voter revolt; they acknowledge that those who turned out to vote had made a conscious decision. Yet when black voters, by large margins, chose Vincent Gray over Adrian Fenty, journalists found it difficult to accept that the voters were acting on their own, not as puppets of the teachers' union.
It's probably too much to hope that we could have a discussion about education that puts the things most responsible for academic performance on the table and tries to deal with root causes like poverty and inequality. But it's at least time for a discussion about education that deals honestly with the evidence, that doesn't put billions of dollars behind a predetermined yet deeply flawed choice, that takes lessons from traditional public schools as willingly as from elsewhere, that does not actively seek to lay problems at the feet of teachers and their unions. And it's time to lay bare the ideology underpinning the relentless push for charter schools. Unless we're willing to buy that these people are just that stupid.

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