The education reformers have stolen the narrative from those who truly care about public education. At any cocktail party or at the sidelines of a soccer game you are likely to hear people discussing “failing schools” and “bad teachers” and how choice, especially in the form of charter schools is the way to insure a child gets a good education.
But this is a false narrative. Research study after research study has shown that charter schools are no panacea, indeed they are simultaneously providing an inferior education, while draining public schools of needed resources. Even a cursory glance at what is happening in Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans will reveal the false promise of charter schools.
The next time the topic comes up at a cocktail party you are attending, here are five things you can say in rebuttal to the charter cheerleaders.
1. Failure to Improve Learning – Two consecutive reports from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), 2009 and 2013, have shown that public schools outperform charter schools. In 2009, 83% of charters were the same or worse than public schools. In 2013 the figure was 71-75%, with the slight improvement being due to really bad charters being closed. It is true that some charter schools have been very successful and the 2013 CREDO study showed that charter school students did a bit better than public schools in reading and were no different in math. But as the education reporter Wendy Lecker has noted “Experts agree that math learning depends more on instruction in school, whereas reading advancement often hinges on skills and vocabulary gained outside the classroom.”
Cyber Charters (entirely online based) and Blended Learning Charters (a mix of online and in-person learning) have had a particularly poor record of educating children. This is hardly surprising given that learning is “socially constructed”, that is in interaction with actual human beings.
2. Draconian Discipline Policies – Charter schools have notoriously high suspension rates. The driving philosophy behind many charter school discipline policies seems to be “shame the students into submission.” Students are often disciplined for minor infractions of military like discipline codes. Compliance seems to be the driving motivation of the classroom management regime based on SLANT - Sit Up, Lean Forward, Ask Questions, Nod at the teacher, Track the teacher. Not bad advice, but minor infractions based on failure to SLANT often include demeaning punishments like being forced to wear a “yellow shirt” of shame, sitting at a desk separated from the rest of the class, sitting at a separate table in the cafeteria and writing an apology to classmates and delivering it in front of the class. Shame is also at the center of “data walls” displayed in busy hallways showing how students scored on standardized tests.
It should be noted that these practices would not be tolerated in public schools in affluent areas. The entire discipline regime smacks of an insulting paternalistic approach to poor and minority children, which I have described elsewhere as “colonialism.”
3. Draining Money from Public Schools – Charter schools proliferate in already financially strapped urban school districts. The effects can be devastating as it is in Philadelphia right now where the district is struggling to maintain financial viability in the face of the growing charter movement along with huge cuts in state aid. In fact Moody’s Investment Service issued this warning to investors:
The dramatic rise in charter school enrollments over the past decade is likely to create negative credit pressure on school districts in economically weak urban areas.
While charter schools drain money from the public schools, the public districts struggle with costs that cannot be reduced simply because some students have left. The charter school laws are simply unfair economically to school districts. Add to this the high attrition rates in charters and the tendency of some charters to “skim” the most difficult to teach students, leaving the costly education of these children to the public schools and you have a recipe for financial ruin.
4. Lax Oversight – Charter schools lack the oversight that is built into public schools. Public schools are run by publicly elected school boards answerable to the parents and community members in that school district and which hold regular public meetings. They also get strict oversight through governmental regulations, are subject to regular audits and freedom of information laws. Charter schools are run by private boards who are not answerable to the community and hold private meetings. Often board members are not even members of the community. Charter schools often fight audits, claiming they are private entities.
In this atmosphere corruption has been rampant. A recent report by Integrity in Education found $100 million in wasted public dollars through fraud and mismanagement in 14 states with charter schools. In Philadelphia, the CEO of the Academy Charter School has been charged with a fraud in the amount of 1 million dollars. Investigations of charter school fraud in other schools in the city are well underway.
Let’s be clear about this, waste and fraud in the under regulated charter school industry is stealing resources that should be going to public school children. That missing million dollars could have purchased the services of a dozen school nurses for the Philadelphia School District where two children have died recently for the lack of a nurse in their schools.
5. Skimming Students – By definition public schools take on all comers. It is part of the responsibility of public schools to accept and educate students of widely varying backgrounds, languages, abilities and disabilities. Since charter schools are funded with public funds, most charter school laws call for charter schools to take on all students, too. Charter schools often accomplish this through a lottery system. But these under-regulated charters have many subtle and not so subtle ways to insure that they can shape their student population to make them look like they are doing better than public schools. Writing for the Teacher College Press, University of Colorado Professor, Kevin Welner, has discovered a dozen ways that charters shape their student populations. Here are some highlights.
· Marketing that emphasizes “college prep” and “rigorous curriculum” will attract higher achieving students.
· Marketing brochures that are only in English will discourage parents of English Language Learners from signing up.
· Short time windows for applications
· Requiring parent volunteer activities or parent visitations
· Harsh discipline policies that eliminate students through repeated suspensions
· Failure to provide needed special education services
· “Counseling out” students who are not performing well
· Placing grade point or course restrictions on eligible applicants
· Steering students with disabilities away because the public school will provide better for their needs
· Threatening the parents and child with being retained in the current grade
So you try these five arguments out on your friends and neighbors and they say, “Yeah, but the public schools are in such bad shape, we have to try something.” When you hear this simply ask each person to name a really good school district. Help them to discover that the districts they named are overwhelmingly in affluent areas.
Next ask them to name a really poor school district. This time help them discover that the districts they named are overwhelmingly in low socio-economic areas.
Now say to them if they really want to do something about education, they could begin by working to narrow the rampant income inequality in the country, the segregation of poor and minority children in urban centers, and the debilitating effects of poverty that cause children to struggle to learn.
You won’t get invited to any more cocktail parties and people will avoid you on the soccer field, but you might have gotten a few people thinking beyond the education reformer rhetoric.