I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Failure Should NOT Be an Option

Michael Winerip's article in the New York Times this past Sunday has catapulted the New Jersey charter school wars into the national spotlight (follow the link for a great speech about charters from the ELC's Stan Karp).

This is welcome attention and due, in large part, to the tireless efforts of parents like Darcie Cimarusti and Julia Sass Rubin, among others. We teachers - and our unions - need to support these parents in their efforts against school privatization.

I must say that I find the paternalistic attitude toward these parents to be fascinating. Charter cheerleaders here in Jersey - like the Star-Ledger's Tom Moran and ACTING Education Commissioner Chris Cerf - love to sing the praises of the parental "choice" charters allegedly offer in the face of "failing" public schools.

I guess they think the many, many parents who are standing up and saying "no" to boutique charters in well-performing school districts are somehow naive: I mean, who wouldn't want privately run schools, unaccountable to local boards of education, to come into their towns and take money away from their kids' schools? Gee, it sounds like such a great deal...

The problem with the "choice" argument is three-fold:

1) It's not a choice when your local representatives do not have a say in the approval or management of a charter school. When a charter is shoved down a district's throat at the state level, the people actually paying the bills don't have a voice in process. If the district wants to host a charter, that's fine, but the community has to have a choice before any individual parents do.

2) It's not much of a "choice" when charter schools don't do any better - and in many cases, do worse - than the local public schools. And the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that charters are not even close to being a miracle cure for the alleged "problems" of our schools.

3) The unstated consequence of "choice" is at least some failure. The belief that charter students - or, for that matter, those who get vouchers - are somehow "saved" has a corollary: some students will not be "saved." And it's not just the ones left behind in public schools; it's also the children whose parents made the wrong "choice" and put them into a failing charter or private school.

The casual attitude toward this last point is more than a little disturbing. The free market is predicated on having both winners and losers; sometimes, however, failure should not be an option. We don't allow people to pick their own personal police force in part because the consequence of police that don't do their jobs is too disastrous for society. We don't allow the free market alone to weed out bad surgeons because people die when they pick the wrong one.

If you go out to a bad restaurant on a Friday night (as I did last week), it's disheartening and it costs you money, but you can move on. You'll never go back, the restaurant will close eventually, and that will be that.

Schools should not be run on this premise; every child gets one shot at an education, and it needs to be a good one. Free market principals should not apply because the stakes are simply too high.

Some in New Jersey have made the case that local control will make it too hard for charter schools to be established. Good - it should be hard to get a charter to run a school. Real estate agents have no business rolling the dice with children's lives, and no charter school should be approved without demonstrating both a great need and great chances of success. Running the gauntlet of both local and state approval is the best way to ensure that the charter process is both rigorous and fair.


Stuart Buck said...

"When a charter is shoved down a district's throat at the state level, the people actually paying the bills don't have a voice in process"

How exactly are schools funded in New Jersey? Here in Arkansas, charter schools get only the funding that comes from the state government, and do not get any local funding whatsoever (hence, their actual funding is thousands per pupil lower than what other public schools get).

Stuart Buck said...

Never mind, I see that charter schools get paid by the district at a 90% rate.

So people are complaining about being forced to save 10%?

Anonymous said...

People in NJ are complaining that the charter schools get shoved down their throats, they have no input, no vote and no say whether a charter school is established in their district. The residents of the high performing great school districts are especially outraged that unneeded niche charter schools are being forced upon them. So the appeal of charter schools is that they are cheaper, according to Stuart? I guess they shortchange the teachers, pay them less? Charter schools usually have smaller enrollments and don't take care of the more expensive students with special needs. Over all and on average, charter schools are no better than public schools and there are more terrible charter schools than there are good ones (from NAEP results and the Stanford U. study).
By the way, NJ traditional public schools score very high in the US and are always in the top tier of public schools in the US. What about Arkansas?

Julia said...


Thank you for the nice note, but Save Our Schools NJ has four and a half thousand members across the State and more than 40 organizers who run it. I am just one of them. This is very much a state-wide effort by many, many volunteers.

Duke said...

Julia, so noted. But thank you for your leadership nonetheless.

Anon, thank you for your response to Stuart.

Stuart Buck said...

"The residents of the high performing great school districts are especially outraged that unneeded niche charter schools are being forced upon them. "

Well, if they are truly so outraged, they have an easy and foolproof way out: don't sign up to attend the charter school. No one is forced to attend charter schools, and if no one signs up, the charter school won't have any students, and it will go under.

Duke said...

Stuart, my reply to you is, in fact, the entire point of this post. If the schools starts up and fails, that is unacceptable. The bar for getting a charter must be very, very high. That's why there should be both state and local approval.

It's fine if you want to stop by and disagree, but please don't ask me to rewrite my work.

Anonymous said...

"If a school starts up and fails, that is unacceptable".

Dude, 200 government-run schools in NJ urban areas have failed. What is unacceptable is that the patronizing attitude that parents who don't have the means don't have school choice. The numbers on parent's satisfaction on school choice versus a forced march into unsafe failing public schools are overwhelming. And what are the safety numbers, the crime numbers like? Do you deny that some tenured, burned out public school teachers look the other on crime, ruining the environment for everyone, including the teachrs that care?

The only people who want to force families to send their kids to crime-ridden failing public schools are the people employed by the union that underwrites their income -- like you, Duke. You are biased because of your wallet, paycheck, heathcare and pension. Period.

NyDiva said...

Dude, because there are urban schools failing, I should have to watch funding taken from my high-acheiving suburban district to fund charters HERE?!?!?! Ones that I have no say in, that my elected representatives (school board AND state level) have no say in?!?!

I. Don't. Think. So.


Duke said...

Anon: Are you blaming teachers for crime?


But I have to admit, you found me out. Yes, I became a teacher for the money. Nice work, Sherlock...

Anonymous said...

The folks in the high achieving NJ school districts are just asking for a vote on whether a charter school should be established in their districts. What are the charter zealots afraid of? Charter schools may attract a few parents, especially the friends and families of the founders of a given charter school. But the small fraction of parents who send their kids to charters is hardly a consensus or majority, it's hardly a vote of confidence for the charter school. Do charter zealots have a problem with democracy? When charter schools fail and go belly up in the middle of the year (not a rare event), the kids must be immediately placed in the traditional public schools; this is incredibly disruptive and traumatic for the kids. Crime ridden big cities have huge problems that cannot be solved by schools alone. Because a city has a high crime rate, does it follow that we should fire the whole police force and replace it with a charter police force? So the school choice zealots want to punish public school teachers because they teach in high crime areas with high levels of poverty, joblessness, fractured families and kids coming to school with a whole host of emotional problems. So the solution is to cut teacher benefits, pensions and health care? Smaller class size in these troubled urban schools might be a good first step instead of punishing teachers and blaming them for the failings of society. This blame the teacher first mentality is very destructive.

Anonymous said...


Let's be fair. Most urban teachers in failing school districts did not sign up for the situation they find themselves in -- metal detectors, cops in the hallway, thugs in the classroom.

But we all also know that, contrary to the propaganda, a kid that compiles a lot of teacher reports and trips to the office gets tossed eventually. If all the teachers fought the good fight the bad kids would be whipped into shape or tossed.

Many teachers are not up to that -- heck, I wouldn't be. But that is what the job, unfortunately, calls for. The one tenured teacher who looks the other way on language or texting or threats or physical aggression because it is easier to go along to get along lowers the bar and sets the tone for the whole school.

I have several Abbott district teachers in my family and I hear the stories all the time. The weak ass teachers set the tone "But Ms. Smith lets us text" etc. and worse. The tough teachers should be paid more -- a lot more -- than they are, and maybe others aren't cut out for it -- they should be in suburbs, and paid less. Maybe the Abbott district teachers need to be more half cops/probation officers/teachers and that is what we need. And they should be paid for the extraordinary requirements.

Are you in an Abbott district, Duke? Do you know what you are talking about?

Duke said...

Anon: So your plan is to pay suburban teachers less, and take the money to give it to "tough" urban teachers, who will "toss" kids who don't behave. And toss them where?

Teacher Mom said...

I've taught in both suburban and inner city schools, so I can actually talk. Teaching in the suburban school was a freaking cakewalk! I never worked so hard in my life as I did in the inner city school. You spend you days banging your head against the wall because your hands are tied. You can only do what the administrator allows you to do. For example, I had a highly violent child two years ago whose behavior lead me to a therapist's office because of the constant stress of walking on eggshells as to not set this poor disturbed child off. You do EVERYTHING humanly possible to help the child, protect the other kids, maintain order, and TRY to teach a lesson. All the formal write-ups, submissions for evaluation, behaviors plans and documentation, and I mean reams of paper, LEAD NO WHERE!!

The constant frustration of working in an inner city school is something that must be experienced before ANYONE has the right to comment. Otherwise you are making assholish assumptions or repeating hear-say. It takes a village to run a successful school and too often when it comes to inner city schools there are pieces missing. Maybe it is having to few amazing teachers. That hasn't been my experience, but there are always those couple who you really wish would quit or retire. Sometimes it's REALLY BAD leadership, and quite often is lack of home support, resources, and just too many traumatic events happening in these young kids' lives. When you have all three, it's a recipe for disaster.

It takes 10 times the energy to accomplish even the simplest goals, because their are 10 times the hurdles blocking the path. You can't just blame the teachers, or any 1 piece of the puzzle, and charters for these poor kids isn't always the answer. You can't make a school successful when all the creme has been skimmed. I know families that have removed their children from the building and I can't fault them for it, but it does nothing to fix the true root of the problem. There ARE urban public schools that do a great job because they have all their pieces fitting together. They didn't need merit pay, vouchers, or charters, they just needed everybody on the same page working together.

Oh and there is no expelling children. Public schools can't. You can try to transfer them out or put them on home instruction but they still count as belonging to your school, their terrible test scores and all. (which is another fundamental problem with NCLB. Don't even get me started.)

I realize this response doesn't really address the charter issue, but I couldn't let it go unsaid.

Duke said...

TM, you never have to apologize to me about leaving any comments about anything you want to write about.

Thank you for serving your students; many, many people appreciate what you do.

Anonymous said...

TeacherMom, I too have taught in both suburban and urban schools. You've hit the nail right on the head.

And yet, I stay in this urban school because these kids DESERVE good teachers, and I'm one of them. I can't just take off for cushyland again. It's been offered, and I stay where I am.

Because I'm greedy, lazy, incompetent, and can't get a better job elsewhere? Because I'm an NJEA lackey?

Because I'm a teacher, and this is what I do.

Teacher Mom said...

Way to go Anon. I am totally with you! I haven't left my district, but I was forcibly transferred due to low enrollment. Still very urban, but definitely more of a working class neighborhood. When the teachers there complain, because we do still have the urban issues, I quietly laugh to myself, and when my sons' teachers complain, in the same suburban school where I used to teach, I tell them they don't know suffering.

(I cried for a week when I found out about the move, because I couldn't bear to abandon the kids, and that's what it felt like. My kids this year need me too though :)