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

Friday, August 30, 2013

When Will the Charter Industry Finally Be Honest?

If you're shocked by this, you haven't been paying attention:
The parent of a special education kindergarten pupil at the Upper West Side Success Academy charter school secretly tape recorded meetings in which school administrators pressed her to transfer her son back into the public school system. 
The tapes, a copy of which the mother supplied the Daily News, poke a hole in claims by the fast-growing Success Academy chain founded by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz that it doesn’t try to push out students with special needs or behavior problems. 
Nancy Zapata said she resorted to the secret tapes last December and again in March after school officials used their “zero tolerance” discipline policy to repeatedly suspend her son, Yael, kept telephoning her at work to pick him up from school in the middle of the day and urged her to transfer him. 
The News reported earlier this week that the Success network, which boasts some of the highest test scores in the city, also has far higher suspension rates than other elementary schools and that more than two dozen parents were claiming efforts to push their children out. [emphasis mine]
Understand that we don't just have a big and growing pile of anecdotal evidence about charter segregation and attrition; we also have loads of policy analysis and scholarly work that confirms that "successful" charters do not educate the same students as neighboring public schools.

The evidence is so overwhelming that even charter cheerleaders like Mike Petrilli admit that charters only serve the children who are easiest to educate. I disagree with Petrilli about nearly everything, but I'll give him this: at least he's not pretending the facts are in dispute. Because anyone who is intellectually honest about this has to admit that the "miracle" of charters is nothing more than a cheap sleight-of-hand. Any school will improve if it can get rid of the children who "hold it back."

Of course, someone else then has to pick up the pieces of those children's shattered lives...

I've said this probably a hundred times, and I'll say it again: we already have "school choice" in this country for affluent parents. And I'm not talking about the phony threats of "competition" from private schools (which was always a specious argument for vouchers); I'm talking about fact that affluent parents pay premium prices for housing in the suburbs so they can send their children to high-performing public schools populated by other children whose families have similar values and similar means.

In this reality, it is perfectly legitimate for less-affluent parents who value education to complain that they can't participate in a similar form of segregation simply because they aren't wealthy enough. This is the appeal of charter schools: it's not that they are "free to experiment" or "unencumbered by union rules" or "setting high expectations" or "using innovative curricula" or all sorts of other irrelevant, reformy bromides.

The allure of urban charter schools is that they allow anxious parents to isolate their children from those students that the public schools are required to teach -- the students charter parents worry will disrupt their own children's education. But this impulse is, in reality, no different than the impulse suburban parents have to isolate their children in the same way.

If we could finally start being honest about this, maybe we could get somewhere. Because if we accept the premise above, many other conclusions follow:

- We do not segregate children who have special education needs or behavioral issues in affluent suburbs, but many in the reformy movement seem to think this is the only solution to the urban education "crisis." If a kid acts out in the 'burbs, all the forces of the school district are brought to bear on the problem: individualized instruction, counseling, small-group instruction, more personnel, specialized curricula, etc. But that kid -- unless it is an extreme circumstance -- is not removed from the school and is mainstreamed to the greatest extent possible.

Apparently, we as a society have come to the conclusion that mainstreaming special needs children is a privilege reserved for those whose parents have enough money. Everyone OK with that?

- If we're going to segregate the students, charter admission and attrition is probably the worst way to do it. There is no due process, no standardization, no transparency, and no larger accountability to the public in the current charter (de)selection system for students. If a community really wants to go ahead with segregating the kids by behavior and educational need, they could certainly find a much easier way than letting Eva Moskowitz and her fellow travelers play Eeny-Meeny-Miny-Moe.

- If we're going to segregate the students, we don't then have to create dehumanizing "no excuses" cultures in these schools. If the kids get the boot when they act up, why punish the ones who stay with a narrow curriculum, drill sergeant instruction, and a discipline code that strikes many of us as degrading? Why not treat the kids who adhere to norms of behavior and conduct -- the same norms expected in the 'burbs -- just like the kids in the 'burbs? You know, let them talk at lunch and other crazy stuff like that?

Better yet: why not let the communities themselves determine the course of their children's schooling? Why is the consumerist obsession with "choice" -- a value imposed on poor people from on high -- being touted as the answer to all of the ills of urban education? If citizens of cities want to give parents "choices," let them democratically decide to do so as a community. Why should autocratic mayors and overreaching state and federal governments make decisions for poor communities when affluent communities make those decisions for themselves?

I wish I had a neat, pithy answer to all of this; I don't, and I don't believe for a second that anyone on either side of this debate does. The pandering politicians and think-tanky wonks and self-satistfied pundits who foolishly tells us that the answers are to be found in their platitudes should all be issued rolls of duct tape to keep their mouths from flapping.

What I do know is that it's far past time for us to start being honest about this stuff. The first step would be to acknowledge that charters do not and can not serve all children in poor, urban communities. Just getting a few prominent reformy types to accept this truth would be a big first step.

Who wants to go first?



Anonymous said...

They'd sooner choke n their New Markets Tax Credits than admit the truth.

Seth Kahn said...

As long as the only pressure to be honest is coming from people like you (and bless you for it), honesty will be a long time in coming. And as long as the education deformers have the ear of the president, many of his advisers, etc it's going to be hard to make much headway even into mainstream Democratic party membership. Just means we have lots of work to do.

Unknown said...

By definition sociopaths are hardwired to lie so we should expect nothing remotely close to honesty from these criminals.

walt sautter said...

The motivation behind charter schools is now and always has been a "foot in the door" on the way to privatization of the entire public school system.
"There's gold in them there schools!!"

Aqualung said...

As vice president of Innovations in Online Education, an independent "supplementary education organization" that partners with school districts I feel we have something to offer here. We are not a charter school and we do not compete with school districts. Rather we partner with them to provide their students with quality online education LIVE with a state certified content teacher in the classroom. Need a Japanese level 3 language instructor for a student out on medical leave. How about a quality physics teacher to teach a full year course in school but the district is either too remote or "inner city" to attract a viable candidate. We help even out the playing field for the school district. View an example of one of our lessons on ou website at http://innovationsonlineed.com We are proud of the service we provide and we help school districts compete with voucher charter schools and we provide quality teachers and instruction for their students no matter what their circumstances. We also help mainstream "homebound instruction" students back into their school's regular "brick and mortar" program.