Sunday, October 28, 2012

Say "No" To Charter Schools

I voted yesterday, sitting down with my wife at our dining room table and talking our way through the candidates and ballot measures. We cancelled one another out on one judicial candidate, but otherwise saw things eye-to-eye, which didn't surprise us given that we regularly discuss politics and government, both among ourselves and with our friends and family. Voting is important, but those discussions are the real backbone of democracy.

One of the national public policy topics I've often discussed here on this blog has been my staunch opposition to charter schools. The people of Washington state, where I live, have already thrice rejected charter schools at the ballot box, but advocates, supported by the deep pockets of billionaires and big business are relentless in attacking our public schools (and their real target, teacher's unions), and are hoping, I guess, that they can just wear us down. If you live here, please vote "No" on Initiative 1240, which would divert millions of dollars away from our public schools into the pockets of private operators, weakening our schools in favor of an experiment that is failing everywhere it's been tried.

Let me repeat that: this is a well-funded, corporate experiment, based solely upon the discredited theory that competition always results in the best results. It is an experiment in which our children are the guinea pigs. It is an experiment that even in the best case scenarios are producing results on par with public schools, while enriching for-profit corporations who come to feed at the public trough. It's an experiment that further weakens our public schools, pits neighbors against one another, teachers against one another, and children against one another.

If there was even one single peer reviewed piece of research indicating that charter schools produced substantially better educational results, I might listen to what these corporate "reformers" have to say, but there is no evidence to support their claims. In fact, what data there is indicates that charter schools make things worse. A widely cited Stanford study found that only 17 percent of charter schools perform better than public schools, while 37 percent perform substantially worse, with the rest doing about the same. This is pure snake oil.

Yes, I know there are a few shining lights out there in the charter world. I know that people will leave comments here sharing anecdotes about a successful, popular school near where they live. For every one of those anecdotes I can find at least a dozen cases of successful, popular public schools. You will lose the anecdote battle.

Yes, I know that I-1240 ostensibly creates "nonprofit" schools, but there is nothing to stop for-profit contractors from being hired to run those schools -- which is exactly what is happening across the country -- or to prevent school administrators from taking outrageous salaries -- which is also happening across the country. For-profit schools transform children from students to be educated into human resources to be exploited for profit. Already our education policies force children to spend more and more of their days preparing for the all-important standardized tests. It doesn't take much imagination to envision charter schools as Dickensian testing mills, especially since I-1240 doesn't create any new funding. These for-profit businesses will not exist as corporations in a competitive marketplace, but rather as publicly-funded for-profit entities, meaning that they will be motivated to drive kids to produce high test scores at the lowest cost in order to maximize their profit. This is Econ 101, folks. The idea frightens me beyond belief.

Yes, I've heard the specious argument from corporate reformers that they are only trying to give parents more "choice," but that's not how I-1240 works. In this case, "choice" comes in the form of the most aggressive "trigger law" in the country: all it will take is a simple majority of parents or teachers to sign a secret petition for your local public school to be closed and replaced by a charter. There aren't even any performance standards attached to this trigger, it applies to high achieving and low achieving schools alike. And there is no provision in the law for converting back to a public school should the charter, as it is statistically liable to do, not be an improvement. Think about how this "choice" will play out in your school. These corporate privatizers have already proven to be relentless. There will be charter school petitions circulating in every school, all the time, pitting the parent community against one another, teachers against one another, and when their well-financed efforts finally achieve 50.00001 percent, then Bam, your neighborhood school is now a privately-owned charter school and there's nothing you can do about changing it back. Not only that, but you will no longer have a say through your PTA or elected school boards or other places where parents traditionally have a voice in education because I-1240 creates an unelected, partisan state charter school commission, answerable only to whichever politicians happen to hold power. That's the vaunted "choice" being offered here: all or nothing.

Make no mistake, the charter school movement is a well-funded political and corporate effort to privatize education, to redistribute public funds into the pockets of private individuals, and to bust unions, all in the guise of "helping the children." Our public schools could be better, of course, but the last thing we need is to create charter schools that will siphon-off money at this critical time and cherry-pick the best students, leaving public education underfunded and responsible for the children most difficult to teach. And that's the sickest thing of all about the charter movement: even if these schools do succeed, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they do so by defeating their public school "competition," creating losers, which is always the ugly downside of competition no one is ever willing to talk about. And in the charter school scenario, the losers will always be the kids who need good public schools the most.

I've written all of the above mostly in the hope that you'll click through to a couple of other, better pieces on the topic of charter schools. Please take a moment to read Diane Ravitch's piece in the Washington Post, where she's writing about a similar effort in Alabama, doing so in a much less emotional, soap-boxy manner than I've done here. And if you live here in Washington state, please have a look State Representative Marcie Maxwell excellent piece on I-1240.

Those that would privatize our public schools, which are essential to democracy, are not going to give up. Nor can we.

(Note: I'm still having issues with the blog that makes it impossible for me to leave comments on my own posts. In the past, the topic of charter schools has resulted in a pretty healthy discussion, so I apologize in advance that any further "comments" I make will have to take the form of "updates" within the post itself.)

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Floor Pie said...

Thank you for this, Tom. I said this on Facebook and I'll say it here, too:

If I-1240 passes, and if The Boy's school or the school where I work decide to flip to charter, that is IT for us. They can decide that the special ed programs at our schools are too expensive or too much of a liability or whatever and they can just send us on our merry way.

After seeing all the anti-special-ed vitriol in response to last week's Seattle Times article, I am convinced that this is a very real possibility. It's not "for the children" if it's not for ALL children.

Anonymous said...

My son is almost 4 so I don't know much about Charter schools yet but was starting to look into them, here in San Diego. My understanding is that they are public schools that run on a lottery system. There is a Positive Discipline charter school near my house that I was about to look into. This is the first negative thing I've heard. Are they run the same everywhere? I'm having trouble finding good info on them.

Anonymous said...

I have a question that I hope will not come across as snarky. When you say that charter schools typically under-preform public schools, I assume the standard to decide this is those horrible standardized tests. How then do we know they are failing? Maybe the children in these schools are doing better because, though there scores are lower, they are not victims of drill and kill?

Jefra said...

Thank you for this post, it was really eye-opening and has given me a different perspective. Before our family moved to Florida (a year ago) I had never not considered sending our son to the neighborhood public school He's only 3.5, but education is something my husband and I passionate about. The problem we face is that many of the schools here are horrible and our particular zoned school doesn't even have recess for the children! I thought that the charter schools or the fundamental schools here could be a better "choice" and I think I have found one school with philosophies I agree with. I have always wanted to be actively involved with his school when the time comes and to advocate for positive changes, but change takes time and I can't put my son in a school without recess. Yes, a lot of the charter schools here are worthless in my opinion, but there are a few gems. I'm not sure of the history of the education system here in FL and particularly our county, but maybe this mess is a byproduct of the introduction of charter schools instead of focusing on improving the public schools.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous - There are no failing schools. Test scores do not show you if there is quality teaching and learning going on. You have to spend time in the schools to see what I mean. Consider the mobility rate of the students. Do all students speak English at home? Are there a number of students who are frequently absent, have health issues, are easily distracted due to problems at home or bullying? Are students getting enough food and sleep? I have come to understand that teachers with best practices will provide the quality teaching and learning, and there still may be poor test scores....

Kerry said...

Late comment, but...I have a friend who works in a charter middle school in Oakland, CA. Five!!!! members of the staff have been fired thus far, this school year, for striking the children. Now, this school is in a terrible area, where poverty and drugs are endemic and children routinely see people die on their way to or from school--no school, public, private, or charter, could make up for those conditions. However, I think it's a good guess that properly trained teachers, rather than charter-school scripted clones, might be able to find some response to the children's behavior other than hitting them. Poverty is the problem--and charters aren't the answer.