Monday, December 15, 2014

Charters In "Disarray"

Washington state voters barely approved a measure permitting charter schools to operate in the state in 2012, after supporters spent some $6 per signature to get it on the ballot, then millions on the campaign for its passage. Last week we learned that the state's first charter, First Place Scholars, is "in disarray," with high levels of turnover among its board and staff and the state charter commission citing more than a dozen areas in which the school is not living up to its charter.

Campaign supporters promised that the bar for instructional quality and sound financial management would be set high for nonprofits seeking to open charters -- free, independently run but publicly funded schools that aren't bound by many of the same restrictions governing typical public schools. In exchange for agreeing to a set of goals, called a charter, charter schools receive roughly as much public money as traditional public school districts do.

The commission notified the school it was "putting students' health, safety and educational welfare at risk," giving the school until last week to submit its plan for correcting the problems. The school's plan was rejected by the commission, which deemed it inadequate. This is the first step on the road to closure.

It doesn't appear there is any of the intentional malfeasance on the part of First Place that has plagued the charter movement since its inception, but rather the kind of managerial incompetence is quite common among charter operators across the country. As our state is just beginning to discover the dark underbelly of charters, other states are much farther down the road, with New Orleans' "public" schools being entirely run by private operators, and like in Seattle, our poorest students are paying the highest price.

Earlier this year, the Florida League of Women Voters released a damning study of charter schools, finding that charters do not perform better than public schools; that they are more segregated than public schools; that many funnel money to religious organizations; that many operate on a for-profit basis; and that the charter industry has captured control of key seats in the state legislature, with many serving on the boards of for profit charters. One in five charter schools in the state are shuttered as a result of financial mismanagement or low academic standards, many have been caught screening students, dropping those who are not "successful, and most struggle to recruit and retain teachers due to bottom of the barrel compensation.

Florida charters, of course, are not alone in their failure to improve public education, but that is, in part, by design. The goal of the corporate charter movement has never been improving education, but rather pocketing profit. As part of a "shock doctrine" campaign, charters were underhandedly sold to citizens and parents by Wall Street interests as a way to "save" our failing pubic schools (which, by any objective measure, were not and are not failing). While some small, independent charters have had some honest success, as a whole, charters have done nothing to improve public education, and, in fact, in many cases have made it worse. This is not a flaw, but rather a feature of the plan, which is to first privatize, then liquidate public schools to the tune of hundreds of billions in profit for Wall Street operators.

In her book, Reign of Error, researcher and education historian Diane Ravitch details how corporate interests are using charters to take-over public schools. And she's far from the only one to notice this Bill Gates lead corporate plot against education. And, undaunted by his continued failures as a dangerous education dilettante, Gates is now championing a new charter high school in my city of Seattle, seeding it with millions, modeling it upon failed experiments elsewhere. Dora Taylor over on the Seattle Education blog has done a nice job of exposing the scam.

Lord knows, our public schools are imperfect, but turning them over to for-profit and other unaccountable private operators is clearly not the solution. I realize that everyone involved is not as nefarious as those hedge-fund managers licking their chops at the prospect of diverting chunks of state education budgets into their own pockets, but the bad actors are too interwoven in the process to be removed. The idea was that free-market style competition would magically lead to better education, but even some of the staunchest proponents of charters are beginning to see that their ideas have failed.

Whenever people like Gates are confronted with these realities, their response is usually to huff and puff that we are engaged in a grand "experiment," and that a few bumps along the road are to be expected. Sadly, we are now over a decade into this experiment with nothing to show for it other than a generation of kids who have been guinea pigs.

So how do we improve public schools? The way we improve any institution in a democracy: get involved in your kids school. It won't be easy, but the alternative is to throw up our hands and let deep-pocket interests take over.

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1 comment:

Nancy Flanagan said...

The Detroit Free Press wrote *the* definitive article on the problems with charters in Michigan. MI is a good state for Washington to look at: we've had charters for more than two decades, and they have been largely unregulated. This is what happens when for-profit schooling gains a toehold in a state once renowed for excellent public education: