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Charter Schools on the Rise

Joel Shatzky
October 20, 2014

“School Choice” versus Public Education

by Joel Shatzky From the Autumn, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents BusTHE RAPID GROWTH OF CHARTER SCHOOLS over the past twenty years has been lauded by some educators, many politicians, and the so-called “reformers” (such as Wendy Kopp of Teach for America and Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies) as a necessary alternative to the “failing” public school system and a way for minority-group children, especially, to have a good education. Charter schools “give educators the freedom and flexibility that they need to attain results,” says Kopp. The schools have “bridged the Harlem-Scarsdale achievement gap,” Moskowitz claims. “What they’re doing in terms of education is they’re trying to create an alternative system and destabilize what has been the anchor of American democracy,” counters Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, our country’s second-largest union of educators. These contrasting views bespeak an issue that is complex and nuanced. Charter schools themselves are not so simply classified, as some are public, some are private, some are non-profit, some are for-profit, some are academically successful, some have academically failed, some are community-based, some are founded by outside interests. Yet two simple statements about them can be made: 1) Their vaunted success, which is closely tied to standardized test scores, has been exaggerated, and 2) their overall impact on teachers has been to damage their unions and place downwards pressure on their salaries. THE BELIEF THAT PUBLIC EDUCATION IS A FAILURE, especially for minority communities, has been powerfully reinforced since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, during the Reagan Administration. Books by progressive critics and educational reformers have also led to a situation in which, according to a poll conducted annually by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa International, more than three-quarters of public school parents give their own children’s schools an “A” or “B,” but only 18 percent regard the public school system as a whole to be deserving of such a grade. Curricular reforms such as the “New Math,” “phonics,” and “whole word” pedagogy have been touted over those decades, but are too often implemented with a “one-size-fits-all” mentality that turns good ideas into mandates. Most of these innovations address only one aspect of learning within the classroom, and can never serve as panaceas — nothing will — until public school children are also enjoying an enriched environment outside the classroom. American education is as much an economic and social challenge as a pedagogical one, but this reality — and all the expensive investment it implies — is rarely addressed by any but the most progressive education reformers. To the contrary, one of the most unfortunate effects of the charter school movement has been a focus on “cost containment,” mostly at the expense of teachers. Cost containment doesn’t mean, however, that publicly funded charter schools aren’t making profits for some educational management companies. In his highly influential blog at The Huffington Post, Alan Singer, a noted critic of the charter school movement, wrote about National Heritage Academies, “which has important political ties to rightwing groups” and “operates four charters in New York City, two of which have received failing grades.” Singer reported a May 2014 finding by the New York Daily News that
National Heritage Academies charged its Brooklyn Dreams Charter School $2.3 million a year to rent space in a Catholic church that the management company leased from the church for much less. The going rate for rental of this kind was between $14.25 and $25.50 per square foot, but National Heritage Academies charged the school $46.99...
Singer has come to regard charters as part of what he calls the “Education-Foundation-Industrial Complex,” which aims “to shape state and federal educational policy in a way that maximizes private corporate profits at the expense of public education.” Among the leaders he identifies are Pearson Education and the Pearson Foundation. “Pearson is one of the largest and most aggressive private companies seeking to profit” from educational reform throughout the school system, both public and private, “through the sale of staff development, curriculum, texts, and substandard remedial education programs seamlessly aligned with the high stakes standardized tests for students and teacher assessments...” 23NATIONWIDE, THE INCREASE IN THE USE OF STANDARDIZED TESTING as a measurement of educational achievement is an important component in the charter school movement. In order to compete with public or “district” schools, charter school advocates regularly seek to reinforce the impression that there is an easily comprehensible way of measuring learning progress by reducing it to numbers. For example, in a 2013 Department of Education report on charter school progress, publicized on the website of the New York Charter School Center, favorable comparisons were made to show that charter schools were performing better than district schools on standardized tests: “79 percent of New York City charter schools posted higher proficiency rates in Math than their district... schools... while 54 percent posted higher rates than their peer schools in English Language Arts” (ELA). With over 90 percent of New York charter students black or Hispanic, many from poor families, these proficiency rates on standardized tests are impressively high. Even assuming, however, that there is significance to the importance of test scores in evaluating schools and teachers, charter schools nationally do not perform demonstrably better than district schools, despite claims of success in New York. A 2009 report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that only “17 percent of charter schools outperformed their public school equivalents, while 37 percent performed worse than regular local schools, and the rest were about the same.” A 2010 study by Mathematica Policy Research found that charter middle schools were no more successful than regular middle schools in improving student achievement, behavior, or overall school performance. These findings have been reinforced in a number of other studies. Moreover, “Americans are rejecting the use of standardized tests as a means to improve education,” according to a summary of the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of 2013 [PDF], “and they are not convinced that new rigorous education standards will help... Recent major reform efforts — No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core State Standards — [therefore] face uncertain futures...” Even while standardized testing and national achievement programs are being challenged (from both the right and the left), however, the charter school movement continues to gain momentum. From 1999 to 2011, the number of students enrolled in public charter schools increased from 300,000 to 1.8 million, while the percentage of all public schools that were public charter schools, based on schools that reported enrollment, increased from 2 to 5 percent, comprising 5,300 schools in 2010-11. A total of 1,206 public charter schools (and a few district schools) are now managed by nonprofit educational management organizations, operating in twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia, and the number of students in these schools increased dramatically from 237,591 in 2009-2010 to 445,052 during 2011-2012. Moreover, the same Phi Delta Kappa International-Gallup Poll, in 2011, reported that public support for charter schools stood at a “decade-high” of 70 percent. THE RECENT CAPITULATION of New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s commitment to increasing charter schools in the city illustrates the power of the charter school lobby, which is financed by such educational philanthropic luminaries as Bill Gates and Eli Broad, and has among its most passionate advocates African-American and Latino charter school parents. If, however, the purpose of charter schools has been to “level the playing field” and increase opportunities for all students, they have not succeeded. A 2009 report from the Civil Rights Project (issued annually about school segregation and its impact on educational opportunity) declared,
We know that choice programs can either offer quality educational options with racially and economically diverse schooling to children who otherwise have few opportunities, or... can actually increase stratification and inequality depending on how they are designed. The charter effort, which has largely ignored the segregation issue, has been justified by claims about superior educational performance, which simply are not sustained by the research. Though there are some remarkable and diverse charter schools, most are neither. The lessons of what is needed to make choice work have usually been ignored in charter school policy. Magnet schools [for example]... offer a great deal of experience in how to create educationally successful and integrated choice options.
“How do we transform public school parent hopelessness into parent power?” asks Sam Anderson, a radical African-American educator. Finding “a good response to this growing anger and feeling of helplessness within the parent communities is difficult,” he admits, but to “allow the New York City public school system to be replaced by corporate-controlled private charter schools would mean the end of a democratic system and the beginning of a system where we turn our children over to the charters mainly owned by the hedge funds and Walmart types of megacorporations.” Joanne Barkan, in Dissent (Winter, 2011), substantiates Anderson’s assertion about the influence of hedge funds on public education. “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year,” Barkan writes. “So how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum?” Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels. In the domain of venture philanthropy — where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision — investing in education yields great bang for the buck. 24 IT SHOULD BE THE BEST and most resourceful public school teachers who work in high-poverty neighborhood schools, but it is difficult to get experienced teachers to stay long in such schools. As difficult as it is, however, to find experienced teachers in district schools, those most likely to teach in charter schools in poor neighborhoods are among the most inexperienced and inadequately trained. Here is the account [PDF] of Neha Singhal about Teach For America, which provides charter schools with much of their staffing. It is clear that these reformers do not value experience and proper training as vital to quality education (from AFT on Campus, Summer 2014):
A whole five days of training is what I received before I was assigned to teach my first high school algebra class during Teach for America’s summer training. Though I had only taken one calculus course in college and did not consider myself to be a “math person,” TFA did not find it relevant to provide in-depth training on math content or pedagogy.... Since I had been slated to teach at the Texas-Mexico border, I was looking forward to conversations during training about institutionalized racism, income inequity and inhumane immigration policies. Instead, I found myself with nine hundred other corps members assigned to teach in various parts of the country participating in standardized sessions on “backwards planning” (that is, teaching to the test) rather than critically examining our roles in local communities. TFA emphasized tracking test scores and basing learning solely on high-stakes exams, some of which determined whether or not students would be able to move on to the next grade.
As originally proposed by former United Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker, charter schools were a promising experiment in educational reform. Today they have become an instrument for “teaching on the cheap.” They are helping rightwing politicians undermine teachers’ unions and push down the living standards of public school teachers — and in doing so, they are damaging the public education system and driving veteran teachers from the profession. This is most harmful for young learners who are most oppressed by poverty and most in need of a quality education that could help them escape it. A ruling in June by a California judge who declared tenure protection for teachers to be “unconstitutional” bodes ill for the future of the teaching profession — and of our country. Joel Shatzky writes frequently for Jewish Currents on education. He is the author of Option Three: A Novel about the University, published last year by our magazine’s imprint, Blue Thread. Shatzky taught at SUNY Cortland for thirty-seven years. His books include The Thinking Crisis (with Ellen Hill), Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists, and Contemporary Jewish-American Dramatists and Poets (with Michael Taub).