Essay on How Charter Schools Weaken Democracy and Societly

Dennis Smith, former consultant to the Ohio Department of Education Charter School Office, writes how the formation of charter schools weakens our society – it rings true on several levels.  Read his piece here:

Charters, Vouchers, Individual Choice And Our Strained Social Fabric

 

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Effects of School Choice: Holland, Michigan

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While visiting my mother-in-law she gave me an article titled ‘Urban district, suburban community’ from the March 23, 2016 Holland Sentinel newspaper.  The article focused on the long-term effects of school choice on the Holland Public Schools.

The lead sentence of the article stated rather straightforwardly, “State policies that promote school choice have fueled a changing demographic landscape for many of Michigan’s public schools.”  The article goes on to say that 1,600 students (over 30%) within the Holland Public Schools’ boundaries have used the state’s 20 year Schools of Choice law to attend charter schools or go to neighboring school districts.

What caught my eye was the reporter’s assertion that as a result of school choice, the district “doesn’t represent the town in which it operates” and that Holland has become “a fragmented community that prolongs stereotypes.”  The numbers show the demographic differences between the city and school district:

Holland                  White    Hisp./Latino  Black          Asian

2010 Census             68.9%          22.7%        3.2%            2.9%

Holland Public Schools

2015-16                     37.9%         47.1%         7.4%           2.6%

So even though Holland’s population is about 69% White, only 38% of the students in its schools are White.  Similarly, the town is about 23% Hispanic/Latino but its schools have more than twice that proportion.  What happened?

Superintendent of Holland Public Schools Brian Davis points directly at school choice as the reason why the district’s population doesn’t reflect the community it serves. Davis recalls 1996 (when Michigan’s Schools of Choice law went into effect) as a time when Holland parents began to look at neighboring Zeeland schools as a choice. Zeeland was 94% White (2000 census).   Also, providing school choice was an invitation to start charter schools.  Today, 17% of students attending school in Holland go to charter schools.

Davis said some families chose to attend other schools when they noticed an “increasing free and reduced lunch” student population.  He stated that “middle to upper-middle class families with disposable income” were the ones with enough time and money to drive their kids to neighboring Zeeland or charter schools.  It’s not too hard to read between the lines – because they could afford to white families took advantage of the school choice law and left lower-income Hispanic/Latino and Black families in the Holland schools.

Is it OK that school choice allows parents to create segregated schools?  At what point in time do their children learn to live with people who look different from themselves?  Is this the kind of America we want?

Charter Schools 101 – Whose Choice?

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One of the mantras of charter school operators is “choice.”  They want to give parents a choice between their charter school and those nasty public schools.  Politicians and school reformers will tell you that giving kids a choice will force bad public schools to get better (or be closed).

Another thing charter school operators highlight is their wait list to get in.  They say this is proof that people want out of the pubic schools and want more charter schools.  The flip side of those wait lists is that the kids on those lists didn’t have a choice to go to that charter school – just the ones who got in had a “choice.”  If a family moves into a house next door to a charter school and try to send their kids there, the school can say, “no, we won’t take you – you have to go to the pubic school.”  This is part of the business model of a charter school – calculate the number of kids you can accept in order to be profitable and then close the door.  Of course public school’s have to enroll all the kids who reside there, regardless of how many.

Do children with special needs get the choice to attend charter schools?  Or children who not speak English? Some do, but enrollment statistics for charter schools show they enroll a disproportionately small percentage of special education students and ELL (English Language Learners) students.

How about the kids who have difficulty in school – aren’t motivated, just can’t sit still, act out?  Even if they get into a charter school, if the child isn’t a model student the school can boot them out.  Statistics show charter schools have unusually high suspension/expulsion rates.

So when you hear people talk about “school choice” realize  whose choice it is – the charter schools’ choice.  Charter school operators choose how many students they will accept, what specialized services they will provide, and what type of students they will serve.  Public schools don’t randomly exclude students – and we are better off because they don’t.

Charter Schools 101 – In It For The Money

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As described in Part 1 of this series, the charter school movement had noble goals – to create a new type of school that would appeal to kids who didn’t like school.  It was thought that the best way to accomplish this was to strip out the layers of regulations and accountability public schools were obligated to follow.  However, relaxing the rules made it an ideal environment for anyone to start a charter school.

For a while, idealistic entrepreneurs created charter schools around their causes – religion, science, technology, strict discipline, etc.  Since 2010 we’ve seen a change – people are starting charter schools who are in it for the money.  There are non-profit and for-profit charter schools popping up around the country.  The appeal of the $1.1 trillion public education enterprise has caught the attention of people looking to make money.  When hedge-fund managers start touting the riches to be gained, people listen.

For-profit charter schools are pretty easy to understand – your goal is to cut costs enough so there is enough left over to pay the investors.  Non-profit schools should be just that – concentrating all their funds into student services.  However, there have been numerous reports lately about non-profits that make a profit.  The investors buy the school’s property and then charge exorbitant leases – to another company the same investors have set up to run the school.  See a recent report HERE.

Either way, these charter schools are set up to minimize costs.  Since 80-85% of a school’s budget is personnel, that’s where the savings occur.  New/cheap teachers.  No unions (a side benefit of charter schools is union-busting in large urban areas).  Fewer classes in the arts (music, art, foreign language).

The bottom line (or bottom dollar) is that charter schools have become a business.  When you hear people talk about “school choice” or “privatization” they mean “profit.”  Every penny wasted on fraud or paid out to investors deprives the students in that school of a better education than they are receiving.  Money for education is tight – shouldn’t it all go to the kids?

Charter Schools 101 – Abdicating Our Right to Educate America’s Kids

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Many recall the ominous words from the “A Nation At Risk” report.  It stated that if an “unfriendly foreign power” had attempted to force America’s education system to perform as it currently was in 1983, it would have been viewed “as an act of war.”  It went on to say, “We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

Written in over 30 years ago, the report criticized America’s lack of focus on educational achievement.  But the words ring true today, only this time we are not “unthinking” but purposely disarming our public educational system.  Every time someone encourages “privatization” of schools, charter schools, or school choice they are hurting America.  Why?  Because they are supporting the removal of every citizen’s democratic right and obligation to govern and direct the education of America’s youth.

In Illinois, every school district has seven elected school board members to govern it.  Board members are local residents who care about their community’s children and schools.  They understand that schools make a positive difference in their community.  When I was superintendent, the monthly school board meeting would rotate between each school.  Parents and community members would attend these meetings and offer up their comments and suggestions during Public Participation. You can’t get any closer to the democratic process than that – constituents telling their elected officials what they thought.  This right is being purposefully taken away.

Charter schools do not have locally elected board members.  Many charter schools are now part of state-wide or national chains of schools whose governance is determined by a corporate board, who live hundreds or thousands of miles away from the community the charter school serves.  These corporate board members probably don’t know anything about the communities each of their charter schools serve, what is important to parents there, or what the needs of the community are.

When a city, like New Orleans did, turns over its entire school system to charter schools, here’s what it is in effect  saying:

  • We don’t care what our kids are learning.
  • Let someone else worry about educating ‘those’ kids.
  • It’s too much effort to figure out how to finance our kids’ education so we’ll let somebody else do it.
  • We don’t have the will to work with the teachers’ union so let’s send the kids to schools where there are no teachers’ unions.

Is that what we want, not be be bothered with deciding how to educate America’s children?  Abdicating your right to educate America’s children is like letting a foreign country take over the minds of America’s children.  But in this case it’s not a foreign country taking over, it’s corporate America.

More and more, charter schools are being seen by people outside of the community as money-makers.  What they care about is what profit they can wring from each student enrolled.  In order to do so they influence state legislators and members of congress to pass laws removing local control of schools from elected school board members. They want laws changed so they can operate outside of the rules public schools must follow (it’s cheaper that way).  They want to take away your right to govern schools so it is easier for them to make a profit.

Note:  This is Part 2 in a series about Charter Schools.  See Part 1 here.

Charter Schools 101 – History of Charter Schools

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Several people have asked me why I criticize charter schools in some of my posts.  “Why don’t you like charter schools?  Choice is a good idea, isn’t it?” they say.  In the next series of posts I will respond to their questions.  Let’s start with a quick history lesson:

Most credit Ray Budde, a University of Massachusetts educator, with first introducing the idea of charter schools.  He published a paper titled, “Education by Charter” in 1974.  The paper didn’t receive any attention so he set it aside.  In 1988 many people were grappling with education reform after the publication of “A Nation At Risk.”  Budde resubmitted his paper for publication and this time it received attention from one of the most out-spoken and flamboyant educators of the time, Albert Shanker.  Shanker was the union president of the American Federation of Teachers.  He began pushing the idea of charter schools in 1988.

Shanker’s concept (borrowed from Budde) was that a different type of school was needed for the hard-to-reach students.  He envisioned small schools, governed by a “charter” with the local school district and teachers’ union, which could experiment with new teaching techniques.  These innovative teachers would share successful techniques with their colleagues within the district.

Minnesota was the first state to authorize charter schools in 1991, with California following the next year.

Shanker’s support for charter schools abruptly ended in 1993 when the Baltimore School District awarded a private, for-profit company called Education Alternatives, Inc. a contract for nine charter schools.  The company did not raise test scores as promised, had troubled finances, and worst of all (in Shanker’s eyes) fired unionized support staff and then replaced them with cheaper non-union employees.  Shanker became an opponent of some charter schools, like the one in Michigan which was organized in 1994 for home-schoolers.  The students learned at home with state-provided computers, using a curriculum that included creationism.  The charter school had gained its foothold in the small, debt-ridden community by providing a $40,000 kickback.

Since then forty-three states have passed legislation authorizing charter schools.  As of 2012 there were six-thousand charter schools serving about two-million students (4% of the total K-12 enrollment).  Charter schools are authorized by a variety of entities.  In 2012, 39% were authorized by local school districts, 28% by state boards of education, 12% by State Commissions, with the rest by universities, cities, and other means.

The federal government, through the Department of Education, has been actively promoting charter schools for years.  President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (2000) encouraged parents to consider enrolling their student in a charter as one of their “school choice” options.  President Obama’s Department of Education upped the ante in 2009 with his Race To The Top program.  In order to be eligible for some of its $4.35 billion in funding, states had to ease limits on charter schools.

At first glance, none of this looks too ominous.  However the seeds of the past are coming to fruition – charter schools are now forming first and foremost to make money; they are draining funds away from public schools; they reduce school choice; and they take away our right to educate America’s students.  More on each of these topics in subsequent posts.

Diane Ravitch’s excellent book Reign of Error (2013) was a source of some of the information presented above.