WHEN CHARTER SCHOOLS LOSE THEIR COURSE

 

By Jane Weinkrantz   

 

    In November of last year, the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, an education "report card" completed by the Education Department was made public with none of the fanfare one would expect in the age of No Child Left Behind. The reason? The results showed that charter schools, one of the magic tricks that NCLB depends on, do not do as good a job educating children as public schools. Because this data was buried in the study, it took a number of American Federation of Teachers researchers to sort through the scores and compile the facts.

    Immediately, Rod Paige and company rushed to the defense of charter schools. According to The New York Times, Paige issued a statement saying, "he stood by charter schools and challenged the conclusion of recent test data that their performance largely trailed that of regular public schools." By doing so, Paige engages in the same wishful thinking that had us looking for WMD where there were none and trying to link the 9/11 tragedy to Iraq. Why shouldn’t this administration try denying the facts at home as well as abroad?

    Beyond questioning the validity of the research, advocates sought some slack for charter schools since they are still a relatively recent idea. "We’re doing so much to help kids that are so much farther behind, and who typically weren’t even continuing in school," said president of the Center for Education Reform, Jeanne Allen. Allen referred to the results as only "a point in time."

    Aren’t the test results that are used to condemn failing public schools also just "a point in time" and if so, wouldn’t it make more sense to strengthen them rather than allowing their population to be parceled off to for profit schools---many plagued by pressures to satisfy shareholders, high teacher turnover and dull, rote-driven curriculum--- that can call their own shots without being obligated to meet the same standards public schools do? An informational web site run by the US government called www.uscharterschools.org defines charter school as "a non-sectarian public school of choice that operates with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The charter establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success…They generally offer teachers and students more authority to make decisions than most traditional schools." Well, I don’t about you, but I think if it were up to me to define success (with more authority!), I could definitely achieve it every time.

    The web page’s "Successful Charter Schools" section tells how the elimination of bilingual education programs in Lake Forest, California’s public schools was the impetus for the charter of Ralph Gates Elementary School, a place where bilingual education remains. Wouldn’t it have been more effective to restore the original program to the public schools? In Boston, Ma, the Roxbury Preparatory Academy has after school enrichment programs, advisory breakfasts and spending per pupil of over $12,000.

    If all of Boston’s public schools spent that much per pupil, would a charter school like Roxbury Prep need to exist? In short, if the regulations that apply to traditional public schools are the problem, why not just revise them rather than telling whole communities to give up on their public schools in favor of whatever the charter movement’s flavor of the week happens to be in their neighborhood?

    Of course, the neighborhoods affected by charter schools tend to be overwhelmingly minority and low-income. For example, in New York, Edison schools has charters schools in Albany, Riverhead, the Bronx, Buffalo and Rochester. George W. Bush claims that charter schools and NCLB address "the soft bigotry of low expectations." But isn’t it just as bigoted for our country not to strengthen public low-income /minority majority schools in traditional ways, offering what amounts to a huge experiment as a solution in its stead? If our nation’s leaders are so concerned about lack of equality in education, why are they not being more aggressive in improving poor and minority traditional public schools with smaller classes, competitive teacher salaries, improved building and grounds, parent outreach and all the other things that bespeak serious education and high standards? Instead, while teachers teach out of certification area for low wages, class size continues to grow and school buildings crumble, the government is using our poor and minority children as lab rats for a bunch of wacky new alternative approaches to education.

    Sadly, many parents still feel that charter schools offer better opportunities than our nation’s public schools. In fact, in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Reverend Floyd Flake, a former president of Edison Schools and Member of President George W. Bush’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education writes, "[Charter schools] are the option of last resort: families that have left traditional public education did so because they watched firsthand as their children lost ground. Should schools dealing with these most fragile students be compared to public schools as a whole?" While Flake makes an interesting point, he neglects to acknowledge that many times the option of attending a nouveau-ed charter school doesn’t even exist. In cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, students whose public schools were classified as failing and who, therefore, had the right to transfer to another public or charter school were overwhelmingly unable to do so simply because there were not enough schools to teach the students who wished to exit their assigned public schools.

    The charter schools movement permits the continued neglect of public schools while putting the responsibility for developing alternatives squarely on the backs of the underprivileged communities who need quality schools most. Consider that www.uscharterschools.org states that "parents, community leaders, businesses, teachers, school districts, and municipalities can submit a charter school proposal to their state’s charter authorizing entity."

    There are two important points to take from that statement. Point #1: Pretty much anyone who feels like it can start a school. Point #2 : It is not the state or the federal government’s responsibility to start a charter school. So if public education in your neighborhood is poor, it is up to you, not the government, to create solutions. If you think the fact that you know nothing about kids or teaching is an excuse, see point #1.

    

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