Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Charter Schools: Profit and Plunder or Panacea?
Good morning, my name is Todd Alan Price. I am Associate Professor of Education at National Louis University where I work with teachers throughout the Chicago area. Our university has a branch in Milwaukee and I have taught foundations and research courses there. I graduated from the Curriculum and Instruction doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I worked under Dr. John Witte for a few terms researching the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and have written articles and a handful of books on No Child Left Behind and educational reform initiatives, including Charter schools. In 2009, I ran for the office of State Superintendent, endorsed as the Wisconsin Green Party candidate. I reside in Kenosha with my family, my wife and my two pre-school boys.
I will try to use my time to personalize my own view and explain my opposition to Senate Bill 22.
As a professor of teacher education, I've been directly challenged by the struggle to place highly qualified teachers into the field to teach our most precious resource, our nation’s children. I see my teacher-candidates preparing themselves to enter a field that will place staggering demands on them to outdo all previous generations in evoking student achievement. It is impossible to participate in the grooming of these highly motivated teachers-to-be without resenting on their behalf the blatant contradiction that though having such high expectations for our teachers, political leadership hasn’t valued the public education system enough to adequately and equitably fund it, as though they care not a whit as to the conditions under which teachers teach and students are expected to learn.
Public education has been proclaimed to be broken, on its last legs. These last rites of the venerable institution, delivered by the very same people who aim to profit from its demise, is taken verbatim, as gospel.
Nothing could be further from the truth; in the many schools that I have the good fortune to observe, to hold a practicum, and to conduct field placements in, the rumors, as Mark Twain would say, of death have been greatly exaggerated.
Public schools and public education often excel, despite nagging conditions such as concentrated poverty. Public education, we must remember, is an institution which until fairly recently, in my lifetime to be certain, had unquestionably served the country well, so well, that for much of the last century the United States of America was the envy of the civilized world. With a standard of living continually on the rise, and a bright future for any and all of the students who could graduate high school, it was the expectation, literally the norm that if you made it through high school, you could find a job or go on to college . . .
Those days are gone and now we have literally graduated students with Master’s Degrees who cannot find work. Are the schools really to blame for their being little meaningful work, or does the failure for the state of the economy lie elsewhere?
But now, enter the Repair Bill and budget cuts looming. And then we have Senate Bill 22 and its sentence of doom for the Wisconsin public school system. Senate Bill 22 is a bailout for the businessmen and corporations who run the bankrupt system known as charter schools. This experiment in "choice" has proven itself a failure in its first decade and a half of experimental existence, as it has proven itself not only no better than the public system but a door-opener for out and out fraud. Some of the biggest names who were founding fathers or mothers of the charter school/choice school movement, such as Diane Ravitch, former Under Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, have renounced their earlier advocacy and decried, in Ravitch's own embittered words, "The Myth of Charter Schools":
But contrary to the myth that Guggenheim propounds about “amazing results,” even Geoffrey Canada’s schools have many students who are not proficient. On the 2010 state tests, 60 percent of the fourth-grade students in one of his charter schools were not proficient in reading, nor were 50 percent in the other. It should be noted—and Guggenheim didn’t note it—that Canada kicked out his entire first class of middle school students when they didn’t get good enough test scores to satisfy his board of trustees. This sad event was documented by Paul Tough in his laudatory account of Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Whatever It Takes (2009). Contrary to Guggenheim’s mythology, even the best-funded charters, with the finest services, can’t completely negate the effects of poverty.
Guggenheim ignored other clues that might have gotten in the way of a good story. While blasting the teachers’ unions, he points to Finland as a nation whose educational system the US should emulate, not bothering to explain that it has a completely unionized teaching force. His documentary showers praise on testing and accountability, yet he does not acknowledge that Finland seldom tests its students. Any Finnish educator will say that Finland improved its public education system not by privatizing its schools or constantly testing its students, but by investing in the preparation, support, and retention of excellent teachers. It achieved its present eminence not by systematically firing 5–10 percent of its teachers, but by patiently building for the future. Finland has a national curriculum, which is not restricted to the basic skills of reading and math, but includes the arts, sciences, history, foreign languages, and other subjects that are essential to a good, rounded education. Finland also strengthened its social welfare programs for children and families. Guggenheim simply ignores the realities of the Finnish system Waiting for “Superman” is the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far. Their power is not to be underestimated. For years, right-wing critics demanded vouchers and got nowhere. Now, many of them are watching in amazement as their ineffectual attacks on “government schools” and their advocacy of privately managed schools with public funding have become the received wisdom among liberal elites. Despite their uneven record, charter schools have the enthusiastic endorsement of the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Dell Foundation. In recent months, The New York Times has published three stories about how charter schools have become the favorite cause of hedge fund executives. According to the Times, when Andrew Cuomo wanted to tap into Wall Street money for his gubernatorial campaign, he had to meet with the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a pro-charter group.
Dominated by hedge fund managers who control billions of dollars, DFER has contributed heavily to political candidates for local and state offices who pledge to promote charter schools. (Its efforts to unseat incumbents in three predominantly black State Senate districts in New York City came to nothing; none of its hand-picked candidates received as much as 30 percent of the vote in the primary elections, even with the full-throated endorsement of the city’s tabloids.) Despite the loss of local elections and the defeat of Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (who had appointed the controversial schools chancellor Michelle Rhee), the combined clout of these groups, plus the enormous power of the federal government and the uncritical support of the major media, presents a serious challenge to the viability and future of public education.
This bill claims to loosen regulations, to offer the possibility of unlimited virtual Charter schools, with unlimited virtual students, to receive virtual education from virtual teachers. Wisconsin citizens could be reduced to the option of the virtual lottery; your son and/or daughter vying for the virtual place, if you win, of going to a virtual school. And if you want to have a say in your child’s education, you can send an e-mail to Walmart, or to White Hat Management, or K-12 incorporated, or Edison, or for that matter to the Mayor or the Governor’s appointee. If you are lucky enough, your community might even be dissolved, along with your school board, like they aim to do in Michigan, and you can wait until the Governor appointed manager gets back to you.
But the cost for this lack of accountability will be anything but virtual for you, because you will spend precious time and treasure searching for that elusive school, forget Waiting for Superman; Superman will not save your child from educational apartheid, anymore than an alternative Charter school system will save our state from a lack of jobs and concentrated poverty in our once proud cities. That is already here. No, you will be waiting forever for justice for your child and your community.
Of the many problems raised here today, I will offer that the Charter school movement, irrespective of individual Charter schools, has damaged the Public School System. In the case of Ohio, the state opened up its law to allow for the expansion of Charter schools. Overnight, every possible manifestation of a contract to receive money from the state and open up a “school” appeared. The Department of Education rubber-stamped some 240 applications. The results of the law were disastrous. No accountability, you couldn’t get reports on the test scores. You couldn’t find out how the money was being spent. You had no job protection and teachers were paid less, not more. Yet the public school system was still responsible for managing these schools, because they were still technically under the public jurisdiction. Every possible bad school became a Charter, and when they failed, the money for the student was gone, but the students needed to go somewhere, so they came back to the public school. Tom Mooney, the tireless advocate for the public schools as Cincinnati labor leader, then State leader of the Ohio Federation of Teachers had this to say:
It's hard to overstate how bad it is, in fact, I want to say they'll give a Charter to any P.T. Barnum with a tent but that would be an understatement because they don't really need a tent.
I’m here to tell you this Senate Bill is not about regulation vs. deregulation. It is not about unions or no unions, nor is it ultimately even about the Charter school. It is about a small group of ideologues wresting control from local authority and squeezing every last dime out of the people, while exalting cheap, fly by night outfits to scoop up the tax dollars. But I digress, the following points, offered by my colleague and co-author Jack Gerson, of the upcoming book, Race to the Top, Road to Where, needs to be made and I leave for your reading and discretion.
(1) Studies have repeatedly shown that charter schools do no better than public schools. In fact, public schools overall usually outperform charter schools overall (e.g., the recent large-scale study out of Stanford U. funded by Walton (Walmart)). But this legislation makes sweeping changes that clearly aimed at rapidly increasing the proportion of students in charter schools as compared to public schools. Why make such a jarring change, which threatens to destabilize not just education but also communities when evidence points in the opposite direction? This question applies doubly to the encouragement for growth of virtual charter schools (by eliminating the cap on the total number of virtual school students statewide), which weaken or altogether remove the teacher/student relationship, and whose viability for improving student learning lacks credible evidence.
(2) This bill would weaken or even eliminate the local control of schools by communities themselves, moving power to the state level and then delegating it to charter school operators who are not elected by local communities. Local communities value their right to exercise democratic control over their schools. This right will be weakened by allowing -- indeed encouraging -- the proliferation and growth of charter schools that are not chartered by and regulated by local school boards. The bill further cements the expropriation of democratic local control of schools by recognizing charter schools as local education agencies (p. 16).
(3) The bill proposes a new "charter school teacher license" to facilitate charter school teachers teaching multiple subjects. Why this new license? Why is it needed? And, assuming it was needed, why is it only needed in charter schools?
(4) Point made about Site-Based Decision Making (SBDM) by Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian in "Why Is America Bashing Our Public Schools?" is that it gives the illusion of participatory democracy by seeming to move decisions to the site level. But in fact, the big decisions were already made at the state and national levels, which had mandated high stakes testing to hold students and teachers accountable to narrow skill-based standards, and SBDM cut local school boards and therefore the local community out of the picture. This bill, which would trigger a huge increase in charter schools, would do similarly, by cutting the role of local school boards.
(5) We want to get rid of bureaucratic regulations that get in the way of the educational process: student learning and teachers teaching. We want to strengthen those regulations that protect students from abuse and teachers from harassment and victimization by bureaucrats and administrators (and that protect the public from rip-off/scam artists). In far too many instances, charter schools have brought about the opposite. We can cite chapter and verse on this: White Hat Charter Schools (Ohio); the California Charter Academy; to name but a few, So let's be clear: this isn't about deregulation or regulation. It's about what KIND of regulations and who CONTROLS the execution and review of these regulations. (In fact: even the outspoken deregulators of the corporate education agenda themselves want more regulations and more regulatory enforcement of a huge mountain of regulations -- those that enforce high stakes testing and test-based accountability: NCLB, Renaissance 2010, and Race to the Top.