"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Charter School Magic Bullet Hits a Brick Wall

The evidence grows each week that the Business Roundtable's latest magic bullet for killing off public schools has failed to fully penetrate its victims. What has penetrated the thinking among states and municipalities is the realization that the corporate charter movement promises big tax saving for philanthrocapitalists like Gates and Broad, big profits for educational management organizations, total social control by corporations of the scary black people in the slums, and huge, huge losses to dollar-starved public coffers that must fund the charters AND the remaining public schools. From Town Topics in Princeton, NJ:
. . . .The board also unanimously approved a resolution to “direct and authorize the Superintendent of Schools to express the Board’s opposition and concerns regarding current application(s) and future applications made to the Commissioner of Education for the establishment of charter schools that target Princeton Borough and Princeton Township school-aged children.” The resolution noted that “the basis for this opposition is to protect the Princeton Regional School District’s fiscal ability and organizational capacity to maintain programs of excellence for all public school students in our community.” Ms. Wilson said that “we will be very specific in our opposition to charter school applications,” noting that “each differs in the target populations it proposes to serve.” There is currently an application for a Mandarin language, International Baccalaureate-granting charter school in the district.. . .
And from the Buffalo News:

Claiming that charter schools drain dollars and students from Buffalo’s traditional schools, the Board of Education voted, 6-2, Wednesday evening to seek a state moratorium on new charter schools in and around the city.

While it is not immediately clear what impact the vote might have on charter school licensing, the vote underlines the growing frustration Buffalo Public Schools officials have with the state’s decade- old charter school law.

“I have a moral and ethical obligation to the public school system of this city,” said board President Ralph Hernandez, who voted for the moratorium. “This is having a serious impact on the Buffalo public school system.”. . .

These events coincide with a the backing off by Duncan and the RTTT guidelines, as well as the new hard look that editorial boards are taking in terms of the corporate kool-aid they historically have swigged on the charter school issue. The latest from the LA Times editorial page (my bolds):
. . . .After a decade of rapid growth, charters have begun delivering on some of these promises. They were among the first smaller, more personal schools; "smaller" has become a rallying cry among urban school districts. Families in low-income areas flocked to the new schools, where expectations were higher and children felt safer. Some have delivered impressive test scores.

All of these accomplishments have been particularly noticeable in Los Angeles Unified, where reform in the traditional public school system has come slower than in other large urban districts, and where charters have been a lifeline for students trapped in schools with high dropout rates and miserable achievement levels. That's why this page has supported the growth of the charter movement in L.A., as well as a new district initiative that will open perhaps 250 schools to outside management, including charter operators. Drastic change is needed, and the record of several local charter organizations, such as Green Dot Public Schools and the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, at least offers hope for better management.

Less clear, though, is whether charter schools offer real, long-term solutions to fixing public education in America, or whether the Obama administration should be relying on them so heavily as a means of turning around the nation's record of academic mediocrity. Studies of charter schools have been mixed; some researchers give higher marks to charters, others to public schools. One of the most recent and most comprehensive longitudinal studies, released by Stanford University in June, found that charter schools were uneven. More than a third perform worse than nearby public schools, and about half do about as well as public schools, the study found. Only 17% provide students with a "superior educational opportunity."

Built-in advantages

Clearly, it's difficult to generalize about charter schools. By their very nature as independently run schools, they vary widely in their programs and goals. But they're all supposed to do a good job of educating students -- in most cases, a better job than surrounding schools.

That's especially true considering that, at least theoretically, charter schools have a built-in advantage. In California, most charter schools fill their seats through lotteries, to give all students an equal chance and to prevent the schools from enrolling only the most promising students. It's a fair system, but it skews enrollment because the lotteries attract motivated, involved families. In addition, charter schools can require extra responsibilities for students and parents, such as volunteering time on campus, and can close enrollment when they are full. They also have more authority to expel students who do not meet their standards for behavior. Families that are unable or unwilling to invest that much in their children's education will end up at public schools, which have to accept all students within their boundaries.

Middle schools operated by the respected Knowledge Is Power Program, for example, run a highly regimented program during their 9.5-hour school days and longer school year. KIPP schools dramatically outperform public middle schools that enroll students of similar demographics, and that's due in large part to the extra instructional time and the intensive teacher training the charter chain invests in. But KIPP also draws the parents and students who are willing to accept regimentation, high expectations and long hours; its formula might be less successful at public schools, where many families might be less enthusiastic about its methods. In addition, the KIPP program spends significantly more per student than the public school system does, relying on private contributions to make up the difference. Its educational model couldn't be expanded to all of the state's middle schoolers even if every preteen yearned for it.

Another unknown is the extent to which charter schools serve as models or competitors and encourage positive change at public schools. Along with the trend toward smaller schools, the success of charters has prodded several school districts, including L.A. Unified, to start "pilot schools" -- schools that stay within the district but have more autonomy and accountability.

At the same time, now that the number of charter schools is reaching critical mass, they are having a disproportionate negative impact on funding for public schools. Through the lottery system, charters enroll students from various schools and grades. Most of the state funding for those students follows them to their new schools. The public schools they leave receive less money, but their operating costs don't necessarily go down. Giving one student the opportunity to attend a charter should not mean leaving another with fewer resources.

Showing the way at Locke

That's why Green Dot's takeover of Locke High School last year was a pioneering step for charter schools, in terms of both leveling the playing field with public schools and minimizing the disruption caused by student transfers.

Under its agreement with L.A. Unified, Green Dot agreed to enroll all students within Locke's attendance boundaries. That meant taking the gang members, the teenagers who rebelled against the uniforms and hundreds more students than it had room for. It also meant taking less money from other public schools in the area. But Green Dot's goal is different from that of many charter operators. Its management isn't looking to supplant public schools, but rather to push L.A. Unified into following its blueprint for educating disadvantaged children: small schools with a high emphasis on safety that give teachers a stronger role in decision-making but require more flexible contracts. Green Dot also spends the same amount per student on day-to-day operations as L.A. Unified.

At the end of the year, Locke's test scores were at the same bottom level the school has long been known for -- in marked contrast to achievement at other Green Dot schools that drew students through lotteries and were able to control their size. But Locke did become safer and more orderly, with lower truancy rates and higher student retention. Students almost universally praised their new teachers. In theory, such changes should lead over time to better learning -- and test scores -- for all students in the neighborhood, not just those whose parents took the initiative to sign them up for a lottery.

Still, it's puzzling that Green Dot has announced that founder Steve Barr is "taking on a leadership role in the national dialogue on education reform" and drafting a plan for state and national educational policy based on the Green Dot experience. The charter operator might well prove to have valuable lessons for real-world public education, but we won't know unless and until Locke's academic achievement improves. . . .
Barr is moving up into the philanthrocapitalist hierarchy where the money is better and where his pathetic experiment cannot touch him. Peter Principle in practice. Will he emerge as Arne Duncan's lapdog now?

1 comment:

  1. I realized that what Steve Barr can safely view as a "track record of success" is his achievement in getting so much gushing press. Plus in his case there is a cadre of observers who are otherwise critics of the charter/privatization juggernaut who refuse to see Barr as part of it -- apparently because of his history with the Teamsters and the fact that he nominally calls his schools unionized (in a pathetic joke version of "unionized," in which the workers have no job security).

    Since gaining more private funding, more clients and more political support is the goal, positive PR is more important in achieving that than are actual success of his schools or improvement of the lives and futures of real flesh-and-blood young people. It's all about the mythology.

    It is heartening to see the L.A. Times wake up a bit; I perceive something of a shift beginning in the wisdom of the punditry. But we'll see.