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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Amy Frogge Leads Effort in Nashville Metro to Save Schools from the Charter Zombies

The people of Metro Nashville have stopped listening to the CorpEd PR machine, and thanks to Board Member, Amy Frogge, they are getting some facts about the school privatization that is being led by the billionaires and hedge funders of Wall Street.  Below is a clip from the Tennessean and below that is Ms. Frogge's speech referred to in the piece:
The Metro school board’s fiercest charter school critic called for an “end game” on what future Nashville charters should look like during a blunt speech Tuesday that made accusations of profiteering and corporate interference.
Board member Amy Frogge, calling for Metro to hit the “pause button” to think strategically on charters, used strongly worded closing remarks at the board meeting to argue the district has gotten away from “early visionaries” who saw charters as simply labs of innovation.
“Many charter schools today have become something very different as corporations, not educators, are increasingly involved in setting their directions,” she said. “Charter schools have become competitors with traditional schools for funding and for students.
By Amy Frogge

I feel we are at a crossroads, and we have an opportunity to decide what direction we as a district want to take.  We have taken one step with our resolution to direct charter growth this year, but we need to go a few steps further to identify an endgame.  Last year, I voted against charter schools because of fiscal impact, and I’m inclined to do the same this year unless we come up with a plan.  If we are going to pay more for charter schools, we need to figure out what else to cut from the budget.  Until this year, it appears we have been passively responding to applicants and approving those that meet our requirements. But I think we need a pause button to think strategically about and completely re-envision how to use charter schools in our system.

Here are the questions to consider during this year’s application process and later: 
How many do we intend to have?

How many can we financially support? 

What sort of accountability and transparency will we demand of charter schools?
How will we ensure that charter schools are inclusive of every child, even those with special needs? (Dr. Coverstone has addressed some of this with the diversity plan.)
How do we ensure that all children have access to our charter and choice schools?
Will we require that new charter schools provide the same course offerings as other schools, including art, music and PE, taught by licensed teachers?

I’d like to take a moment to talk about the history of charter schools and what’s happening at the legislative level around this movement.

The early visionaries of the charter school movement imagined that charter schools would be directed and led by teachers who would be granted freedom to try new solutions outside district and principal imposed rules.  Charters were to focus on creativity and innovation in learning, rather than rote learning or performance on standardized tests.  Charter schools were to work collaboratively and in harmony with school districts in an effort to catch children who would otherwise fall through the cracks.

Many charter schools today have become something very different, as corporations- not educators- are increasingly involved in setting their direction.  Charter schools have become competitors with traditional public schools for funding and for students.  These schools, which have only a few years to make test scores before the threat of closure becomes a reality, are often operated by non-educators and staffed by young teachers who work extremely long hours and leave after a few years, keeping costs low.  Charter schools have high rates of principal and teacher turnover. 

Charter schools differ from traditional schools in key ways.  They often operate with additional funding from investors and have the advantage of selectivity.  Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools can limit their total enrollment and admit students only on an annual basis without accepting new students mid-year.  They can set academic, behavior, and cultural standards that promote exclusion of students via attrition.  Charter schools are not required to keep students who are not a good “fit” for their model.  And more broadly, charter schools are “choice” schools, and research has shown that children of engaged parents- those who make a “choice”- tend to perform better in school.

Although there are many involved in the charter school movement who have excellent motives, the charter school movement overall has become increasingly tied to profit motives as corporations interfere with education.   I have watched organizations with shadowy motives exploit our Tennessee legislature.  They operate like vultures, feeding hefty campaign donations and bad information to legislators through their plentiful lobbyists.   They do not operate in good faith. 

The charter movement is nationally funded and driven by organizations like ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), which promotes and protects corporate interests and works to pass legislation that allows corporations access to more profits.  The state charter authorizer came from ALEC, by the way.  The Waltons, owners of Walmart, which is notorious for paying its employees such low wages that they must rely on government assistance to eat, are driving charter legislation.  Hedge funders, banks and the wealthiest Americans can double their investments through generous tax credits in just seven years by investing in charters.  Surely groups like these are not primarily interested in helping low income children.

The goal at the legislative level is to gain access to a steady stream of tax dollars with limited public accountability.  That’s why these special interest groups contend that there should be no democratically elected school boards.  The desired result is to squelch the democratic process in favor of appointed bureaucracy, to take away local control of schools, and to promote less accountability and transparency for charter schools.   

So despite the good intentions of some local charter school operators, teachers, and proponents, these are the reasons I am deeply worried about the growth of charter schools in our district.  I see immense dangers, and we need to set our own limits to protect against the exploitation of students: 

1.  Fiscal impact.  I won’t talk much about this since we’ve discussed this a lot.  But I will say that if you look at cities around the US with large numbers of charters, like Philadelphia and Memphis, they are in financial distress, and traditional schools are not receiving fair funding.  We need to protect against that. 

2.  There is evidence that charter schools may be causing increased segregation, and there is potential to create a separate but unequal system of schools.  Charters and other reform measures can serve to segregate schools not only by race, but also by socioeconomics, by parental engagement or “choice,” and by student ability.  Charter schools, like private schools, often do not serve children with disabilities, particularly those with severe disabilities, or children who do not speak English.  These are the most costly and challenging to educate students.  

Traditional schools are beginning to serve as the dumping grounds for charters and other choice schools.  Just last month I spoke with an East Nashville teacher who told me her low-income school received 30 students back from charter schools in the three weeks before testing.  Another teacher recently interviewed with a charter school whose leader told her directly that they “get rid of” students with behavioral problems.  An attorney who works with families of special needs students recently called me to complain about charter schools releasing challenging children. 

Burdening traditional schools with large populations of challenging to educate students cripples these schools, leading to poor outcomes for students, and our traditional schools serve 95% of our population.  Allowing schools to release challenging students marginalizes the neediest and most vulnerable student populations.  We need to address this issue.

3.  The loss innovation and creativity in the classroom in favor of prep for tested subjects areas and loss of autonomous thinking by students.  Charter schools are all different, of course, but I have general concerns about the lack of substantial time spent on non-tested subjects, including art, music, and PE.  I am also deeply concerned about punitive charter models, like no excuses schools, and I think we need to think long and hard about this issue.  In some of these schools, there may be little to no chance for healthy social emotional learning, which in my view, is more important than standardized test scores. 

4.  Unchecked charter growth and resulting school closures can disrupt communities.   There is no evidence that competition is improving educational outcomes, and we need to protect against creating a revolving door for schools.  Research shows that school closures primarily impact low-income and African-American communities.  Trying out experimental schools at the expense of students and communities should not be the direction we take.     

Based on all I know now, I don’t think it’s a good thing to continue opening corporate model charter schools that compete with existing schools and that have the ability to counsel out students. 

However, here’s what I’d consider supporting: 
·      We should support our existing charter schools, but ensure accountability beyond just test scores for them.  They are part of our system, and they are serving our students.  I think that continued unchecked growth of charter schools in the district will damage those relationships.
·      I would support the use of charter schools as they were originally intended- to try out different strategies that we then take back to existing schools. (As far as I can see, we’re not doing that now, but I could be wrong.)
·      I’d support the use of charter schools as collaborative helpmates to existing schools.
·      I support leveling the playing field by applying the same rules for charter schools and traditional schools, with regard to attrition, accountability and transparency.
·      I’d support ensuring that all schools, including charters, offer a broad curriculum that includes the arts, physical education, foreign language, etc.
·      I would support using charter schools to extend education beyond the classroom to meet needs.  (An example would be Harlem Children’s Zone.)

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