The charter debate is over

The charter school “debate” is no longer about charter schools vs. public schools (charters are not public schools—that myth has been exploded), or even about “for profit” vs. “not for profit” charters (the evidence here suggests this is really a difference without a distinction).


No, the real issue here is about the true purpose of education, and whether continuing to support two separate but unequal, and inequitable, school systems is doing anything to improve education for all children. By any objective measure, the answer is a resounding “no.”


The charter lobby has attempted, through spending millions of dollars on PR and marketing, to redefine the purpose of education from one about producing well-rounded citizens who are capable of making valuable contributions to our society and leading fulfilling lives, to a business-driven agenda of producing workers for corporate America. The latter “purpose” now drives much of our state and federal education legislation, which is rife with references to “21st Century Skills,” and insuring that high school graduates are stamped as being “college and career-ready”.


This is a radical repurposing of a public goal to meet the needs of private corporations, and is echoed in the mission and “vision” statements of the leading charter school management companies:


Success Academy: “Build exceptional, world-class public schools that prove children from all backgrounds can succeed in college and life; and advocate across the country to change public policies that prevent so many children from having access to opportunity.”


This is less a mission statement than the beginning sentence of a business plan. At Success Academy, children are referred to as “scholars,” and are judged on a one-size-fits-all scale: your value as a student is determined by your test scores, and eventually, your “hirability.” These goals are accomplished through adhering to uncommonly strict and harsh behavior management strategies, and by establishing an authoritarian classroom environment that is focused more on controlling students’ actions than on engaging them as learners.


KIPP: “To create a respected, influential, and national network of public schools that are successful in helping students from educationally underserved communities develop the knowledge, skills, character and habits needed to succeed in college and the competitive world beyond.”


As with Success Academy, the KIPP mission statement begins with a focus on the success of the business model, and only refers to students for their usefulness in helping KIPP meet its organizational goals—emphasizing the competitiveness of the world those children are about to enter. KIPP has also been criticized for manipulating their network schools’ graduation and college matriculation rates, using millions of taxpayer dollars on exorbitant administrator salaries, excessive travel and hospitality expenses, and non-transparency in terms of disclosure requirements.


National Heritage Academies: “National Heritage Academies (NHA) partners with local school boards to build and manage no-cost public charter schools. NHA’s system of schools is designed to eliminate the achievement gap and provide a public school choice to families so that their children are prepared for success in high school, college, and beyond.”


More success, and more empty “college and beyond” rhetoric. Yet, behind the chain’s claims of “valuing diversity,” and “embracing accountability,” NHA has been sued for failing to provide required special education services for their students, and their administrators have “discourage(d) parents from enrolling special-needs children at National Heritage -- and to help place the children in Grand Rapids public schools” instead. At NHA, the welcome sign is apparently only turned on if your child doesn’t need special education services—then it’s time to head back to the good old public schools, where the doors are always open and all children are welcomed.


Charter advocates are currently busy working to increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts, even though the quality of schools in the state is among the best in the nation. You’d think this crusade must be the result of public opinion, and that parents were coming out in great numbers to demand more school choice and “better options” for their children—but you’d be wrong.


Consider the following exchange between Jennifer Berkshire (aka, Edushyster) and researcher Maurice Cunningham, on the sources of support for charter schools in Massachusetts, as reported by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post:


EduShyster: There’s a well-funded effort underway to paint the campaign to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts as a progressive cause. But what you’ve found in your research is that this is basically a Republican production from top to bottom.


Cunningham: That’s right. There are a handful of wealthy families that are funding this. They largely give to Republicans and they represent the financial industry, basically. They’re out of Bain, they’re out of Baupost, they’re out of High Fields Capital Management. Billionaire Seth Klarman, for example, has been described as the largest GOP donor in New England, and he gives a lot of money to free market, anti-government groups. Then on the campaign level, you have Republican strategist Will Keyser who certainly knows his stuff, and Jim Conroy who certainly knows his stuff. They know how to make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t.


EduShyster: By *make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t,* what you really mean is that this is an entirely community-driven, grassroots campaign, correct?


Cunningham: No. There is no grassroots support behind this campaign whatsoever. What do we look for to measure grassroots support? We look for a campaign’s ability to find people who will essentially volunteer, who feel strongly about an issue and are willing to do the work that a campaign needs done. Two examples: signature collecting and canvassing door to door. Great Schools Massachusetts isn’t able to do either one of those things. When they had to get signatures in 2015, they wound up paying $305,000 to a signature gathering firm. And that’s because they don’t have people who are strong believers who will go out on the street and volunteer and be passionate and do the things that people do when they really care about an issue. Or look at Democrats for Education Reform. When they backed Dan Rizzo in the special Senate election earlier this year, they had to pay for canvassers because they don’t have people who feel strongly enough about the positions they take. The idea that these are community groups is completely manufactured. (emphasis mine)


Recent polls in the state show that voters are against lifting the cap on charters by a 7 point margin, with 11% of the population still undecided. The charter lobby sees Massachusetts as an important “test case” for their plan to privatize the schools—if their strategy works there, it can work anywhere.


But there is scant evidence that lifting these caps and increasing the numbers of charters has a positive impact on student learning. For example, there are only 22 charters in Boston, while Detroit has 94. The 2 cities are roughly the same size, so what’s the difference? In Massachusetts, the state’s tight regulatory statutes governing the opening of new charters have slowed the pace of charter growth, and kept overall school quality high.


In Michigan, on the other hand, the combination of a strong charter lobby and a virtually unregulated charter sector has created what education researcher, David Arsen, calls a “chaotic” situation. Detroit’s school facilities are in a state of critical disrepair; necessary repairs can’t be afforded, and large areas of the city have no schools, while other neighborhoods are flooded with options.


Very few persons in Detroit would point to the explosion of charter schools, over half of which are of the “for-profit” variety, as a good thing for the city’s educational health and vitality. The problems created by competition and choice will not be solved by competition and choice.


But this is an argument that makes no impression on the charter lobby. Their goals are not about kids, schools, and education; they are focused on dollars, cents, and profits.


And that’s not up for debate.

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