Friday, July 1, 2016

Discovering Gloria Jean Merriex

Gloria Jean Merriex grew up in Gainesville, Florida. Gainesville is a city of extremes; on the one hand, it's the home of the University of Florida and has many of the features of a big college town; on the other hand, the southern and eastern neighborhoods of Gainesboro are home to crushing poverty. Charles Duval Elementary School is located in the center of an eastern neighborhood filled with crime and poverty.

Merriex saw teaching as a path out of the poverty of her neighborhood, but she did not choose to leave the neighborhood itself. Once she had her degree, she chose to teach at Duval Elementary, where for about twenty-five years she was a middle-of-the-road, competent-but-not-exceptional teacher.

I became acquainted with Merriex through the work of filmmaker Boaz Dvir; my nephew, who studied film at Penn State, had Dvir as a teacher and thought we might have a few things to say to each other. But years ago, Dvir was a professor in Florida who heard about Merriex and decided to tell her story. The result is a documentary in progress entitled "Discovering Gloria." I've watched a rough cut of the film, and it is a challenging and moving story.

Photo Courtesy of Discovering Gloria

The story, of course, is not about the first twenty-five years of Merriex's career. The story really starts with Florida's reform efforts, Florida's Big Standardized Test (FCAT), and Florida's assignment of letter grades to schools, back in the days when No Child Left Behind was the hot, new thing.

Duval scored a big fat F, and Merriex was troubled. Couldn't-sleep-at-night troubled.

The school having "failed," the state stepped in with strict pacing guides and mandated materials so that the school would be working toward Meeting the Standards. Meanwhile, Merriex faced the realization that she could not keep teaching as she had. It was a transformative moment for her, not just as a teacher, but as a person. She began to think about what she really had to do.

She dumped the state pacing guides and teaching materials. When she got caught, she begged Duval principal Lee McNealy for a chance to give her methods a try, and McNealy had the guts and trust to give it to her. So Merriex developed materials and approaches of her own, and for the early 2000s, her choices were a bit out there. She wrote raps and dances to do with her students for learning math vocabulary and basic processes. She used call and response in the classroom. She was stern and demanding in a classic sense, but she did constant outreach and made family connections in the modern teacher-counselor sense. She visited homes, saw to students' non-academic needs, provided instruction to entire families. Cooked classroom meals. mended school uniforms. Held Saturday classes for FCAT prep.  She refined and reflected, developed and grew more materials.

Duval became a miracle school, getting spectacular test results. Duval scored A after A, Merriex's students posting the greatest test score gains in the state. The school was filled with pride, the students confident and accomplished. Duval-- and Merriex--  became one of Florida's great success stories. Merriex created a math team, a group of students who toured and demonstrated their math rap and math skills. Merriex herself was in increasing demand, speaking and demonstrating her techniques for teachers and administrators from all across the state and country.

Merriex's story defies simple categorization. There is frankly much here that reformsters will like. The letter grade system shocked Merriex and her school out of their old ways. And once it was clear that Merriex was on to something, Duval's administration packed her classroom, having her teach forty or fifty students at a time. And the rough cut of Dvir's film tells the story of a student previously labeled learning disabled who blossoms and succeeds under Merriex's tutelage, an apparent confirmation of the "replace special ed with high expectations" reformster camp.

At the same time, reformsters should also note that Merriex completely dismantled and dismissed the state plan for how the courses should be taught. The pacing guide? Out the window. Dvir talks to one of the many academics who came to watch Merriex to try to figure out what she was doing; one striking feature was that Meriex would work completely out of the "normal" sequence and jump from one math subject to another in ways that defied conventional approaches. Yet somehow they worked.

Merriex met her students where they were, creating her materials to match their own concerns and interests. Her techniques defied "scaling up" because they were developed for the children of that neighborhood-- a neighborhood that she had known her whole life. It would never be possible to take five weeks to teach a bunch of college kids the Merriex Method and send them out into schools all across the nation in communities that they've never set foot in before. Merriex's techniques were custom made for students in that community by a lifelong member of that community.

Nevertheless, the Lastinger Center for Learning at the University of Florida decided to study her, even mounting cameras in her classroom intending to stream her lessons around the world. And the Kellogg Foundation-- one of the great reformster money-spreaders-- awarded the center grants to help fund the study. But Kellogg went one better-- in May of 2008, they awarded Merriex a grant to develop a national math curriculum.

Merriex appeared to be living proof of concept for the Hero Teacher.

On the day after the awarding of the Kellogg grant, Merriex suffered a diabetic stroke. She died at the age of 58. It is hard not to conclude that in order to be a Hero Teacher, Merriex had worked herself to death.

What are the lessons of Merriex's story? Dvir does a good job of providing some balance. The fact that he's been wrestling with this film for several years is, in part, a testament to how tricky a story this is to tell. If you watch the trailer, you'll note that the film is funded in part by the ever-reformy Kellogg Foundation, about which Dvir has this to say:

Although I received a grant from Kellogg., I’ve had 100 percent editorial and creative control. I never had even one conversation with Kellogg about the making of the film. I interviewed a Kellogg rep as part of the filming process, but he never asked me about what I was doing. He simply answered my questions. I’ve never even screened the rough cut for Kellogg! As I said, I’ve had complete editorial and creative control over this film – as I have and continue to have on all my films. I’m as strict as any documentary filmmakers get about this. Part of it is my journalistic DNA. Another part is that I do this work purely for scholarship and making a difference.

I've talked to him (and I trust my nephew as a judge of character) and I see the documentary as objective and journalistic in character. I don't smell reformy agenda here. 

As I suggested above, I think reformsters may rush to learn the wrong lessons from this story-- that you just need to find a super-teacher and clone her, that BS Tests are great for measuring and fixing education (a premise that everyone in the film accepts and nobody actually challenges), that if you just believe and try real hard then poverty and race don't really matter. But I think there are far more important lessons to be learned from Merriex's story.

One is the power of administration to protect teachers from bad state and federal policy. Merriex's story of transformation and achievement would never have happened if, in the very beginning, her principal had said, "Dammit, no. We scored an F, so there will be no experimenting. You get back in that classroom and follow the pacing guide the state sent us, and you follow it to the letter." But Merriex's principal trusted her, trusted her professional judgment, and trusted her commitment to her students, and so that principal let Gloria Jean Merriex do her thing. It was easy for everyone to fall in behind Merriex after the fact, and therefor it's easy to forget that Merriex and her principal were risking their careers and bucking the district, the state and the feds.

Another lesson is the limits of the administrative power-- the school still had to face having its success measured by the BS Test and a single letter grade.

Another lesson is the value of community connection. Merriex could figure out what needed to be done because she was of that community, in that community. She knew the language, the values, the streets and neighborhoods, the families. It mattered that she grew up there as a young black girl, to become a teacher in a 99% black school. All the fresh-scrubbed ivy league honor roll graduates in the world could not substitute for what Merriex knew by being of her community. There's a moment (it's also in the trailer) where Merriex's former principal tells the story of letting the teacher know that the school received an F and she appears to almost says "She just turned white" and then catches herself. If you like extra-close readings of moments, it's a resonant moment because if Gloria Jean Merriex had turned white, her success would never happen. If anything, Merriex achieved success in that school by turning less white, by more fully rejecting what the classically white education system told her she was supposed to do and by more fully embracing the culture of her community.

Also-- sitting each of those students down with a computer to work on their interactive adaptive education software would also have failed as a substitute for Merriex.

That points to another huge lesson- while reformsters may say, "Look, high standards and hard work erased the effects of poverty," that overlooks the fact that for Merriex, offsetting the effects of poverty was a second full-time job on top of her teaching job. Working with families, providing concrete support for students, providing emotional support for students and families and co-workers-- Merriex was doing all those non-teaching duties with every spare hour she had so that her actual teaching would have a chance of actually being effective. And ultimately, her second full time job of offsetting the effects of poverty required everything she had. To say that Merriex overcame the effects of poverty "just" with high standards and high expectations would be a lie.

I found it humbling to watch her story, to realize that while I can talk about dedicating my life to teaching, I don't mean anything like what Gloria Jean Merriex meant. I've written about the limits of what we can do as teachers, and most of us who teach are aware of those limits, but few of us push ourselves as close to (or over) those limits like Merriex did.

I will be sure to let you know when the completed film is finally released. In the meantime, here's the trailer for what is, for better or worse, a teacher story for the new millennium.

Teach for Privatization in India

If you ever wanted to see how the pieces of the privatization movement in ed reform fir together (though nobody really wants to see that any more than they want to get a close look at road kill or watch video of an operation on their own pancreas), then I have the article for you.

The Nation has a new piece by George Joseph looking at the spread of the spread of Teach for America's operating philosophy into India. This is apparently a different group than Teach for All, Teach for America's own multinational brand. But the founder of TFI met with Wendy Kopp and McKinsey consulting, so it's not exactly a completely independent entity, either.

India's education system is one of the most grossly underfunded systems in the world. Even though they are booming economically, Joseph reports that the most they have ever spent on education is just 4.4% of their GDP (and that peak came sixteen years ago). In 2013-2014, the country had over half a million vacant teaching positions. Only one in five teachers working had ever received in-service training. Half of all schools could not meet the requirement of no more than thirty students to a classroom. And over 91,000 schools had only one teacher.

But TFI features the same old TFA theory of change, which Joseph has summed up as clearly as anyone I've ever read:

 By promising innovative classroom techniques and inspirational leadership, the Teach for All model seeks to transform tremendous material deficits into a problem of character.

His article repeatedly cites individuals who say that India's schools do not need more money, but basically just need somebody smart to whip these kids into shape. Meanwhile, the TFI board includes guys like Ashish Dhawan, an exceptionally wealthy guy who has thrown his money and power behind successful efforts to have public schools simply turned over to private businesses to operate (and profit from).

Against that background of spreading privatization of education, TFI is very clearly not meant to provide students with an education, but instead is to provide field training for the people who are going to become  the movers and shakers and money-makers in the new privatized education business. Though Joseph does not say so, one gets the impression that India's reformsters feel far less pressure to pay lip service to the idea that this is all For the Poor Children.

It's a fascinating look at what the Same Old Reformy Stuff looks like when played out in another culture and country. Follow the link above and read this.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

NJ: A Research Answer to Christie's Terrible Funding Proposal

Imagine that a state decides to stop offering any sort of food stamp program. The governor declares, "Everybody in our state deserves to eat, so from now on, instead of any sort of means-tested system, we will just give five bucks per week to every citizen of the state to buy food with. "

Or a governor from a state like Colorado announces that he's tired of paying so much more for snow removal on mountain roads than he is for small residential streets. Therefor, in the future, he will set aside $100 bucks for each road in the state and that's all each roadway, whether it's a twenty mile road through a mountain pass or a two block street in the suburbs.

Or a parent decides that to be absolutely fair, she will spend exactly the same amount of money on each child, including the youngest one-year-old child, the middle child who has physical issues that confine her to a wheelchair, and the oldest child who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Each one gets ten dollars a week spent on them, and that's it. Because, fairness.

Regular readers know I am all about the illustrative comparison, but the fact is that I am stumped for examples that really convey just how criminally dumb and destructive Chris Christie's proposal to spend exactly and only the same amount on each student in New Jersey. The proposal will be a windfall for wealthy districts and leave poor district further impoverished.

In addition to being brutally crippling, it also reveals a warped attitude about school funding. Christie is clearly approaching education funding as if it's a reward that students earn, and not the instrument by which the state meets its obligation to its children. Christie's approach is like going to the bank and saying, "Well, I guess I will give you as much of this mortgage payment as I think you deserve." Nope. The state has an obligation to its children, and the question the governor should be asking is, "How can we best meet that obligation for all children."

Nobody likes this proposal. Tom Moran, ever a Christie booster, doesn't like it. Erik Hanushek, who has produced plenty of research-like product supporting the unimportance of school funding, doesn't like it.

But if you would like a scholarly, research-based, rational non-invective-laced explanation of exactly how awful this plan is,  Mark Weber and Ajay Srikanth have you covered. Weber has set aside his Jersey Jazzman snark hat and put on his Legitimate Scholarly Researcher hat to produce a report to answer the question, how fair is the fairness formula?

I recommend you read the whole thing, and then, if you live in New Jersey, I suggest you pick up the phone and call some elected official. This proposal deserves to die, but you know that Chris Cjristie does not play well with others.

In the meantime, here's the executive summary of the report to whet your apetite:

Executive Summary

This brief provides a first look at the “Fairness Formula,” Chris Christie’s school tax reform plan. In this analysis, we show:
  • The “Fairness Formula” will greatly reward the most-affluent districts, which are already paying the lowest school tax rates as measured by percentage of income.
  • The “Fairness Formula” will force the least-affluent districts to slash their school budgets, severely increase local property taxes, or both.
  • The premise of the “Fairness Formula” – that the schools enrolling New Jersey’s at-risk students have “failed” during the period of substantial school reform – is contradicted by a large body of evidence.
The “Fairness Formula,” then, would transform New Jersey’s school funding system from a national model of equity[1] into one of the least equitable in the country, both in terms of education and taxation. This proposal is so radical and so contradicted by both the evidence and economic theory that even the harshest critics of school funding reform cannot support it.

Why Investors Love Charter Schools

When you see the announcement that the Waltons want to pump another $250 million into charter schools, you just have to wonder why.

I know the Waltons (of Wal-Mart fame) are big fans of charter schools, but they didn't become gazillionaires by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on things they just find shiny. And if they really wanted to push charters, they have an army of employees that could be incentivized to push charters. Heck, the Waltons are in a position to offer employees some sort of bonus or support to send their own children to charter schools. So maybe the quarter billion bucks is just heartfelt charity. But I have my doubts.

Part of the clue is in exactly what the Waltons want to spend that $250 million on. They're not really pumping money into the charter school industry-- they're pumping money into the charter school building industry. They make the periodically made point that the charter industry suffers from not having Uncle Sugar to buy buildings for them. I'm not sure that's a real problem.

There's a good case to be made for the charter industry being a large real estate scam, and Leslie T. Fenwick made it pretty forcefully a few weeks ago in Valerie Strauss's column at the Washington Post.

In the most recent cases of Washington D.C. and Chicago, black parents and other community members point to school closings as verification of their distrust of school “reform” efforts. Indeed, mayoral control has been linked to an emerging pattern of closing and disinvesting in schools that serve black poor students and reopening them as charters operated by education management organizations and backed by venture capitalists. While mayoral control proposes to expand educational opportunities for black and poor students, more-often-than-not new schools are placed in upper-income, gentrifying white areas of town, while more schools are closed and fewer new schools are opened in lower-income, black areas thus increasing the level of educational inequity. Black inner-city residents are suspicious of school reform (particularly when it is attached to neighborhood revitalization) which they view as an imposition from external white elites who are exclusively committed to using schools to recalculate urban land values at the expense of black children, parents and communities.

But there's more to it than that-- and there has been for sixteen years. We've been reminded repeatedly, but I'm going to remind us again.

Included in the Clinton era Community Tax Relief Act of 2000, and renewed repeatedly since then (it was just upped for another five years in the 2016 spending bill) is the New Markets Tax Credit. Here's the simple explanation from Investopedia:

The NMTC has two components: a 39% tax credit on charter schools contributions over a seven-year period plus the ability to collect interest on the money they contribute. A hedge fund could double its investment in seven years, and the tax credit can be combined with other tax breaks without limit. It is not surprising that hedge funds have flocked to this deal handed out by the federal government. 

Double your investment in seven years.

Double. Your. Investment. In. Seven. Years.

Not only do you double your investment in seven years, but this is not like investing in the latest tech start-up vaporware producer. Risk is tiny. Return on investment is huge. Is it any wonder that hedge funds love charter schools, or that companies like NewSchools Venture Fund, a firm that exists just to put investor money together with charter school projects, are an actual thing. I mean, for all our talk about the Importance of Classroom Teachers, is there anybody running a big company just to recruit and place the very best teachers in schools? No-- just outfits like TFA which, whatever its original best intentions, is now a wing of this moneymaking industry ("You can double your money on the building and, since we've got to put something in the building in order to call it a school, we can hook you up with these low cost, low trouble, quick turnover sort-of-teachers .")

Plus, you look like a real mensch for investing schools. It's like investing in puppies-- everyone just assumes that you are up to something admirable and fine. After all, it's a school. It's For The Children. Who would cast a gimlet eye at such a noble enterprise?

Well, more of us should. "Follow the money" remains good advice when people who have not otherwise shown the slightest interest in a sector of our society suddenly want to plunk down their money and get in the game. The last two decades have been marked by a huge influx of amateurs with thick wallets pushing their way into the education biz; I don't think it's an incredible coincidence that they're able to get rich doing it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Relatively Pregnant

I totally owe this post to Pondiscio's tweet.

First, I share his pet peeve (even though I'm not prepared to bet anything valuable that I've never violated it). You are unique or you're not. You are pregnant or you're not. There is no relatively unique, relatively pregnant.

Put another way, when you go to the doctor to see if you're pregnant or not, the doctor does not say, "Well, let me draw some blood. As soon as I've collected samples from a few hundred other women, I'll be able to decide whether you're relatively pregnant or not."  No, there is no "relatively pregnant."

You take the test. You find out whether or not you're pregnant. You are just as pregnant when you take the test alone as you are when you take it at the same time as thousand so of other women.

Yes, this is yet another way to look at the difference between standards-referenced and norm-referenced testing.

If the Big Standardized Test (PARCC, SBA, PSSA, MOUSE, ETC) were truly a standards-referenced test, a student could take the test and know if she were proficient or not. And that is the implied promise of the BS Tests-- that they will measure proficiency against a standard.

But if that were true, we would not need thousands of students to take the test. One student, alone, could take the test and be told whether she was proficient or basic or whatever. No test manufacturer, no state would have to say, "Okay, as soon as we have the test results from thousands of other students, we'll be able to tell you if you're proficient."

One student, alone, could take the test and be given the results. We would not need the state government, the federal government, and the testocrats to say, "We can't have opt out because every child must take the test because if every child doesn't take the test, we won't get meaningful results."

We have been promised a test that tells us whether or not a student is proficient in reading and math. We were promised a test that would tell us whether or not a student is, in absolute terms, proficient, giving us, as Arne Duncan put it, the power to look an eight year old in the face and tell her whether or not she's on track for college.

What we have instead is a test that tells us if a student is relatively proficient. Which makes no more sense than a test to determine if a woman is relatively pregnant.

Happy Birthday to Another Reformster Miss

Today is the one year birthday of yet another failed reformster PR experiment.

A year ago, somebody mysterious launched Head in the Sand Blog dot org, and its mission was pretty simple.

We are the reasonable middle whose voices are rarely heard in education debates around school reform, the common-sense parents and educators who live and work outside of big urban areas. We want the truth about our kids and schools. We want our own children to succeed, but we also care deeply about making schools better for all children. We are not satisfied with the status quo. We know our schools can improve.

Well, that sounds swell. We don't actually need to read any of the articles to get a sense of where these guys are headed. Just skim through the titles:

Is your Common Core opposition driven by selfishness or cluelessness? 

Why do suburban Mass teachers want to block school choice for the state’s poorest children? 

Our complacent American high schools: The achilles heel of school reform 

Suburban schools are not ready for big-city challenges 

American Delusion: The Kids Are Alright 

It’s PARCC day at school, and we’re not sweating the test 

Opt Outs driven by more than just union propaganda—blame suburban status quo too 

A mom paves a path to math understanding through Common Core 

College remediation: Not just a problem for those ‘other’ kids 

‘Counterfeit’ Diplomas: We’re Killing Our Kids With Kindness 

‘Not-As-Good-As-You-Think’ Schools: Overcoming NJ Suburban Resistance to Reality 

We Are Still A Nation At Risk

Get real: Most grads aren’t college ready

While the site finds time for standard reformy ideas like "Common Core is swell" and "achievement gaps," mostly the theme is that public schools, particularly suburban public schools, suck like an over-amped shop-vac on steroids and those of you who believe your school is okay and refuse to get on a panicked crisis footing-- you people just have your heads in the sand.

As I said, the source of this site is a bit mysterious. There's no "who we are," no links back the organization behind this. However, there are some clues. First, note the attempt in the header to position themselves as the reasonable middle. Now, note the list of featured authors:

Tracy Dell'Angela. Laura Waters. Erika Sanzi. Mike Vaughn. Andrew Wilk. Marisaa Grimes-Galibor. While some of these folks turn up in a variety of outlets, there's just one place where you can find all of them as writers, advisors or even staff members--  Education Post, the rapid response war-room style pro-reform activist group run by former Arne Duncan staffer Peter Cunningham. It's widely known that Cunningham got a $12 million pile of money to run the operation, but it takes the tireless research of Mercedes Schneider to find out where all that money came from-- it wasn't just Eli Broad and it is an exercise is just how incestuous and connected the reformster world is.

Head in the Sand often cross-posts with Education Post, and while they don't seem to have their own twitter account, their posts are often (and mostly only) tweeted by the above featured authors, Peter Cunningham, and Education Post. They have a facebook page with under 300 likes and no conversation.

So it certainly appears that Head in the Sand Blog is one more attempt by the Education Post folks (who are nominally liberal-ish)  to shape the conversation, to create a groundswell of support for the reformster point of view. It also appears to be getting very little traction or attention, but it is still chugging away at the rate of a post or two a week. The groundswell of highly reasonable suburban parents who have suddenly realized that their public schools totally suck because they are overridden with terribly slacker lying teachers unions and really, it would be better for everyone if lots of super-duper charters were brought in-- well, that groundswell doesn't seem to have been manufactured materialized yet. But I'm sure as long as the folks at Head in the Sand Blog have money to keep trying to build that groundswell, they'll keep trying, though I think it's fair to ask at this point exactly whose head is in the sand. happy birthday, you guys.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Caveat Civis

We know the phrase "caveat emptor," rendered loosely as "Let the buyer beware."

If you are buying an authentic Rollex from a guy on a streetcorner, it's on you to make sure that it's an actual functioning watch. If you have bought a used car that turns out to be a four-wheel abomination, while there may be some lemon laws that give you a shot at recovering your losses, it's still on you.

It's annoying for emptors to have to caveat. If you're buying a house and the seller says to your face when asked directly, "No, we never have problems with rainwater pouring down the driveway and into the garage," it's annoying that later, as you're shop-vacking the pond in your garage, you have to kick yourself for actually trusting a fellow human being. It's annoying to realize that you've been suckered by an advertisement that lies, and that the law says that the puffery was so obvious that it was on you to nkow that you were being lied to. It's time-consuming to have to examine every single thing you buy before you put down your money, and there's a certain slow-building corrosiveness to operating under the assumption that you can't trust your fellow humans.

I am always mystified by crooks, by people who make a living doing things like calling little old ladies and conning them into handing over their bank account information. There's something extra discouraging about having to explain to an older relative that she must stop trusting people, but should just assume that anyone who calls her on the phone is probably a liar and a cheat unless proven otherwise.

But we accept all of these things as the price of doing business in a messy, imperfect, human-inhabited world. Caveat emptor.

But we mostly don't expect to have to live by the phrase "Caveat civis"-- let the citizen beware.

Our elected officials, and particularly the people the hire to do the day to day work, who keep the wheels of government and cities and towns turning-- we're supposed to be able to trust those people. Yeah, we know the big shots may very well be crooked, and bureaucracy can be dull and thick-- but the rest of the government is supposed to keep things running smoothly.

We assume, for instance, that when we go to drive across a bridge, it won't collapse. We assume that large objects like cars have been checked by someone to make sure they won't kill us under ordinary circumstances. And we figure mostly when we turn on a water tap, the water will be fit to drink.

As much as we bitch about our government, we still trust it in the small-but-important ways. We expect the lights to be on. We expect the roads to be passable. We expect our currency to be worth something. And when things have been certified by The Authorties to be safe for our use, we assume they are so.

Betrayals like the discovery, first in Flint and now all over, that the water flowing from the tap is poisoned are doubly troubling because we trusted these guys. When we come home after a long, hard day of working and emptoring, we expect to come home to a place that by and large won't kill us. Nobody wants to live that vigilantly all of the time.

Of course, for people of color and people of poverty, it has been caveat civis for a long time. Their list of government officials, departments, and agencies that cannot be trusted is considerably longer than the list for the rest of us. I think a small portion of white resistance to seeing problems in our country with police is a gut-level resistance to seeing, to admitting that we are living more and more in a caveat civis world. But for some people, it's just caveat all day, every day. When we live with caveat emptor, that means vigilance and research, doing your homework and due diligence. Living with caveat civis is worse-- living on edge, on high alert all the time in a hostile environment.

This is one of the betrayals of the modern charter school movement. Schools should be a civis thing, a thing that is supposed to be done right for everybody, and parents and community folks are supposed to be able to trust when they send their kids to school. The school is not a commercial transaction, it's not a business-- there should be no caveat emptor written on the schoolhouse wall.

Charters cling to the "public school" label because it is a marketing dream. It co-opts the very nature of civis, and to the parent and community, it guarantees-- without ever saying so-- that it will be an institution that one can trust. For folks in poor, ill-served public schools, charters do not say, "We'll sell you a better product than you're getting from the government." No, charters say, "We will restore the proper role of the public school. You will be able to trust us in the way you always should have been able to trust the public school-- but couldn't." Public education opened the door to the modern charter revolution by our failures to keep our civis promise-- sometimes because we weren't given the resources, and sometimes because we just dropped the ball. Charters have promised to restore the promise of public education; instead, many have replaced that promise with a business transaction.

What nobody says-- and what everybody should say-- when approaching a modern charter school is "Caveat emptor." To the charter, you are no longer civis-- you are emptor, and it is up to you to do your due diligence. Charter fans scoot past this by emphasizing that parents should have lots of market information and data about the school so that they can do their appropriate caveating like good little emptors. And in the meantime, charters buy tons of marketing and advertisement, to do their best to obscure the hard data.

Instead of restoring the promise of public education, an institution where the civis isn't supposed to have to caveat, charter proliferation creates a chaotic marketplace (on display in places like New Orleans and Detroit) where emptors have to caveat constantly because they no longer have civis standing.

And parents never realize they've been snookered over into a caveat emptor situation (and it is further obscured by the fact that they don't personally pay for the product-- charters are happy to say that it's all free, just like a public school).

But caveat emptor it is.

Did your charter school close unexpectedly in the middle of the year? Caveat emptor. Did the school turn out not to have the programs that your child needs? Caveat emptor. Did the school push your child out with onerous disciplinary actions? Did the school force your child to wet herself in class? Did the school turn out to not even have the qualified staff necessary to teach the classes they promised you?

Oh, well. caveat emptor.

This has been the slickest slight of hand that the charter industry has pulled off-- they have taken the responsibility for monitoring, maintaining, and overseeing schools from elected officials and their hired professionals and put that responsibility on the backs of parents themselves. In shifting schools from a shared civic good to a commercial product, they have snookered parents into the land of caveat emptor without ever saying so.

It is true that elected officials and their hired professionals did not always do an exemplary job. But the public knew how to find them, knew how to yell at them, knew how to light a fire under their collective butts. And what they were looking for was a school they could trust, a school where they didn't have to caveat a damn thing because people were doing their danm jobs. Now, if your charter school isn't living up to your expectations...? Oh, well. caveat emptor. You're welcome to vote with your feet.

There have been calls from some charter fans to ramp up the government oversight a bit. This is partly because charter fans are not all monsters, and also because they understand that too many spectacularly bad charters will destroy the most important marketing tool they have-- the belief of parents that they are still in a civis situation and not a caveat emptor situation. The charter industry already shows the signs of a non-functional free market in the cyber-sector, where schools are universally failing, but are still turning a profit because of favorable lobbyist driven rules and a steady supply of parents who still think, "Well, it's a public school, so surely someone is making sure it's legit." If the invisible hand worked, cyber charters would be almost entirely gone. They are still thriving.

In a well-run, just and decent society, there should be large sectors where caveat emptor is never heard. Caveat civis should never, ever be heard. This is not just a matter of justice or fairness. It's a practical conern for leaders, because if caveat emptor gives way to too much caveat civis, the next thing you're liable to hear is caveat rex-- let the rulers beware.