Monday, September 28, 2015

Charters Are Not Common Schools

Charter boosters continue trying to muster some sort of argument against the decision in Washington State that the charter laws there violate the state constitution. So far, none of the attempts really sing.

Over at Campbell Brown's PR site, the 74, Andrew Rotherham (Bellwether) and Richard Whitmire (general reformsterism) make the argument that charter opponents are "on the wrong side of history" and that charter schools are the true common schools. You will not be surprised to read that I disagree.

In truth, the ideal of the common school is one the country has never lived up to. While we romanticize the common school, people too frequently forget that those schools were at different times not open to blacks, religious minorities, or, until the 1970s, students with special needs and disabilities. 


Despite serving those groups today, the continuing trend of segregated housing  and the staggeringly uneven performance of different public schools prompts this question: What exactly is all that common about the common school anyway?

First, it's important to recognize the True Parts of what they are saying-- ever since this country latched onto the idea of a common school and public education, we have struggled with living up to that ideal. This is not surprising-- as public institutions under public control, schools have reflected and expressed every twist and turn, every shameful lapse and every difficult step forward in the public life of this country. Public schools have not always delivered on their promise, and in some places, are still not delivering on it today. 

So when I oppose modern charters, I don't do so with the insistence that public schools have no problems. They have plenty of problems (just like, and because of, the problems in the country as a whole). Those problems are real. But charter boosters are not proposing solutions to them.
Take "segregated housing," which is having a moment as a reformster buzzword. I'll view it as something more than a rhetorical trick when it is accompanied by a discussion of how to address that issue directly, or a spirited stand against trends such as gentrification in which rich folks are allowed to drive poor folks out of their neighborhoods. Of course, some critics argue that charter schools are in fact tools of gentrification. So this point will carry more weight where charters are proposed as a part of the solution and not part of the problem. Show me a charter that promises to take every single student from its home neighborhood-- every single one, without exception. Show me charter operators who stand up for their poor customers and advocate for housing regulations that protect those poor citizens from being pushed out. 

How else do the writers advocate for charters as the new common school?

Rotherham and Whitmire argue that charters are getting results, that they are hothouses for growing innovation. But after all these years, charters still have nothing to teach public school. Not one pedagogical technique, not one educational innovation to point at that has spread into public education. What charters have "discovered" is what public schools have always known-- if you don't have to accept every single student in your neighborhood, without exception, without excuse, AND if you have ample funding and facilities, AND if you can also narrowly define "success" (as, say, a pair of scores on a single standardized test)-- then you can do much better than schools that don't have all those advantages. None of this is news to anybody.

In other words, where charters can point to anything like success, it is precisely because they are NOT common schools, fully and equally open to all students within their reach. 

Rotherham and Whitmire also argue about accountability, but these are arguments hold no water at all. None.

That accountability starts with parents who choose those schools, or don’t, which is the ultimate accountability.

That is not even close to the ultimate accountability. The ultimate accountability is a school board that must stand for election, and which must answer to parents and community members who show up at public meetings to speak their mind. Accountability is parents and taxpayers who may see a schools financial records any time they want to. Accountability is parents and taxpayers who can call a school at any time to question what goes on within those walls. Are there school districts that try to weasel their way around all of these things? Absolutely-- and they do it to avoid accountability, and they have to weasel around to do so because no public school can simply say, as Eva Moskowitz did to the entire state of New York, "We're a private corporation and you have no right to look at our books."

"Voting with your feet" is a lousy form of accountability. If you walk out of a restaurant and never come back, those owners have no idea of what to improve, and the restaurant just closes-- still unsure of why. It does no good for schools to close repeatedly. It does not serve student interests to be shunted about from failed charter to failed charter.

Charter advocates have taken to saying that the closing of charter schools (at least 2,500 in the last fifteen years) is a sign of a healthy system, a feature the public system ought to emulate. But why? Why treat schools as disposable pop-up businesses? Students and communities benefit from stability-- not constant churn and burn.

Charter schools are not common schools. They don't take on all students in a community. They are not accountable to citizens in that community.

Some public schools may well be disastrous messes, but charter operators propose to save just some of the students, and in the process make matters far worse for the students they leave behind. I would give charter fans points at least for consistency if they said, "Public schools are failing, so we'd like to replace the whole system." But they don't. They say, "Public schools are failing, so we'd like to replace just some parts of the system-- the profitable parts."

Rotherham and Whitmire salt their argument with talking points that simply aren't true. They cite The Prize including Russakoff's incorrect data about costs in Newark-- you can get the truth here and here. They praise New Orleans for having "toughest public oversight," despite NOLA's scattered and uncoordinated charter non-system having no accountability for knowing where students are.

And Rotherham and Whitmire pull up the old refrain of union's and "adult interests," suggesting that the Washington decision was all about the teachers' unions. And having made their case, they summarize:

So which school better serves the common good, the traditional school that barely keeps its head above water and is awash in the politics of the various adult interests or the high-performing charter that can use its autonomy to focus on students?

Again-- let's acknowledge the true parts. Public schools are awash in the politics of various adult interests, because there are many, many, many interests that intersect at schools. Parents. Teachers. Taxpayers. Business. Vendors. Anybody anywhere in the community. All of these people have interests in the school, including those like parents and teachers who also speak on behalf of the interests of children.

What Rotherham and Whitmire are suggesting is that education is better served by silencing ALL of those people, and substituting the wisdom of the charter operator, who is not "awash" in all those interests because he is free to ignore any interests he feels like ignoring. What they call "autonomy" is a lack of accountability, a freedom to ignore taxpayers who pay the bills but have no school-age children, parents who don't fit the charter's vision, elected officials who are accountable to the citizens, and, yes, those terrible awful teachers and their unions. It's true: democracy is messy, and sometimes you don't get your own way.

Just shut up, they say, and watch how well we make the trains run on time.

Charter boosters are next going to argue, "So, what? We're supposed to abandon students in those failing public schools?"

It's a fair question, but I have to point out that every charter does, in fact, abandon a whole bunch of students in schools that have had resources stripped by charters, making it harder to help those abandoned students. But no-- we're not supposed to abandon anybody.

So what should we do?

Take care of the true common schools.

Fully fund each and every one. Keep the elected board awash in politics, which is just another way of saying that the community should keep pressure on for what they want. In fact, state government's also need to be awash in politics so that states like Washington will stop ignoring their obligation to fully fund each and every school. Improve teacher training, and take steps to make the profession more attractive. Roll back the idiocy of Common Core and the Big Standardized Test and let teachers teach. And make a larger national effort to address poverty in both its causes and effects.

Charter fans dismiss and write off "failing" public schools, but they have never put half the effort into improving existing schools that they have thrown into creating new ones from the ground up. I watch the huge amounts of money and activism and money and influence-peddling and money that the charteristas sink into promoting and creating and funding and advertising charters, and I think about how much we could help public schools with that sort of concentrated effort. Think of what could be accomplished with so many resources focused on the common good, and not just return on investment.


24 comments:

  1. Great as always. I'd maybe have more sympathy for charters if they weren't actually increasing segregation:

    http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/news/press-releases/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/choice-without-equity-2009-report

    Also, minor note, the reformy author's name is Andrew Rotherham, not Rotherman.

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    1. Oh, names are never minor. Thanks for that catch.

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  2. It should be noted that Richard Whitmire was Michelle Rhee's first hagiographer. His latest book was an ode to John Danner and Rocketship. The man is a slow learner. Or perhaps just one of those who doesn't value education.

    Incidentally, when you talked about "innovation", I've been musing on that very topic. What exactly would innovation in education look like? What hasn't been tried? Whichever end of the political spectrum you hail from, we've tried it. Military schools. Traditional desks-in-rows, teacher up front, back-to-basics, bunch-o-facts, dead white guys canon schools. Religious schools. On the other end we have progressive schools, Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, schools without walls, unschooling, you name it. We've used nearly every form of technology in nearly every way possible. What's left that hasn't been tried?

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    1. Are there any schools that are Montessori or Waldorf that have been tried as public schools or even charters? Because where I live the only Montessori are private and there are no Waldorf. Is there some reason they're too expensive to scale up?

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    2. I believe there are Montessori public schools. I know there are progressive public schools. My "hometown" (where I lived for 6.5 years of middle and high school) added a progressive elementary school a number of years ago (in one of the most conservative areas, no less). All of Winnetka, Illinois public schools are progressive. I'm not as familiar with the specifics of Montessori and Waldorf, but there's no reason that progressive education in general has to be terribly expensive. It's a about the process, not the materials or the facilities or the other bells and whistles. All you really need is a safe building and dedicated, compassionate teachers.

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    3. The bureaucracy of public schools plays a part in keeping methods like Montessori and Waldorf in the private sector. Each of those methods has its own teacher training programs, and gives its own certification. The standard education certificate awarded by most cities would not allow a teacher to work in a Montessori or Waldorf classroom. If a whole elementary school were to be Montessori, getting the appropriate certification would be expensive -- and who would pay that cost? In addition there are a lot of misconceptions about progressive education, and it could be hard to get an entire school district to agree to have even one school that used one of those methods. On the other hand the city of Reggio Emilia has managed to do this for the past going on 70 years, so we could learn a lot from them. I would love to see more of the principles of progressive education incorporated into our classrooms -- and they are being almost completely lost in our present test-mad environment.

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    4. Traditional zoned schools can not provide the sort of specialized approaches to education like Montessori or Waldorf schools. Too many families inside the catchment area will object to that approach to education and too many families outside the catchment area will object to being shut out.

      The only way that a school board can justify sending students from the 500 block of Maple street to a different school from the students on the 600 block of Maple street is by making sure that the two schools are not different in any dimension that matters.

      There are many Montessori charter schools. Here is a place to look for ones in your area: amshq.org/School-Resources/Public .

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    5. Our school district has many different types of schools besides the traditional. We have two longer-day-and-year elementary schools, a robotics magnet high school, a blended (online curriculum) alternative high school, a high school for students who are pregnant or mothers. All the high schools have skill centers and students can transfer to a different school if it has a program their home school doesn't, including foreign language, of which we offer six in total. We also used to have three elementary schools that offered foreign language, and an International Studies Center that offered seven languages to students and the (paying) community. There's no reason we couldn't have a "progressive" school also, and if people liked it, it could be expanded. But it would take activism and the will of someone in administration or the union. And a better economy than we have right now, to develop a new program.

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    6. Rebecca,

      My guess is that none of those different types of schools are traditional zoned schools. Open enrollment schools are subject to many of the same criticisms of charter schools. For example, does your high school for pregnant students accept "every single student from its home neighborhood-- every single one, without exception"? If not, it fails Peter Greene's test.

      Interesting that you say that having a progressive school would take the will of someone in administration or the union. The will of parents and voters is not enough?

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    7. The school for pregnant girls and mothers take all girls in those circumstances in the district that want to go. But the different skill centers are all part of traditional zoned schools, as were the three elementary schools that offered foreign language. Those schools' language classes and the International Studies Center were discontinued when central administration lost interest. The district doesn't pay any attention to what parents want, even if enough of them know enough to present concerns about anything specific, which doesn't often happen. All the ideas for these schools came either from central administration or the union, or a combination of both.

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    8. I looked at your amshq website. The school finder doesn't work very well. I managed to find that there are no charter Montessori schools within 25 miles of me, only 2 private ones, before it stopped working entirely, but I'm sure there aren't any within 100 miles.

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  3. In case you missed it, Wayne Au has some good responses to his pro-charter critics in Seattle Education this week: https://seattleducation2010.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/dear-liv-yes-a-loss-for-alec-and-the-privatizers-makes-me-happy/ The pro-charter folks are getting particularly nasty in their propaganda now.

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    1. Thanks for the link! I found especially important that Ms. Finne, director of a policy center which is a member of ALEC, held up as a model a charter school for homeless kids which, as Dr. Wu shows, is really horrendous.

      I also found insightful Dr. Wu's explanation of Ms. Finne's lack of understanding of her own business model: she accuses Dr. Wu of wanting to close schools, when the mantra of the model she advocates is competition and "Bad schools close" -- after failing and abandoning the students. So her model always entails closing schools.

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  4. Oh, come on, Peter. SLANT is a groundbreaking innovation; a game changer.

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  5. "that those schools were at different times not open to ... until the 1970s, students with special needs and disabilities."

    OMG, they did not really say that, did they? Gary Hart moment--flashback to the 1980s and a presidential campaign when the candidate said he was not cheating on his wife and if the media did not believe him, they should follow him. The media took up the challenge and caught the philanderer.

    Gary Hart: charters are the worst when it comes to accepting and servicing students with special needs. Or why would the state of Florida identify that as a problem and offer special grants to charters to work out how to help students with an IEP?

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    1. I think this depends a great deal on the specific charter school. Many charter schools, including the oldest like the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, are set up specifically for students with disabilities.

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    2. "Many charter schools"? Name some others. You're awfully good at repeatedly trotting out one example and trying to claim it's a trend.

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  6. Great post Peter, and thanks for the shout out Laura B.! Peter, feel free to share my response around if you want.

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  7. Rebecca,

    My guess is that none of those different types of schools are traditional zoned schools. Open enrollment schools are subject to many of the same criticisms of charter schools. For example, does your high school for pregnant students accept "every single student from its home neighborhood-- every single one, without exception"? If not, it fails Peter Greene's test.

    Interesting that you say that having a progressive school would take the will of someone in administration or the union. The will of parents and voters is not enough?

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    1. Apologies for the double post.

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  8. Yep. Only a matter of time before TE references Walton Rural Life Academy or whatever it's name is.

    And in reference to open enrollment, I teach in one. And guess what? We take EVERY kid that lives in our zoned district (who wants to attend our schools) along with hundreds more that live outside the district. We also have specialized programs and work with the county ISD for CTE programs. The possibilities here are highly varied.

    Of course, we're running low on cash and had to change our schedule and lay off over 10% of our teaching staff last year as a result of budget cuts from the state. The problem is continuing to finance these programs.

    And, TE, you're not getting rid of those zoned districts. You know why? The tonier neighborhoods don't want anyone to get in without residency. It's the very same people who are the so-called philanthropists. They promote charter schools, but send their kids to Ann Arbor Greenhills and Detroit Country Day. They'd never dream of letting in kids who didn't fit (unless they're stud athletes). Understand that the only districts around us that are NOT open enrollment are the wealthiest neighborhoods.

    This is where your argument falls apart. The residents of upscale communities consider it a privilege to live in that community. With those privileges come certain benefits, in their estimation. They'd say: Why let in someone who hasn't earned that privilege? They have a vested interest in keeping it exclusive.

    You know, like a charter school that reverse engineers student selectivity. Like nearly every charter school that I've encountered. We're bracing ourselves for the influx of students we'll get after Count Day. The charters get the per pupil funding but we'll get their tests scores. And we can't say no because we're open enrollment!

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    1. Steven,

      I am glad that your school faces no capacity constraints that would require students to win a lottery for admission. My district has no open enrollment schools (other than the school board run charter high school) for district residents, much less folks outside the district. The structure of K-12 education is highly local.

      I was not making an argument to get rid of traditional zoned schools. I was making an argument that school boards have an incentive to enforce uniformity across traditional zoned schools within the district. Do you see flaws in

      I certainly agree that parents who pay the extra money to buy their way into desirable catchment areas defend their purchases. You might want to look at the debate going on in Brooklyn about rezoning: http://gothamist.com/2015/09/22/dumbo_school_rezoning_fight.php

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    2. I appreciate that, but you didn't make any mention of the severe restraint and problems we face under current legislative policies regarding achievement gaps, test scores and funding. Essentially, we get punished for doing the right things. We accept EVERYONE, we have varied programs, and we really have a truly diverse student body. But we get killed on everything else. Let no good deed go unpunished.

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    3. Steven,

      There are many things I did not mention because I was posting about the inherent uniformity of schools in a district that result from traditional zoned school systems. In posts about other issues I no doubt mention other things.

      Did you notice that one of the important concerns of parents in PS307 about the rezoning is that if the school had more relatively wealthy students at the school they would lose their Title 1 funding? The federal government is, in essence, paying school districts to concentrate relatively poor students in a single school. Spread the students out and the funding goes away.

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