Thursday, October 23, 2014

Should We Embrace Charter Districts

First in USA Today, and a few days later, a bit more expansively in the Hechinger Report, Richard Whitmire argues for the embrace of charter growth, particularly since charters are starting to look like school districts.

We'll look at the Hechinger Report version, because it allows Whitmire to lay out his complete argument. It's an impressive compendium of almost every pro-charter argument ever made, and it manages to get very little correct.

More than twenty years ago when charter schools first got launched in Minnesota no one envisioned that one day we would see charter management networks growing to resemble medium-size school districts.

Probably not true. I think plenty of people called this one. More importantly, I think plenty of people interested in the charter business were absolutely banking on it.

Whitmire goes on to applaud the greenlighting of fourteen more Success Academy branches in NY. He cheers that the rapid expansion of the chain doesn't seem to have hurt the quality, and that even students in freshly opened branches have gotten swell test results.

"Regardless of your personal opinion of charter schools versus traditional schools," says Whitmire, "that’s remarkable."

Well, no. It isn't remarkable at all. If Success Academies, say, retained all of a starting class to the point of graduation instead of losing more than half, that would be remarkable. And if that wholly retained batch of eighth graders qualified for one of NYC's top high schools, instead of having to just move into another Success Academy berth, that would be remarkable. But it's not what happened. Raising standardized test scores is not the same thing as providing a quality education-- particularly if you drop the educating to focus on weeks and weeks of preparatory drilling. There is nothing remarkable about creaming a select student population and training them to get better test scores to the detriment of everything else.

Of course, there are larger chains than Success. Others reach greater states of hugification, but Whitmire is thankful that "only the best charter networks were allowed to grow to this size." It begs the question who, exactly, is "allowing" the growth, but okay. All of these large chains are, he claims, able to catch these students up with a year-and-a-half of learning for every year in the classroom. Measuring student learning in years? Not an ounce of support that that is actually a real thing.

Whitmire knows the secrets that allow charter chains to scale up. For instance, there's this:

...their ability to attract some of the nation’s brightest college graduates as teachers. Many of those teachers move on to other careers, but they stay long enough to make a difference.

So, TFA temps make charters better (I am curious-- how long exactly is "long enough to make a difference"?)  Sure, they may have little or training, and contribute nothing to the stability of the school. But at least they're cheap, easily replaced, and don't draw a pension. Whitmire has that stability thing covered-- charters are also great because they establish a common classroom culture. In other words, if you have a strong policies and procedures manual, you can plug any warm body into a classroom without making a difference.

Whitmire will trot out the old canard that charter schools are public schools. I've explained what four requirements must be met to earn the name "public" and I don't think the charter chains are meeting any of them (including Success Academy, which went to court to keep their finances secret).

He notes that charters have waiting lists out the whazoo, and cites Success as an example. Interesting choice, given Success's well-documented high-priced recruitment/marketing campaigns.

Whitmire does admit that charter networks don't take as many special education students. He also allows as how charters drain resources from public districts, forcing them to downsize "to meet diminished demand," which is incorrect. Public schools downsize to meet diminished funding, which would be easy if there were, in fact, a diminished demand. But when one kid leaves a classroom a charter, the students left behind still demand a fully resourced classroom.

When a charter kids leaves public school, she takes 100% of her funding with her, but she does not take 100% of the costs that she incurred for the district.

Whitmire proceeds to sign a song of many charter successes. Except they aren't successes. Tennessee's ASD is a mess. He claims that charter vs. public competition in DC benefits students on both sides. And he spends a whole paragraph touting the miracle of New Orleans, which appears to be only a miracle of PR. Like many hotbeds of charterfication, New Orleans' success has been in getting tax dollars directed to corporate pockets. Educating children? Not so much.

And why is it that no charter advocates want to talk about one place that is really working on implementing the New Orleans model? Where are the songs of praise dedicated to One Newark? Could it be that in New Jersey, charteristas have been freed to Do As They Please, and what they've created is a horrible, horrible mess. (If you want a link, read the collected works of Jersey Jazzman-- this is a mess so large that one blog post can't hold it.)

On the home stretch, Whitmire admits that some charters aren't pulling their weight, and he thinks that the authorizers should be all over their chartery butts.

But the growth of high performing single charters, as well as these larger CMOs such as IDEA, KIPP and Uncommon Schools, should be welcomed, not stonewalled or smeared with conspiracy theories about “privatizing” education.

"Conspiracy theory" is a polite and classy way to dismiss somebody as being crazy wrong. But when the state legislature of New York passes special laws requiring New York City schools to hand over real estate to the private company that runs Success Academy so that they can rake in the money (but not account for it, even as they pay their boss a cool half million) -- well, I'm not sure what that is, if not "privatization." I mean, it might come up short of "privatization" because it is being paid for with "public tax dollars," but other than that "splitting of hairs" I'm not sure what Whitmire is "talking about."

And as a last shot "These charters are successfully educating thousands of students destined to fail in traditional neighborhood schools." I'm impressed that we can tell the destinies of these students in alternate universes. I would like to peek over there and see how many of the students left behind in thanks-to-charters underfunded schools would have been destined to succeed more easily. Nor do I understand why charters, with their special destiny-o-vision, send so many students back to public schools.

But that's the whole compendium. Whitmire has sandwiched in just about every piece of marketing copy ever used for charters, while simultaneously answering none of the legitimate criticisms of the modern charter movement. He also manages to avoid the very question he raises-- why exactly is a larger charter chain better than a single charter? More layers of bureaucracy? A central office far away from your child's actual school? He never did tell us why size matters here.

It's a herculean effort, and a good piece to bookmark if you want access to All the Pro-charter Arguments. But for me, I'm going to hold off on the whole embracing thing, thanks.
It's an impressive compendium

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