Thursday, May 21, 2015

PA: Another Charter Boosting Plan

Pennsylvania is joining the list of states contemplating an Achievement School District. This is a great mechanism for replacing public schools with charters, disenfranchising taxpayers, and wasting a ton of money, but the push is coming from Sen. Lloyd Smucker, the Lancaster Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee even though he is no friend of public education in PA.

Smucker is proposing the bottom performing 5% of PA schools be given a choice-- either "transform" themselves by turning charter or "contracting with outside providers" and fix things in three years, or the state will take them over and then turn them into a charter or hire an outside provider to run them. So, hey-- actually, no choice at all! Schools that fall under this category will also get to scrap union seniority rules. And Smucker would like to include a parent trigger rule as well. So a veritable smorgasborg of corporate profit opportunities educational transformation.

Of course, the beauty of the 5% rule is that there are always schools in the bottom 5%. Theoretically, you could eventually end up converting a considerably larger percentage of your total schools.

The proposal frames this as a state takeover, and that's a bit odd since it presumes that the folks in Harrisburg apparently know the secret of educational success and they've just been holding out on us all these years. But it's not really a state takeover-- it's a state handoff, in which the state takes control of the schools away from local voters and taxpayers and hands that control over to charter operators. That's the beauty of the ASD.

If you are unfamiliar with the term, here's a quick primer:

Reformsters love how things worked out in New Orleans. A major disaster hit the city, crushed its public school system along with everything else, and cleared the ground for the installation of an all-charter system, the Recovery School District. That system allows the state to install a management board that serves as the maitre d' at a big, ole school buffet, giving various charter operators the opportunity to step up for their big fat slice of the tax dollar pie. Arne Duncan famously called Hurricane Katrina "the best thing that happened to the schools in New Orleans" and reformsters sat at home quietly dreaming of natural disasters obliterating all public schools across America.

But there's just never a natural disaster when you need one, so in most areas refomsters have had to settle for the slow-motion man-made disasters of funding cuts and "failing" scores of Big Standardized Tests. Combined with reformsters in charge like Tennessee's Kevin Huffman (the first TFA grad to be put in charge of an entire state's education system) man-made school disasters opened the door for Achievement School Districts.

The principle of an ASD is the same-- in theory, the state takes over some schools and lumps them together in a state-run school district. In practice, the state hires charters to come in and run the schools. An ASD is simply another mechanism for privatizing public schools.

How's it working? Well, New Orleans is now a charter paradise, with no public schools left at all. This means no neighborhood schools; every morning students travel back and forth across the city in a crazy quilt of bus routes to get to their schools. Local taxpayers have been completely disenfranchised, democratic local control of schools is gone, and families are pretty much at the mercy of schools that get to pick and choose their students ("school choice" it turns out to mean "school's choice").

As far as academic results go, there are mixed opinions. It's the opinion of everyone who's making money from the charter system that it's doing great. It's the opinion of everybody else that it's not. The failures of the RSD have been extensively documented by bloggers Mercedes Schneider and Crazy Crawfish, among others.

The ASD of Tennessee has produced similar results, converting a chunk of Memphis schools to charters with no improvement to show for it, despite claims that it would "catapult" the bottom 5% of schools into the top 25%.

So why are we considering this, exactly...?

Top reformster ronin Mike Petrilli (of the privatization-loving Fordham Institute) stopped to offer his well-paid opinion, and it offers the argument for an ASD.

It starts with the premise that "failing schools are, by and large, a creation of dysfunctional school districts." Here's Petrilli's explanation of how ASD's make everything All Better:

The genius of the Recovery School District and the Tennessee Achievement School District is that they pluck failing schools out of their dysfunctional districts and give them a new lease on life. They pump new blood into these schools with new staffing arrangements. They get rid of the sclerosis of the arteries by cutting through the red tape of overbearing central offices. But they also bring accountability—and a willingness to pull the plug if, despite heroic efforts, the patient still isn’t getting better.

It's a picturesque way to put the argument. It sounds so much better than "We take away local control, fire all the teachers and replace them with low-cost temps, and install a new bureaucracy that isn't accountable to anybody but owners and investors. But charters will totally retain the right to close up the school (even in the middle of the year) if they decide the business just isn't working for them."

Petrilli also trots out a Fordham study that purports to show that having your school closed and getting yourself booted to some other school is awesome. This study is not very convincing. It is even less convincing coming from the guy who has said that charters exist to save worthy wheat while leaving the chaff behind.

ASD vs Philly (and about those civil rights)

Currently, a big chunk of those bottom 5% schools are in Philadelphia, which makes this extra Kafka-esque, because that means the proposal is that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should take control of the schools away from-- the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

But launching the ASD in Philly would keep one aspect of these turnaround plans consistent-- from New Orleans to Holyoke to Nashville, the rescue efforts consistently involve taking local control away from non-rich, non-white citizens. Because school reform involves overdoses of irony, the "civil rights" issue of our day involves taking away community schools and a democratic voice in running them from poor, Black Americans.


Mike Wang is executive director of Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, a group that advocates for charter expansion through the usual use of highly selective/inaccurate data, thinks this sounds awesome and claims it has worked in other states, which is true if by "worked" you mean "made some charter folks a ton of money." He says, "It seems to be really grounded in empowering local school districts to address their lowest-performing schools." Which is true is by "empowering" you mean "stripping of all control over their own schools."

Donna Cooper of Public Citizens for Children and Youth calls the proposal "a diversion and a smokescreen," which I think is a little unfair, since it's actually pretty clear what the proposal is about, if you just look.

But thank God for the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, Senator Andrew Dinniman, who according to "said that although he had not seen the proposal's details, he believes there cannot be a conversation about how to adequately deal with consistently low-performing schools without a serious discussion about the impact of poverty on education."

So if you're in Pennsylvania, you might want to take a moment to let Dinniman (and Smucker, too, if you have a taste for brick wall head banging) know that this is, indeed, a terrible idea designed to dismantle public education and sell off the scraps.


  1. So what happens if charters are in the bottom 5%? Can they get turned back around?

  2. In Philadelphia that just happened, but the SRC calls it a "turnaround of a turnaround". They are giving a "low performing" independent charter to charter management company Mastery. The two-tier school system is on track, Mastery Charter one system and underfunded public schools the other.

    Mastery poised to take over another Philly charter

  3. Do students who graduate from schools in an Achievement School District get Little Lebowski Urban Achiever certificates?