Monday, April 8, 2019

WV: Lukewarm Charter Baloney and The Questions To Ask

West Virginia remains one of the untapped market for the ed reformster business, and privatizers are determined to keep hammering away.

The most recent attempt involved a little bit of legislative extortion, as lawmakers tried using teacher raises as the sweetener in a bill intended to finally open West Virginia to both charter schools and education savings accounts (aka vouchers). West Virginia teachers were not only unmoved by this cheap maneuver, but they walked out again in a strike that could best be summarized as "No, seriously, when we walked out that last time, we meant it. Also, we're still paying attention ."

As you might imagine, that was not the end of it. Just this morning, the business editor of the State Journal is floating a warmed-over medley of Charter's Greatest Hits. This matters because after the failure of the omnibus education bill (aka giant poop sandwich), the governor decided that the legislature needed to come back for a special session on education. Said Senate President Mitchell Carmichael, "His call into a special session will give all 134 members of the Legislature the time they need outside of the day-to-day pressures of the regular session to be in their communities meeting face to face with the people who will be most affected by these issues." i'm sure that's it, and not something else like, for instance, a hope that maybe later Certain People won't be paying quite so much attention to what the legislature is up to.

But this morning's editorial is a compendium of chartery baloney fried leftovers. For West Virginians who need a key to this stuff, here are some key questions to ask when you hear one of these arguments being used.

One oft-quoted voice is Senate Education Committee Chair Patricia Rucker, who ran against Common Core and for local control and parental rights, but who loves her some charter schooling.

The state needs more vocational and technical education. Agriculture is also big in WV, and Rucker heard there are some charter schools that focus on technology and agriculture. This is a continuing theme-- since WV has no charters, all charter information is what somebody heard about this charter somewhere, which is a testament to the charter business's PR machine. Key question here: Is there some reason that CTE and agricultural education could not be effectively, efficiently, and economically incorporated in the public education system? What was the last time that someone got an idea for a new educational emphasis in K-12 and declared that whole new private schools would be required to launch it?

“We know there’s a lot of at-risk students, be it because of trauma or kids in the foster care system,” she said. “There’s a lot of kids being raised by grandparents. I’m going to sound like a commercial, but there’s a charter school for that.”

Well, yes, you do sound like you're trying to sell something. But again the question is, is there some reason that public schools can't be used to handle challenges like children being raised by grandparents?

Rucker cites the Learn4Life charter chain of California as specifically for at-risk students. Key question: how well does Learn4Life actually work? That question is key because Learn4Life is a highly problematic chain of personalized [sic] learning stations that have failed pretty spectacularly-- in 2015 the chain's average grad rate was 13.73%, with two branches achieving 0% graduation rate. Management has a habit of obfuscating its tracks. Students report that Learn4Life was simply sitting in isolation working through "packets."

Rucker notes that consolidation has closed some community schools. Charters, she speculates, could open some of those. And maybe-- one of the charter schools that I actually think is swell did exactly that, with community members chartering a community school that had been closed by a larger district. But the key question here-- how would that work, exactly? And would charter operators be interested in moving into such a thin market with fewer students, or would they go after the larger markets? Memphis, for example, has a continuing problem in that charters don't want to open where they are actually needed. Charters are private businesses; they will open where they want to, not where you wish they would.

Rucker observes that some charters were started by teachers with ideas and a thirst for freedom. Key question: how many, exactly, in the last ten years? How many of those teachers were just Teach for America temps who had only spent a couple of years in the classroom? It is true this can conceivably happen, and that it was a popular selling point for charters a few decades ago. But that is not a realistic picture of the charter business these days.

Rucker also offers the Big Lie-- charter funding won't hurt public school funding. Okay-- she doesn't exactly tell that lie. She just wants her audience to hear it without her saying it (because it would be a lie). See how she does this:

As for funding, Rucker insisted there wouldn’t be a drop in public school funding. The funding would just be shifted to schools re-designated as charters, and it would still have to pass through the state Department of Education, she said.

Yes, total money handled by department of education would remain the same. Key question to ask: Would charters take away from the funding of my local school? Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. And while your local school may have a smaller piece of the funding pie, there's no reason to believe expenses would drop (if you lose two students per grade, how many teachers can you cut and how much less heat does your building need?) Key question: West Virginia has been consolidating schools and districts to save money. How would adding more schools and parallel private districts aid in that process. Spoiler alert: it wouldn't. No business expects to save money by opening extra facilities.

Charters would still have to answer to boards of education, because if they didn't fulfill their promises, they could be closed every five years. Key question: How has this process worked in other states? Because in many states, it turns out to be really, really hard to get a bad charter closed.

Allowing charter schools also would increase local control over education, Rucker said, adding that communities know what they need more than officials in Charleston.

Key question: Are you nuts? Okay, that's not helpful. But this is another time to ask how things have played out elsewhere, because charter schools have generally been the antithesis of local control. The large chains involve command structures located far away from individual communities, and even smaller scale charters are operated as businesses, and their management is no more locally controlled than any other business in your town. Charter fans have been very clear that charters should not be run by elected boards, and that elected officials are a problem to be avoided. She's not wrong that local communities are good judges of what they need, but that has nothing to do with charters, which (I cannot say this enough) are businesses. Your community may really want a Red Lobster, but if no developer thinks they can make money putting a Red Lobster in your town, you aren't going to get one.

A criticism of charter schools in West Virginia is that outside corporate interests, rather than students or teachers, will be the winners. Rucker said that criticism comes from the fact she consulted with the nonprofits National Alliance for Public Charters and the Institute for Justice. She insisted her consultation was only for assistance in drafting the language for SB 451.

This is a fun non sequitor. No, people think charters will serve outside corporate interests because that's generally how charters work. Key question: How many West Virginia based, owned and operated organizations are ready to start a charter right now?

But Rucker is correct that she is taking heat for letting charter school lobbyists write the proposed charter school law for West Virginia. It's a shocking thing for her to admit. Just last week a landmark study showed thousands of bills being written by corporations instead of the people elected to do the work. That would be what Rucker did with SB 451. Key question: How can we expect any oversight or accountability for tax dollars when the lobbyists for the businesses that hope to profit from the bill are writing the bill?

“We should be incensed that we had another statewide strike over a few charter schools,” said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and a proponent of the schools. “How much worse than 49th can we get?”

We only wanted to set fire to the porch. Why are you acting as if we were threatening the whole house. Key question: Why do you think you're 49th? How do you imagine "a few charter schools" would fix that?

Roberts says all the cool states already have charters. Some even have waiting lists! Key question: Is there any reason to believe those waiting lists represent real demand? Also, if the other states jumped off a cliff, would you do that too, young man? Yes, other states have charter sectors-- it hasn't gone super well in all cases, so one might also ask What steps and safeties are needed to make sure a state's charter sector is successful and not a mess like those outlined in various reports like this recent one showing a billion dollars in charter waste and fraud.

“This is something that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump agree on because they’ve done the research,” Roberts said, adding that while states without charter schools are mostly rural, that doesn’t mean urban areas in West Virginia couldn’t benefit.

Yes, Donald Trump is famous for his tendency to extensively research educational issues. Roberts is correct in saying that charters are popular with some folks of both parties. But a key question here might be: What research? What can we learn from it? And was any of it conducted by third parties and peer reviewed?

The rural-urban thing needs to be examined because (as I may have mentioned) charter schools are businesses, and so they go where they have a chance of making money. For a variety of reasons, that means urban, not rural, areas. Even if that's where you want them. So the question becomes, how badly do you want to see your urban public schools hurt financially by an influx of charters. You might want to take a look at how things have gone in Detroit.

Roberts gives an example of schools in an urban area where it's not safe to travel to school early in the morning, but a charter could start later, which-- really? Is there a special West Virginia law that sets when school starts. Because if starting later is the solution for a school's problem, which seems easier-- start the public school at a later time, or open an entire separate school to start at a different time??

Roberts responds to the criticism that charters cream only top students. This is an oversimplification-- charters also are criticized for admitting mostly white students, or for avoiding students with expensive-to-handle special needs. Charters do all of that even when, as he proposes, there are lotteries for admission. From advertising that shows a particular type of student to the absence of certain program to pushing out students once they're in, charters have proven to be adept at managing their student bodies.

Roberts says it won't happen because these will be public charter schools, which shows that he's up on current charter talking points, but charters are not public schools. Key questions: Who will own the school? Who will elect the school's board of directors? Where will I go to attend a charter board meeting or see the school's financial information?

The editorial also turned up one anonymous (because she fears retaliation) parent who thinks that maybe charters could help her child with dyslexia, because she heard a charter in Ohio did that. Key question: What keeps public schools from using such a program?

The piece wraps up with some more lukewarm support:

Richard Kirby, a member of the Calhoun County Board of Education, said while charter schools might not be the best fit for his county, given its small student population, he supports giving them a try because they will still be regulated while avoiding the restrictions of the public school system.

“I’ll also admit that I’m not sure I know how it will work, but I support the idea,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”

Kirby said if charter schools succeed, the lessons learned could be applied to the state’s other schools.

SMH. Key question: How do you know they'll be regulated, and which regulations do you think will be in place? Also, when it doesn't work, but it still cuts a giant hole in Calhoun County's school budget, will you maintain your casual indifference? Also, are you aware of ay educational programs, anywhere, that have been developed by charter schools and then shared with public schools? (Spoiler alert:" No, you haven't. Neither has anyone else.)

There's also a math teacher who says that for every charter school mismanaging public funds "I can find five public schools that have mismanaged them." Key question: Are any of the public school cases as spectacular as the million dollar self-deals or frauds perpetrated by some charters? We should also note that public mismanagement is easier to find because public school finances are transparent and open to public scrutiny, while charter finances are not (a lack of transparency that charter operators have gone to court to protect).

An Ohio transplant observes “How’s it going to hurt when we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel?” That's just dumb. You can always make things worse, and one way to make things worse in a public education system that's already struggling and underfunded is to reduce its funding even more. That's how it could hurt.

Our last resident says he saw some research about charters improving student achievement in Idaho. That, of course, just means raised test scores. Key question: Do you just want schools to get students ready to take a standardized test, or do you have higher aspirations?

Charter fans are unlikely to let up on West Virginia any time soon. Supporters of public schools will need to stay vigilant and vocal, even in the face of arguments as weak as those floated here. Good luck to them.

1 comment:

  1. There are charter schools that have served their districts well and shared their success with other schools. Too few to be sure but they do exist. Check out some in Minnesota and New Mexico for examples.