Wednesday, May 22, 2019

OH: Do Charters Need The Freedom To Hire Great Teachers?

If there's one thing that charter school advocates never run out of, it's arguments about why charter schools should get to ignore some of the rules of education.

Fordham Institute's blog, Ohio Division, recently ran a piece in this genre, written by Jessica Poiner-- "Give charter schools the freedom to hire great teachers."

Poiner graduated from Baldwin-Wallace University with a BA in English (perfectly nice school--my niece graduated from BW) in  2011, then put in her two Teach for America years in Shelby County, including seven months as a teacher leadership coach (we talk a lot about how five weeks of training don't prepare you for the classroom, but we should talk more about TFA's notion that a year or so in a classroom qualifies you as an educational leader). She put a year in Tennessee's ill-fated Achievement School District. That positioned her to join Fordham as an Education Policy Analyst in 2014, where she's been working since.

Poiner has several parts of her plea for relief of the helpless charter industry.

More Warm Bodies, Please

The foundation of this discussion involves some arcane bits of Ohio teacher certification. One of the less-noted features of ESSA (the newest batch of federal education law) was that it scrapped the "highly qualified" requirement of No Child Left Behind and replaced it with basically whatever the state wanted to define as properly certified. If you go through a traditional teacher prep program, you get a regular certificate and all is hunky dory. But if you came to the classroom through alternative means, you get a long-term substitute license to hold you over until you complete your proper education education (this, in fact, is how I entered the profession forty years ago).

Under NCLB, that long-term sub license was considered, somehow, enough to count a teacher as highly qualified. But under SB 216, the Ohio Department of Ed says your long-term license doesn't count. If you are on your way to a proper certificate, that really shouldn't be a problem. But if you are, say, a Teach for America person who has no intention of actually pursuing a teaching career, it could be an issue. And if you are a charter that depends heavily on TFA and other temps to staff your school, it could be a real issue. According to Poiner, the Ohio budget is poised to fix this by saying basically that charter teachers don't have to be certified.

So Poiner opens her post about how charters need the freedom to hire great teachers by expressing her hope that the state will give charters the freedom to hire people who aren't teachers at all. Poiner cites some bad research (I just don't have time to travel down that rabbit hole right now) to back up the assertion that certification doesn't necessarily matter, and then, referring to the proposed elimination of credential requirements, writes what I have to assume is a Freudian typo-- "there are few reasons why that's a good idea." And I agree-- I can think of no reasons that letting any warm body play teacher would be a good idea, but since she starts to list reasons, I'm guessing she meant "there are A few reasons." Mind you, I am not here to critique her typing-- she'll be a very old typing person by the time she catches up with me in the maladaptive typography department-- I'm just trying to be clear about where she's going.

Autonomy in exchange for accountability

This has always been a great slogan, but I'm not sure how charter advocates in Ohio deliver it with a straight face. Again, not going on a big side trip, but let's pick a single example-- ECOT, the Ohio online charter that went on for years defrauding Ohio taxpayers and using all manner of shenanigans to avoid being held accountable. Or the Horizon chain, which is linked to the Concept chain, allegedly part of the Gulen network of charters.

Yes, Ohio does hold charters to some standards that all states ought to, like state report cards. Ohio does have an automatic closure law that forces charters with too many bad report cards to close-- except that by 2013 it was already obvious that the law was rendered ineffective by its loopholes. Poiner assures us that "persistently low-performing schools don't stick around indefinitely," so, therefor, they should be allowed more hiring "flexibility." After all, she points out, charters can fire teachers quickly, without any of that "due process" baloney, a point that as worth noting as we move on to her next argument...

Competing for talent

A Fordham survey of charter school leaders showed that many struggle to find good teaching candidates, and they blame that on the pay. That's because the state doesn't give them enough money to allow them to offer competitive salaries.

There are a couple of problems with this argument. First, if charters are having trouble finding the money to pay teachers, they might try looking at their administrative budgets. Here, for instance, is the EdVantages non-profit that pays its management team over $400K-- far more than comparable public school superintendents with comparable student loads. This is consistent with study after study after study that shows charters spending more money on administration than a typical public school system-- waaaay more money if you figure it on a cost-per-pupil basis. And then there's all the taxpayer money that charters spend on advertising.

So when Poiner writes "Low teacher pay is a direct result of the state's inequitable charter school funding," she is being disingenuous. Most charters have plenty more money-- they just aren't spending it on teachers.

I'm so old that I can remember when charter school advocates pitched their privatization plans by touting their ability to do more with less. "Charters will save the state and the taxpayers money," they declared. Oh, those were the days. Nowadays, charteristas sing a different tune-- "We should get more money. We deserve more money. We need more money. Give us more money." (I'm paraphrasing.)

But competing for talent isn't all about money. That total lack of job security thing? Not an attractive quality. "We reserve the right to fire you at any time for any reason" is not a competitive recruiting tool in the education world (which may be why over the years there's been so much reform emphasis on trying to force public schools to take the same stance).

Charters are supposed to be a field dominated by hardnosed business people who understand how the free market works, but as with bosses in the private sector, somehow their understanding of free market mechanics stops when it comes to labor costs. If charters want more high quality teachers, they need to make their jobs more appealing-- not just monetarily, but in terms of security and professional respect and autonomy. Charters are notorious in the teacher world for giving staff little or no say in how the school works, or even in how their own classroom will work. "You will do things our way, every day, and follow the script we give you exactly," is, again, not an appealing pitch.

Who is it appealing to? Charter operators, because under- or un-qualified worker bees are cheap. They settle for low pay, lousy benefits, and aren't even thinking about a pension. One big reason that charters would like to be freed from any requirement to hire qualified personnel is the same reason that McBurger joints want the minimum wage to stay low and would absolute fight any requirement that their cooks be actual trained chefs.

Charters have been around long enough to develop a well-earned reputation for being, on the whole, lousy places to work. If charters want to attract better teachers, they will need to address that issue. But Poiner's argument here is that since charters can't attract the really good teachers, they should be given more flexibility in hiring whatever warm bodies they can get their hands on.

Attracting better charter networks

Poiner says gosh, we have some fine charter networks in Ohio, but we need to attract more out-of-state network's too, and that means making Ohio into a "more attractive market." See, now we're not even pretending to talk about education-- we need to get some more of these businesses in here by fixing the rules so that they can make more money.

Two things I notice here. Poiner calls strictly for charter networks. We're past the point of talking mom-and-pop charter schools, and we're past the point of talking about teacher-led charters (no, former TFA temps don't count). It's strictly big business now, and that means the notion that it would be a good idea to have Ohio children educated in a school run by a board that meets in some other state. There is not even an attempt here to paper over the features of charters that opponents object to. Corporate privatization of public education. Loss of local control. It's all good.

The second thing I'll note is that we've made it to the end of this piece, and somehow it has never come up once that Fordham Institute has a financial stake in all of this business. But Fordham is an Ohio charter school authorizer with a whole portfolio of buckeye charter schools. So this whole piece is not unlike an article entitled "More people should receive grants to buy cars" written by a rep from the Ford Motor Company.

Searching for warm bodies

Poiner wraps up with this plea:

To be clear, exempting charters from certification or licensure requirements wouldn’t result in a free for all. Teachers would still need college degrees, be subject to background checks, and, importantly, have to answer for the performance of their students on state tests and report cards. It merely maintains charters’ freedom to hire nontraditional teachers and assign them to a wider range of grade levels and subject areas. 

In other words, please let charters keep hiring TFA temps. As long as the test scores are good, what else matters? What else do the taxpayers of Ohio want from their schools other than good test scores?

Do Ohio charters need the freedom to hire great teachers? Who exactly has taken  that freedom from them? They have made some choices about how to use the taxpayer money they're given, and they've made some choices about the working conditions for professionals in their school, and now they are facing the consequences of those choices-- choices that they freely made. The headline to this piece is an exercise in whiplash irony. What Poiner is arguing for is not the freedom to hire great teachers, but the freedom to hire any kind of warm body they can get their hands on and stick in a classroom, arguing that the charter oversight and accountability that have failed Ohio so far will somehow keep the teacher quality high.

My advice to Ohio charters is the same as it has been to everyone in education whining about a teacher "shortage"-- if you want to hire good teachers, offer a good job with good pay under good conditions in a good atmosphere. Ohio charters already have all the freedom they need to do that. What they'd really like is the freedom to make a charter more like a McDonalds, staffed by easily replaced meat widgets. It isn't great for students, but it's awesome for that bottom line.

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