Wednesday, April 9, 2008


The charter school movement was created to "reform" the public schools. So far, it hasn't proved its merit and contains some dangerous and damaging elements. Those fighting for good public schools might turn the battle around by a drive to reform charter schools, exposing their flaws and weaknesses while adopting some of their benefits, the primary one being decentralization. The following was written for our local DC news page but many of the things mentioned apply elsewhere.

SAM SMITH, DC CITY DESK This sounds weird, I know, but I find myself wondering whether one way to battle DC Mayor Fenty's plan to close more than a score of public schools - a strange approach to improving anything, especially education - is to investigate the possibility of turning some of them into charter schools.

Not any old charter schools, but ones run by the community in which they sit - with a board including teachers, parents, appointees of the ANC and so forth - rather than vague and alien gifts dropped on the neighborhood by the Fenty and business crowd. Not schools modeled on 7-11 franchises but organic institutions growing out of the community they are to serve. With new rules and new goals. And new designs, based on ways to make spare building space bring income to local education rather than be used as a mayoral giveaway to friends and contributors.

There may not be time, there may not be the energy, but a campaign for real, public, neighborhood charter schools might substantially alter the debate, putting politicians and the developers on the defensive for a change. After all, if charter schools are as good as they say, why can't communities run them, too?

The goal would be to create a new model that, unlike the present charter system, is not in competition with the public school system - heading it towards a revival of its early 19th century pauper school status. The goal would to combine the best of charter schools - their decentralization - with a structure that revives the democratic control that vested interests are trying so hard to eliminate. In DC they have been remarkably successful, even eviscerating the first icon of home rule - the elected school board.

The big problem with charter schools right now is that if they aren't better than existing schools - and there is no convincing evidence that they are - then there is no reason for them. And if they are - or become - better than existing public schools, a two tier system will have been created no matter how much the charter crowd insists that they're just as open to everyone as the regular system. For example, I've heard charter advocates brag about how their schools are enticing public school teachers, which is great for them, but not good for the old system. Further, in order to get into one of the charter schools you have to apply. This may not seem like much, but it is precisely the sort of factor that creates a cultural gap. The determined, the knowledgeable, the brave apply. The weak, the beaten down, the confused don't. And you end up with a two tier system.

In fact, there is no way current charter schools can be better than the regular system without the latter being the second best place to send your kids. It is, as it now stands, a subtle but extremely effective attack on public education.

Obviously, there are some advantages to charter schools, but they may not be as mysterious or as unique as their advocates think. Some years back a Virginia school system experimented with small sub schools featuring different educational approaches. When they studied the results they found that students in each of the sub schools did better, regardless of the approach taken. The conclusion: it was the sense that they were going to a school that mattered and that cared about them that made the difference.

So why not throw a Hail Mary pass before the Fenty fusillade is successful, as it presently appears it will be? Demand that some of the schools be recreated in a modified charter school model with extensive community control - a new approach that is not in opposition to the public schools, but is a prototype towards which the rest of the system might move. For example, I have long urged a group of mini systems based on each high school and its feeder schools, led by a board of teachers, parents and other citizens.

What the wheeler dealers ignore in this battle is that most of what happens in school goes on in a classroom in which the bureaucracy and the system are for that hour irrelevant. The point is to find the best teachers and to give them the best support. For over two centuries, America did this well based on decentralized, community controlled education. The answer is not to turn the system over to educational hustlers - as encouraged by Fenty, the business lobby and the editorialists at the Washington-Kaplan Post - but to rediscover a system that worked.

After the above appeared we got this note from the co-founder of Save our Schools, a parent of three

GINA ARLOT, SAVE OUR SCHOOLS - What you describe in City Desk is very similar to what Albert Shanker, the man who first used the term "charter school", hoped would happen if a group of parents, teachers and others got together to start a charter school. It was hoped that by having a school fully invested in by the community, with some innovative idea, we would be able to determine quickly what worked and what didn't in public education and with feedback loops back into the overall system, everyone would benefit. Education Week had a fairly big commentary on the back page recently written by a man who has written a bio on Shanker. What happened is that after the neo-cons stopped criticizing the concept, they realized that it would help them achieve their dearest dream-privatizing a sacred government function, and as a bonus, the teachers and other school workers unions would be destroyed. It was a pretty interesting commentary about how the whole idea of charter schools has been taken over and totally corrupted.

What follows is a collection of information that may be useful to those interested in pursuing the approach suggested above. Included are some of the things wrong with the current undemocratic charter school system.

NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION - Nearly 40 percent of newer charter school teachers flee for other jobs, according to a recently released study. Charter school students do no better than their public school counterparts on math and reading assessments, and in some cases score lower, according to this national study. . .

In 2004, the National Assessment Governing Board released an analysis of charter school performance on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as "The Nation's Report Card." The report found that charter school students, on average, score lower than students in traditional public schools. While there was no measurable difference between charter school students and students in traditional public schools in the same racial/ethnic subgroup, charter school students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored lower than their peers in traditional public schools, and charter school students in central cities scored lower than their peers in math in 4th grade.

Students taught by certified teachers had roughly comparable scores whether they attended charter schools or traditional public schools, but the scores of students taught by uncertified teachers in charter schools were significantly lower than those of charter school students with certified teachers.

Students taught by teachers with at least five years' experience outperformed students with less experienced teachers, regardless of the type of school attended, but charter school students with inexperienced teachers did significantly worse than students in traditional public schools with less experienced teachers.

In a study that followed North Carolina students for several years, professors Robert Bifulco and Helen Ladd found that students in charter schools actually made considerably smaller achievement gains in charter schools than they would have in traditional public schools.

From a guide to converting public to charter schools

Why should we consider converting our school to a public charter school?

Converting to public charter school status permits parents, teachers, and administrators to create the kind of school they want for the children who attend. They can do this because public charter school status confers independence, control, and significantly increased funding at the school level.

Each charter school is an autonomous public school organized as a non-profit corporation governed by its own board of trustees. The trustees have exclusive control over the school's budget, instructional methods, personnel, and administration. Charter schools hire whom they please, spend their funding as they see fit, and, within the bounds of their charter, control their own curriculum and instructional methods.

Because charter schools are not connected to DCPS, their funding comes directly from the D.C. government. The amount of funding is prescribed by the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.

What are the risks?

Unlike traditional public schools, public charter schools can be closed down if they do not perform well. Charter schools that mismanage funds or break the law can be closed down at any time. Schools whose students do not improve academically can be closed down after five years. A conversion school that is closed down for any reason is likely to revert to a school-system school.

What happens to our current students if we convert?

Under the School Reform Act (D.C.'s charter school law), students enrolled in a converting DCPS school receive preference in admission to the charter school, as do their siblings. All students within the neighborhood boundaries of the converting school also receive preference. Any remaining seats are filled by students from around the District.

What about teachers and staff?

Conversion requires the endorsement of 2/3 of the school's full-time teachers. After conversion, the board of trustees determines who works at the charter school. Former DCPS teachers who work at a charter school receive "creditable service" under the District's retirement system for the entire period of their employment at the charter school. These teachers may elect to remain in the District's system or to transfer into the charter school's retirement system once it establishes one.

How do we get started?

The first step is to study the petition form and become thoroughly familiar with the application process. Next, you should begin educating your teachers, parents, and the community in which your school sits about the pros and cons of conversion. Once there is general agreement about moving forward, you should pull together a steering committee or founding board to begin the process of developing a shared vision and mission for your new school and to prepare the petition.

This summary points to some of the changes needed in the charter school law.

SAVE OUR SCHOOLS - Charter schools were supposed to be laboratories of innovation to improve public education in DC, but instead are laboratories of privatization that are destroying public education and draining our public resources. Since being imposed by a Republican Congress in 1996, it has become obvious that charters are the false promise of reform in DC public schools.

Charter schools are not performing any better than the public schools. In 2006-07, only 9 out of the 43 schools chartered by the Public Charter School Board reached testing benchmarks established by the No Child Left Behind law.

Only 1 out of the 3 "highly touted" KIPP schools met AYP in 06-07

When kids fall through the cracks, the results can be tragic, but charter overseers don't care:

Charters do not have to provide access to all students.

Since charters don¡¦t have neighborhood boundaries, no one is entitled to go to a charter school as a right. However, by law DCPS has to educate all students.

Many charter schools require parents to sign contracts that include mandatory meetings, "volunteering", and "activity fees."

Students are frequently "counseled out" if they are not meeting discipline and academic expectations. This usually occurs after October when charters receive funding for students. Money does not follow the students out of the charters and into DCPS.

The constant movement of students in and out of charter schools is disruptive both to the students and the receiving schools. Students can easily fall through the cracks because there is no uniform tracking system or truancy policy in charter schools.

Charters are costing the city millions of dollars and spend more per capita than DCPS:

Many heads of charter schools make excessive salaries. The Chairman and CEO of Friendship Public Charter School made $260,000 in 2006.

Charters are using DCPS buildings and resources and not putting anything back in the system: Maya Angelou Charter School pays DCPS around $200 per student each year to rent Evans MS despite receiving around $3,000 per student each year in facilities allotment - that's $450,000.

Charter Schools are not public All are owned by non-profit corporations and are only accountable to their boards of trustees.

Even if a charter closes, its non-profit foundation can keep the building.

Three of the 7 Charter Board members live in Maryland or Virginia. „

Kaplan is the education corporation owned by the Washington Post that is helping it stay afloat.

EDUCATION WORLD, 2004 Increased accountability demands on educators have led to more districts and teachers turning to outside resources for help. Among those resources is Kaplan, Inc., a company traditionally known for its test-preparation programs. Kaplan now also offers after-school education centers, as well as programs for K-12 schools, post-secondary education, and professional training. Seppy Basili

As Kaplan's vice president of learning and assessment, Guiseppe (Seppy) Basili guides strategy and product development for Kaplan K12 Learning Services. He has helped Kaplan K12 Learning Services design and deliver instructional programs to more than 1,000 schools nationwide. He also oversees in-house professional development programs. . .

EW: Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, in what areas are schools seeking the most assistance from Kaplan?

Basili: NCLB really is creating enormous change in schools - districts are connecting data to faces in ways they haven't before. Those districts are turning to Kaplan for a range of services - from intervention services for students with the greatest need to professional development for teachers. Districts also are turning to Kaplan for solutions, such as the Achievement Planner learning platform - a comprehensive solution that includes formative assessment, state testing analysis, and targeted lesson plans.

EW: How do you respond to some educators' concerns that they are being forced to "teach to the test" more than ever now, and that it is adversely impacting education?

Basili: While traditional thinking is that teachers shouldn't "teach to the test," the educational landscape has changed during the past several years. Today, we live in a world of criterion-referenced tests, which establishes a proficiency baseline that every student should be able to perform at. State tests are based on state standards. There's no problem whatsoever in having tests that are standards-based and standards-driven.

DC WATCH, 2004 In 2002, Michael Sherer at The Columbia Journalism Review reported that the Washington Post Company had paid lobbyists $80,000 to monitor the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001. Sherer overlooked the fact that the Post Company has journalists at not only its namesake newspaper the Washington Post, but at Newsweek and many other media outlets who could "monitor" and report on the legislation. But Sherer was getting at a point regarding the journalistic integrity of the Post Company and its media outfit because of a certain conflict of interest. The Washington Post Company is not only a family newspaper but is a company with a very profitable non-media subsidiary called Kaplan Educational Services.

Not surprisingly, DC's "failing" schools or schools with stagnant standardized test scores have been a lead story over the last week at the Washington Post. Two reports outlined the initial announcement of "failing" schools and questioned whether or not money was available to pay for the tutoring that was due to the students in those schools. For those owning stock in the Washington Post Company, this was good news both locally and nationally. But for those outside of the Post's corporate lair, doubts linger as to whether or not this will be a continuation of bad public policy.

The Washington Post Company's 2003 Annual Report breaks Kaplan down into two divisions: Supplemental Education and Higher Education. The more profitable of the two is Supplemental Education, which has a long history as a test prep provider. Sherer infers that the Post lobbied Congress to get legislation into NCLB that would further the profits of Kaplan and therefore the Post Company and its shareholders. Sherer goes on to state " Overall, the newspaper's editorials have supported [NCLB's] interests, calling for higher school standards, the use of vouchers, and further exploration of online education."

The Post Company's Kaplan is one of nineteen approved NCLB supplemental service providers on the District of Columbia Public Schools' list from which parents have been able to choose. By 2003, Kaplan had already received at least one $90,000 contract for services from DCPS or $10,000 more than the Post Company reportedly paid a firm to lobby Congress on NCLB in 2001


Congress imposed charters on DC in 1996.When they proved unpopular, Congress created a special Public Charter School Board to encourage the creation and expansion of charter schools. Charter schools are an example of Congress’s disrespect for home rule and their undemocratic meddling in local affairs.

But aren’t charter schools well meaning?

Charters were pitched as innovative models of reform that would help DCPS improve. There are some good and well-intentioned charter schools, but as a whole charters are part of a national movement to privatize all of our public institutions and services.

Aren't charter schools public?

Charter schools use public money, but every charter school is owned, operated, and governed by a private corporation and Board of Trustees. Many charters receive additional funding from private foundations and wealthy individuals, further weakening public accountability. Also, charters don’t have to follow the rules and regulations of DCPS for enrollment and retention of students or for the hiring and firing of teachers and other school workers.

But can’t anyone go to a charter school?

Charters are not neighborhood schools. Prospective students must fill out applications and are selected by citywide lottery. Often parents must attend meetings and agree to volunteer time or pay “activity fees” before their children can register. By selective outreach, specialized curriculum and niche marketing, charters can target specific types of students and ignore others. Once accepted, students can be expelled or encouraged to withdraw for social, disciplinary, or academic reasons.

Aren't parents just "voting with their feet" when they send their children to charters?

Not necessarily. DCPS buildings have been neglected and the school system overall has lost resources, staff, and programs. Most parents would choose the neighborhood school down the street if it was clean, modern, well-staffed, and well-maintained.

But aren’t charter schools improving educational opportunities for students in the District?

No. Even charter advocates agree that “quality” remains a problem in charter schools, and public schools continue to outperform charters. Even worse, charter schools are creating a dual and unequal education system DC-charters enjoy political support, get large amounts of money from private corporations, and can decide who they want to remain in their school and who they don't. DCPS has to accept everyone, including students put out of charters. Far from fixing decades of political neglect and underfunding of our public schools charters have only made the situation worse.

Do charter schools contribute to segregation, displacement, and gentrification?

Segregation: A study by the Project for Civil Rights at Harvard University shows that charter schools contribute to segregation by race and class. Charters can purposefully attract a certain type of student through targeted recruitment and niche marketing. Being a parent of a charter student generally requires far more resources (for transportation, system navigation, student fees and parent volunteering), which further discriminates against lower-income families. Also, if students do not fit in with the school's mission for disciplinary, academic, or social reasons, they can be dismissed midyear or asked not to return the next year. With this kind of subjective student selection, charter schools are clearly achieving a separate and unequal education based on race and class.

Privatization: Charters are an important step towards systematic privatization in which corporations and wealthy individuals make decisions for everyone else about how students are educated, what communities need, and what happens to available space. Because charters operate outside DCPS and the city government, their ownership of a school building takes the building out of the public domain and makes it private property. Even if the Charter fails, the private owners keep the building and land, rather than returning it to public ownership. Once this transition is made, the public has no access or decision-making power. They are cut out of the picture.

Gentrification: As segregators and privatizers, unaccountable to the people or the democratic process, charter schools are fundamental to the process of gentrification. How better to drive poor people of color out than to undercut access to public education, to sell off public property as “surplus” and hand it off to gentrifiers? This is not only racist and greedy, it shows an utter lack of respect for the people of Washington DC.

Are all charter schools bad?

Individual charter schools may provide a wonderful educational experience for students who attend them, and may perform well and have high retention rates. However, all charter schools are part of a system that threatens equality and justice in public education and the local community. Unless a charter school actively works to protect the community in which it is located and the DC public school system, it is a part of the problem

RICHARD D. KAHLENBERG, EDUCATION WEEK Twenty years ago this month, in a landmark address to the National Press Club in Washington, American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker first proposed the creation of "charter schools"-publicly funded institutions that would be given greater flexibility to experiment with new ways of educating students. At the time, some conservative education reformers opposed the idea, saying we already knew what worked in education. Today, the positions are reversed: Conservatives largely embrace charters, while teachers'unions are mostly opposed. How did the notion of charter schools evolve over 20 years? And might a return to Al Shanker's original idea improve the educational and political fortunes of the charter school movement?


At April 10, 2008 11:53 AM, Blogger Lars said...

I have a few comments on education from my own personal experience.

My mother has been an elementary school teacher for over 25 years and is retiring this year. She's retiring for the wrong reasons though. Her departure is because of the No Child Left Behind Act and how it is taking autonomy out of the classroom (something Sam's article attests to, giving more autonomy to local schools). The increased emphasis on testing has created a host of problems. Use of unreliable curriculum. Purchasing of largely useless high tech equipment including laptops and "smart boards" for all classrooms. And finally, centralizing more of our educational process. Most teachers are highly trained, independent thinkers who went into the profession for the personal satisfaction of teaching. It's harder and harder to feel that you have influence in a classroom with the way edicts are coming from on high.

In regards to the charter school fad, I'm from a rural area of Massachusetts. My former school now has only 50 students in it from grades K-4. At least half of the students have departed for the greener pastures of charter schools. Many of these parents can't tell you a concrete reason why they now send their children to a charter school, other than it's different. But I suspect many parents would be very excited about my former elementary school with it's ~10 pupils per class. As quasi-public schools, the Charters don't exempt students from NCLB testing so the supposed freedom of the charter is not as great as advertised. The many appeal seems to be that instead of passively sending their children to the local school, these parents are making an active decision in their children's education. It used to be that this decision was made at the high school level for many of my peers where they would either stay local, attend the area vocational school, or attend another public school for the purpose of athletics (my school lacked football and cross-country skiing).


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