Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Get It While The Gettin’s Good"

Recently I’ve been complaining about what I see as funny business going on re Jerry Brown’s charter schools here in Oakland (see here and here). A fellow public school parent with whom I have corresponded about local education issues from time to time recently wrote to me to express her emerging soft spot for those, and other charters. She was curious about what I might have to say in response. Here’s an excerpt from her message:

... I'm somewhat heartened that [my son] can search and find a tuition-free school in Oakland that jives with his interests and gives him hope that he will realize his goals, whether or not his parents can afford them.

That's kind of a big deal. Isn't it?

Maybe it's wrong, but I have to admit, I like to see bright, motivated, Poor Oakland kids getting the same opportunity that Rich Oakland kids do to choose, focus and be set apart from the rest, not to mention, in school communities where they don't have to worry about fitting in.

I find myself grateful for folks in positions of influence (there are others, in our midst even) who are shrewd enough to take private dollars from tycoons, gamblers, big corps (aka sinners) and put them to good use on behalf of kids who need such education options...

So I composed the following response.

Thanks for sharing these things with me. I can certainly understand that on one level charters might be fine. Thanks to the venture philanthropists and their friends, a select group of kids get a beautiful building, a ton of amenities, a chance to bond with each other, and certainly many will do well.

Now as far as OSA goes, last year’s percentage of kids qualifying for Free or Reduced Price Lunch was 20%, much lower than almost any school in OUSD. For a school with 408 students in grade 6-12 , that amounts to about 81 kids. In addition, the school had a high parent education level (3.64), so the typical kid at OSA is fairly well off and has educated parents, not the same profile of a kid at a typical OUSD school. I’ve heard that a whole group of kids from [X local elementary school] has headed there. It’s a good chance that they are upper middle class and are impressed with the school’s new digs, too.

So in view of those demographics, how much is OSA really the savior for Oakland’s many low income children, an "accomplishment" that Jerry Brown enjoys mentioning? To me it looks like he is diverting the truth for his own political gain.

No one can discount the positive benefits of any school that is working out well for a specific individual, like your friend who attends Envision (which is primarily a Gates funded school I believe), or those you might know who went to OSA. I just can’t stop thinking about the tens of thousands of other kids in Oakland who don’t, and never will, get almost three times as much spent on them at their schools (this is the case at OSA).

Why don’t we ever hear the pro-charter forces talk about increasing education funding to the level that would provide high-quality settings on a large scale? Why don't they talk about taxing corporations and the wealthy more equally? Why don’t the philanthropists jump in to fund things that are needed at the traditional schools, like feasibility studies for bringing in healthier school lunches, or school library and technology support, etc.?

The reason for this, that I and many others have come to understand, is that the goal of the pro-charter forces (which are definitely corporate-power connected and driven) is NOT to address the needs of the vast majority of disadvantaged kids. The ultimate goal of the charter movement is to undo urban public education and to minimize the cost of taking care of all those extra, unwanted kids who, for the most part, are a drain on the society. This type of efficiency management is how big business thinks.

Part of their plan is to spread the fallacy that all of those kids will be going to college; the fantasy keeps everyone distracted. Do people really think that the children of the lower class masses will be permitted to claim the bulk of the college admission seats traditionally reserved for the children of the middle and upper classes? With skyrocketing college costs, do people really think that all the poor kids are going to be able to afford college?

The fixation on college-for-all as the only solution for people’s futures is a red herring to distract people from the fact that there are not enough decent paying jobs with benefits for all the people in this country. The corporations eliminated those decades ago so they could reap higher profits by installing non-human technology and by employing peasants in other countries for $2 a day. American employees are expensive.

This movement really picked up steam during the pro-business Reagan years. Concurrently, the phrase “education crisis” was created so public education could be blamed for the increasing gap between the rich and the poor and the rising lack of opportunity in America.

In this phase of the charter movement, it is very important that the promoters make their schools look extra fine. This is done by creaming students and getting a lot of supplementation for programs from the venture philanthropists. In addition, they make sure the superiority of their schools is highly publicized. If you read the outline of the whole plan here, you'll learn that friendly editorial boards are very important to this faction.* You'll also learn that their goal is to gain more and more of the market share so the traditional public school system gets weaker and weaker. Make no mistake – wherever there are no charter caps, the goal will be to convert all public schools to a system of charters.

In the future, communities will not be able to be involved with any aspect of their schools. Say bye-bye to school boards, School Site Councils, teacher unions, school worker unions, and other community-member involved bodies. Say hello to a vestigial form of the school district that only takes care of the unwanteds: special ed and behavior-problem students. Decisions will be made by the CMOs (Charter Management Organizations) [Local charter schools will be allowed to have pretend school boards with the CMOs CEO calling the shots from corporate headquarters]. CMOs like Aspire, Envision, Green Dot, KIPP, and Imagine will be the “big box store" equivalent of public schools. This is where America’s urban schools are headed.

It’s like this.

The pro-charter forces have collected some money to set up a free banquet in a large hall. Those peasants who mostly have their acts together have learned about the banquet and have made sure to be the first in line. The doors have opened and 100 or so peasants have been admitted in so they can have a feast.

The pro-charter forces say, “See, we’ve fixed the hunger. The peasants are getting fat!” With the public’s focus set to gaze on this small group of success stories, it keeps everyone else distracted from the millions of others who are starving in the streets.

By the way, people in my camp are very alert to the fact that public military schools for inner city kids are all the rage, especially in Chicago, Arne Duncan and President Obama’s home town. I guess that will be something to do with all those extra kids. [Read how enlistment standards have been lowered.]

From what I’ve determined, charter schools, even though they may seem innocent and good, are not socially benign by any stretch of the imagination. It’s human nature that most people just want to “get it while the gettin’s good,” rather than to involve themselves with the more complicated issues.

That piece, along with the fact that the charter-opposition is not highly funded, is why warnings about this misdirected education reform movement can’t seem to get any traction.

*Just read what Ken Libby turned up From the Vault:

This piece is part of an essay written in early 2008 by AEI/Fordham's Andy Smarick, a former Bush II Domestic Policy Council member tasked with K-12 and higher education issues (my bolds):

Here, in short, is one roadmap for chartering's way forward: First, commit to drastically increasing the charter market share in a few select communities until it is the dominant system and the district is reduced to a secondary provider. The target should be 75 percent. Second, choose the target communities wisely. Each should begin with a solid charter base (at least 5 percent market share), a policy environment that will enable growth (fair funding, nondistrict authorizers, and no legislated caps), and a favorable political environment (friendly elected officials and editorial boards, a positive experience with charters to date, and unorganized opposition). For example, in New York a concerted effort could be made to site in Albany or Buffalo a large percentage of the 100 new charters allowed under the raised cap. Other potentially fertile districts include Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Washington, D.C. [To wit, the Oakland Tribune published an editorial praising the Hoxby study, but kept mum about the CREDO results]

Third, secure proven operators to open new schools. To the greatest extent possible, growth should be driven by replicating successful local charters and recruiting high-performing operators from other areas. Fourth, engage key allies like Teach For America, New Leaders for New Schools, and national and local foundations to ensure the effort has the human and financial capital needed. Last, commit to rigorously assessing charter performance in each community and working with authorizers to close the charters that fail to significantly improve student achievement.

In total, these strategies should lead to rapid, high-quality charter growth and the development of a public school marketplace marked by parental choice, the regular startup of new schools, the improvement of middling schools, the replication of high-performing schools, and the shuttering of low-performing schools.

As chartering increases its market share in a city, the district will come under growing financial pressure. The district, despite educating fewer and fewer students, will still require a large administrative staff to process payroll and benefits, administer federal programs, and oversee special education. With a lopsided adult-to-student ratio, the district's per-pupil costs will skyrocket.

At some point along the district's path from monopoly provider to financially unsustainable marginal player, the city's investors and stakeholders--taxpayers, foundations, business leaders, elected officials, and editorial boards--are likely to demand fundamental change. That is, eventually the financial crisis will become a political crisis. If the district has progressive leadership, one of two best-case scenarios may result. The district could voluntarily begin the shift to an authorizer, developing a new relationship with its schools and reworking its administrative structure to meet the new conditions. Or, believing the organization is unable to make this change, the district could gradually transfer its schools to an established authorizer.

The entire article can be found here. As Jim Horn concluded:

As this strategy gains steam, the old canards that were used to justify more charter schools are, each day, becoming more transparently false in their claims. Almost quaint, you could say…


caroline said...

This quote from the organization Rethinking Schools sums up the issues regarding the way charter schools may benefit a select few but harm the many:
"The elixir of an individualized bailout from a struggling system has serious side effects, however. It can create a painful wedge in many communities, especially among African-Americans. It can weaken the political will for a collective solution to the problems in public education; and it can promote the deterioration of traditional schools. As highly motivated and engaged families pull their children from traditional public schools, urban districts have fewer resources – both financial and human – to address their many problems. The worse the schools get, the more appealing the escape to charters and private schools, all of which feeds into the conservative dream of replacing public education with a free-market system of everyone for themselves, the common good be damned."

The excerpt is from the introduction to the March 2008 book Keeping the Promise? The debate over charter schools, a collection of essays published by Rethinking Schools in collaboration with the Center for Community Change. The introduction was written by education researcher/commentators Leigh Dingerson, Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson and Stephanie Walters

Anonymous said...

So well written. Now how do we change the path we are on? I also love your Broad (rhymes with "toad") Reports. You have to add more there.