Saturday, November 19, 2011

Charter schools: public in form but private in essence

 "With these charter schools, people are trying to say, ‘I want a custom-tailored education for my children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.’ ” -- Matthew Stewart, resident of upscale Millburn, N.J. 
There was no question about the early charter schools being public. An outgrowth of the small schools movement, these schools, usually a small number within urban school districts, were started and run by teachers who were all members of the local teachers union. The idea was to empower collaborative groups of teachers with innovative ideas about classroom practices that might produce better results for students than those found in bureaucratically governed traditional schools. It was hoped that these ideas and practices, if successful, could be shared with other schools in the district.

In other words, early charter schools were envisioned as a critical force for change within schools systems which were otherwise averse to change. But within a few years, the charter idea was hijacked by corporate reformers who saw in them the possibility of operating public schools based more on market principles and eliminating all collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public school employees. Charter schools were reorganized as part of independent and self-interested lobbying associations run with heavy funding from private, often politically conservative business-style reformers as well as private powerful foundations like Gates, Walton, and the New Schools Venture Fund or Chicago's Renaissance Schools Fund. 

Rather than being empowered, charter school teachers have become subject to the will and whims of boards of directors and stripped of their rights to make important decisions about how their students should be taught. According to a Univ. of California study, teacher attrition rates in charter schools have skyrocketed. Teachers now often face discriminatory practices in hiring and firing and charters have become notorious for their systematic exclusion of children with special needs and English-language learners. And as one might expect, none of this has made charters, on average, any more productive or successful by most measures.

Charters, in my opinion  are now both public and private. They are largely publicly funded. Established by public bodies. They can also have their charter taken away for non-performance, financial mismanagement, etc...
But they are also private in the sense that they are also funded privately in ways that shift power into the hands of private boards and power philanthropists. The are now commonly controlled by these corporate-style boards made up of representatives of private corporations or individuals, and management is often sub-contracted out to private (for-profit) management companies or CMOs, which operate without the counterweight of unions or collective bargaining agreements. This means that they are not necessarily bound by the rules of state labor relations board or rules governing the rights of teachers as public employees. Because teacher pay checks are often signed by private management companies, it is claimed, even by charter operators themselves,  that charters are private companies. Even in the sense that they are public, they are certainly not democratic.

Then there is the question of who they serve? Up until now, charter schools were almost entirely limited to inner-city neighborhoods, often being used as magnets as part of urban gentrification strategies by the banks and real estate interests. But recently, wealthier communities have adopted the charter model as a way of creating small schools with many of the features of elite, private prep schools, exclusively for their own children, but built and operated with public funding. Now, one out of five of the country’s 5,200 charter schools is in a suburb, including affluent communities like Los Altos, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

An L.A. Times story appeared recently, describing the move by some CMOs to market "boutique charters" in upscale communities like the town of Millburn, N.J.  or in Montgomery County, Md., north of Washington, D.C.

Bloomberg New reports that in Silicon Valley, an elementary school accepts one in six kindergarten applicants, offers Chinese and asks families to donate $5,000 per child each year. 
Bullis isn’t a high-end private school. It’s a taxpayer- funded, privately run public school, part of the charter-school movement that educates 1.8 million U.S. children. While charters are heralded for offering underprivileged kids an alternative to failing U.S. districts, Bullis gives an admissions edge to residents of parts of Los Altos Hills, where the median home is worth $1 million and household income is $219,000, four times the state average.
In summary, today's charters could be described as public-in-form, private-in-essence. Or essentially private.

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