This is the first part of a two-part series of posts on Charter school mythology.
"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." -- Anatole FranceCurrent conceptions of school choice were originally conceived by free-market, neo-liberal ideologues like the University of Chicago's Milton Friedman. In his 1955 article "The Role of Government in Education" Friedman first proposed a system of publicly operated schools with privately run but publicly funded schools, using payment vouchers issued to parents/consumers.
Corporate school reformers have taken up Friedman's choice banner and succeeded in framing their charter school narrative as a matter of choice vs. containment. Some go so far as to equate public education with slavery, posing "choice", i.e., meaning charters and vouchers, as "the underground railway" carrying students to the "freedom" of privately-run schools. Charter school management companies are offered as modern-day Harriet Tubmans. Supporters of privately-run charters, like Joel Klein, Newt Gingrich and Arne Duncan, also frame the issue of choice as the "civil rights issue of our generation."
The notion of government and public education as being an non-competitive "monopoly," put forth by business groups like the Chicago Civic Committee, is a false and misleading one. Competition and consumer choice have their place. Already derfunded urban public schools have to compete with private, parochial and wealthy suburban districts for students, teachers and funding. But a democratic solution to the problems and challenges confronting public education is not offered by another layer of market-driven choice.
More recently, choice advocates have drummed up the so-called parent trigger, a plan that gives 50 percent of parents in a school during any one school year the power to turn that school over to a private operator. This divisive plan is being pushed hard by conservative, anti-union groups like ALEC as well as by some more liberal-leaning groups like the U.S. Conference of Mayors as a victory for school choice. In fact, the parent trigger is just another market-driven maneuver to dis-empower teachers and bust their unions, which are portrayed as enemies of choice. In no case have parent trigger initiatives led to any measurable improvement in schools.
This framing has been rendered skillfully, and promoted through the use of major studio films including Waiting For Superman and We Won't Back Down, both bankrolled by right-wing billionaire Philip Anschutz.
Authentic individual and family choice is an important component of good and fair public education, especially when it implies an enriched curriculum filled with varied options based on students interests, potential career pathways, and different routes to successful learning. But there are different kinds of choice, just as there are different kinds of reform. The one posed by charter and voucher proponents is generally a limited kind of consumer choice, viewing public education sinply as a personal shopping mall offering parents and students options like smooth and chunky. Authentic models of choice have more to do with democratic social ownership, participation and decision making.
In that sense, privately-run charters aren't really public schools at all, but rather, private entities run with public funds. Teachers and other public employees can be fired at will, without due process, and have no voice or choice, except to try and find jobs elsewhere. Teachers have little say over curriculum, assessment, work environment, or other essential matters.They have no collective bargaining rights and serve only at the whim or will of appointed charter boards and the administrator. Experienced teachers are being forced out of their jobs by austerity measures as charter schools are flooded with Teach for America (TFA) recruits. With the loss of over 300,000 public school teaching positions in the last two years, the competitive pressure upon teachers to find new jobs is severe.
Students have few if any real choices since the school generally chooses them, rather than them choosing the school. Privately-run charters have become notorious for excluding students with disabilities and special needs, English-language learners and students with behavioral problems. KIPP charters, for example, have become notorious for their extremely hig student attrition rates. Parents in charters are often forced to contribute funds for textbooks, after-school activities, and even to pay fines for petty rules violations. At one Chicago charter network, these fines amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars taken from needy families.
Originally, charter schools were envisioned by their founders and supportera as agents of real democratic choice. Rather than competing with traditional schools for funding and high-scoring students, the early charters, many founded and led by teachers, were seen as a small but critical force within the public school system -- an incubator for experimentation, innovation, and new options for students. Rather than being market-driven and anti-union, early charters were staffed with union teachers and backed by many union leaders, including AFT President Albert Shanker. But Shanker's charter school vision included the maxim that they “would not be a school where all the advantaged kids or all the white kids or any other group is segregated.”
A 2010 study by researchers at University of Colorado-Boulder and Western Michigan University found that most charter schools were “divided into either very segregative high-income schools or very segregative low-income schools” compared to their sending districts, and that the pattern had changed little between 2000-01 and 2006-07. They also tended to enroll a lower proportion of special education students and English-language learners. Again we see this distorted version of school choice.
The charter school ethos calls for more autonomy in exchange for higher levels of accountability. But the only way to exercise that accountability is to close a charter school, an action that even further destabilizes the lives of children. Hundreds of charter schools have been closed for being low performers, financial losers or poor recruiters. Many have been closed because of mismanagement or scandal. Nationwide, 15 percent of the 6,700 charter schools that have opened over the past two decades have closed for one reason or another. The largest proportion of those closures, nearly 42 percent, were the result of financial woes, usually related to low enrollment or lack of funding. Twenty-four percent closed for reasons of mismanagement, and a smaller share, 19 percent, were shut down for academic reasons.
What is also at play here is the consolidation of power by the big charter school operating companies and the forced closing of small, resourced-starved, teacher or community-operated charter. When that happens, any notion of student or parent choice is tossed aside and students are shuffled around to whatever school will accept them. Closing charter schools often forces students to choose from other academically struggling or otherwise unsound schools.
Next comes the question of who can choose and how. I'm reminded of that old saw about rich and poor alike having the choice to drive a Mercedes or a Chevy. Participatory community engagement and even consumer choice requires a well-informed public with access to the necessary levers of power.
Because charter school enrollment is capped, keeping schools small enough in some cases, to offer the illusion of a specialized boutique, opportunities are generally marketed only to a targeted consumer base. If a family is not in the information pipeline or a parent doesn't have the knowledge or capacity to apply, or if the child is homeless or a ward of the court, charter enrollment is only available through the bounce of a lottery ball. This kind of exclusivity is not generally available to regular public schools, who must accept any and every child who is brought to their doors. Charters can also expel students who don't achieve at high enough standards or who fit their social or cultural mold, at will. These students are then placed (without choice) back into overcrowded neighborhood schools.
Finally comes the question of whether or not this type of market-driven choice has been a force for systemic school improvement. In Chicago, where an ever expanding system of charter-school choice has been in operation for the past two decades, test scores in reading and math have remained flat. School dropout rates continue to hover around the 50% mark and the so-called achievement gap between white students and students of color continues to widen.
Under a top-down governance system where the schools are controlled by the mayor and his hand-picked school board and maintained under the leadership of high-profile CEOs like Paul Vallas and current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan-- and under corporate-driven initiatives like Renaissance 2010, the number of charter schools has steadily expanded. But according to a Sun-Times report, only one of nine Chicago multi-site charter operators — Noble Street — beat the districtwide average of all Chicago public schools for the percent of students passing state tests on every campus it oversees. This, even with the benefit of added funding, both from public and private sources as well as benefit of positive media spin, political connections and social capital unavailable to neighborhood schools.
To summarize, what is being touted by charter, parent-trigger, and voucher advocates as choice, offers teachers, parents and students only the narrowest of consumer options rather than real decision-making power. This type of market driven choice is only available to the few who have access to the necessary levers to assert themselves. And most importantly, decades of choice hasn't led to measurable improvement for public schools nationwide and in fact, it has been a drain on their resources and a force for downward pressure on student achievement.
Tim Bartik, senior economist for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research says "there's no evidence to suggest that choice works very well." The reasons for that, Bartik said, have to do with the fact that unlike judging the quality of a consumer good such as an apple, it turns out that school quality is more difficult to evaluate
As a result, school choice has become another rationale for re-segregation with those with the most power and access using the system to isolate or unfairly benefit themselves at the expense of others.
After decades of experimenting with market-based, competitive education initiatives with little in the way of measurable statewide education improvement, it’s necessary for Chicago and other urban school districts to shift their emphasis away from privatization and towards systems of support for helping improve and transform community public schools. Times call for making the proper investment in proper education offering real choices for students, parents and teachers within a framework of public ownership and public decision-making.
In the words of John Dewey from his work, The School and Society:
"What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy."Part 2 will deal with the myth of charter school superiority.