Thursday, August 03, 2006
Lost in a Sea of Charters
by Norman Scott
In a massive school system with about 1400 schools, not one single school is run by teachers. Some might dispute that, pointing to the UFT-run charter schools. In actuality, UFT bureaucrats run that school, not active teachers. To me a teacher-run school means a group of teachers get together to run a school, choosing the administration. This is the key point and is not part of the process at the UFT schools.
Ten years ago, I saw charter schools as an opportunity for teachers to run their own schools, hoping the UFT would take the lead by setting up an office of charter school support, where teachers could go for assistance. My experience with most school administrators from the school level on up was that they were a hindrance to education reform and that it was frustrated teachers, especially those fairly new to the system before they became cynical and jaded, who wanted to see changes. Thus, charter schools seemed a way for entrepreneurial teachers to begin to take control of schools.
All these dreams ended with the increasing implementation of high stakes testing, intensified by No Child Left Behind, that has distorted the education process to such an extent that any school started by teachers would be under the same pressures to teach to the test as all other schools or be branded a failure. (The most elite private schools in Manhattan, with extremely small class sizes and a lot of teacher input, just ignore NCLB).
The charter school movement now often seems like a wedge to undermine public schools in the mania to prove anything public is bad and privately run schools, even those for profit, somehow justifies capitalism. The BloomKlein mania for charter schools is noteworthy in that they run the public school system but promote charters as alternatives to the very system they run even though charters drain funds away from public schools since money is funneled to schools based on the number of pupils.
But if one views BloomKlein cheerleading for charters (even going so far as to toss out a school at the Tweed Courthouse DOE HQ in favor of the Ross Charter School) through the prism of anti-unionism, it all becomes understandable. Charters are not required to be run by union rules. Recently a teacher at a charter was fired for merely bringing in a salary chart that demonstrated just how the teachers were being exploited. Joel Klein has often pointed to the UFT contract as the obstacle to fixing what’s wrong with the public schools. Even now with a gutted contract, Klein still rants on. When the time comes (sooner rather than later) that the UFT sells so much of the contract that it will be boiled down to merely a salary chart, Klein will still be blaming his inability to reform the system on the contract. Klein’s goal is to establish 1400 privately run charters, kick back, relax and claim victory – victory over the union that will leave the UFT as a head without a body.
Klein has maintained that charter schools and the small public schools being set up by the DOE do not engage in creaming – choosing less difficult students to ensure a higher rate of success. Many of us suspect that this is not true but have a hard time getting a handle on how lotteries and other means of choosing students can be distorted.
So, we turned to our old friend George Schmidt in Chicago, where the school system went through a mayoral takeover many years before we did and has faced many of the same issues. George has been the editor of the alternative newspaper Substance (www.substancenews.com) for almost 30 years. (I modeled my newspaper Education Notes on the work George has done.) George wrote in an email:
Any charter school study that compares a charter school with local non-magnet elementary or high schools is biased and statistically invalid. Chicago pioneered this form of dishonesty.
Charter schools require conditions that do not apply to neighborhood public schools.
1. Charter schools require that children apply for admission. The most at risk children come from families that can barely get the information together to prove the child lives in the public school attendance area.
2. Charter schools require that students and families sign performance agreements that result in "voluntary removal" if the child or family fails to comply. Depending upon the charter school, the compliance can even include Saturday classes (for the children) and mandatory "parenting" sessions (for the family).
3. Charter schools exclude the most severely disabled children and families, either by having inaccessible facilities or by telling the families they don't have the staff to provide the services.
The first and pioneering dishonesty in these reports was compiled by Greg Richmond about seven years ago, on orders from the Chicago Tribune. Since that "report," Richmond has moved on from his job as Chief of charter schools at the Chicago Board of Education to the national charter school bureaucracy (he is currently head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers; he was recently featured in a news story on New Orleans). Richmond's study claimed that the charters surpassed neighborhood schools, but left out the conditions I cite above. On several occasions, Richmond simply ignored FOIA requests for the data underlying the claims made in his "study." To date (more than four years after the original FOIA request), the Chicago Board of Education still refuses to make available any data used as the basis for the Richmond report. That report, like "A Nation at Risk" and similar stuff, has since taken on a life of its own, thanks mainly to the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, which simply asserts its conclusions now, as "research based."
If comparisons between charters and public schools are going to be made, at least in Chicago, the comparisons have to be between Chicago charters and Chicago magnet schools.
A study that used this standard of comparison would show Chicago charters are performing less well than Chicago public schools.
But that's not a study that will be done in Chicago, because the party line here is that charters are good and publics are bad.
One thing I've just begun looking into is the really primitive level of discrimination against children (and families) with disabilities here in Chicago, especially those with the most severe disabilities. Most Chicago charter school buildings are inaccessible to many disabled (e.g., wheelchairs). This is the result of the charter schools being an indirect subsidy to the Catholic schools. When inner city Catholic schools have been closed in Chicago, they are rented (by the public school budget) for charter schools. But the Catholic schools we're talking about were never brought into compliance with accessibility regulations, and the Chicago Board of Education is not trying to force its growing number of charter schools into compliance. This alone is a major scandal, but also reveals, among other data, how the charters cherry pick students to provide the "results" they want.
And even with all the cherry picking, they are not doing very well in Chicago when compared honestly with those public schools where comparisons can be made.