Class Warfare Blog

September 6, 2013

Charter Schools and “The Magic Word”

Charter schools have been pitched to the public as a way of providing school “choice” and as a panacea for what ails our public school system. I have dealt with the idea of “choice” elsewhere. (Basically how many schools are within transit distance of your home and if one were good and two were bad, how many would be allowed to choose the “good” one, plus how would you know which are good and which were not? Like so many things we are told to “leave to the marketplace;” there is no true market.)

Charter schools operate under different rules: Operators are allowed to turn a profit from a portion of the tax money they’re given and don’t have to follow state laws that dictate everything from the distribution of textbooks to minimum teacher salaries to school-board elections. Nor do they have to honor labor contracts that pre-existed. Nor do many of them, apparently, have to report on how and where they spent those public funds. In return for that freedom, their supporters expected them to deliver strong academic results. And they do claim that they produce strong academic results.

Unfortunately, after a couple of decades of charter school experiments the results are just about the same as comparable ordinary school districts provide. Most recently in Ohio, the charter schools had the same record in school rankings as the non-charter schools but had a lower graduation rate. So much for the promised improvements.

So, why is the charter concept still a hot commodity in the states? Basically it has two reasons. For the public, they have a magic word strategy and for the politicians they have lobbyists and bribes. I have spoken enough of the political impact of self-interested money, so I turn to the “magic word strategy.”

“So how are they doing it? The answer is simple. It is magic.
We sprinkle magic freedom dust on a school and it automatically gets better.”

The magic word draped all over the charter school movement is “freedom.” You will be “free” to choose the best school for your children to attend. The school will be “free” from cumbersome regulations and union contracts and standards of quality. And that’s where the argument stops. No one asks how “freedom” becomes a commodity that can be translated into better schools. For one, no one asked the question how these companies are going to take the same amount of money the publically run schools receive, extract profits for their shareholders, and then do a better job of educating our children. The public schools are “free” of profit taking but that does not come up in the discussion as an example of “freedom.”

Being “free” of union contracts means that you are “free” to pay your teachers less. But if you believe in “free” markets and these people must, then the less you pay for labor, the lower the quality of that labor. Oops. Enter “Teach for America” an agency that supplies “temp teachers” to districts ostensibly with teacher shortages but now to districts that do not want to pay prevailing wages. The TFA “teachers” are recent college grads who receive a five week training program and then are expected to teach 2-3 years on their way to their “real” careers. Since this equates into a claim that a teacher with one year of experience is just as good as one with ten years (“our teachers are just as good as theirs, better in fact because we get better results”) and therefore to justify that oxymoron they are denigrating the role of experience when it comes to teaching e.g. they claim that after a few years of experience, most teachers are just hanging on until retirement to get a cushy teacher’s retirement.

If this claim doesn’t appear idiotic on the surface, the more you dig down, the dumber it gets, trust me. Since high school all I ever wanted to be was a teacher. I studied teaching and teachers all of the time I was in college. When I got my first teaching job (after experiencing teaching to earn my way through grad school), it took me about three full years of experience just to get the basics down. I made it thirty-five years as a teacher upon the belief that if you weren’t trying to get better, you were probably backsliding. Every year the goal was to improve and as a scientists I needed some way to prove that claim. I also quit a couple of years early as I felt my effectiveness had fallen off and maybe somebody new could reach those students better than I could.

Just what is it about being “small” and “free” to operate that gives you any advantages as a school. Larger districts have much better buying power. Smaller schools can be more nimble in making changes to improve instruction but they also can be more nimble in making mistakes that undermine the quality they have. Being nimble is only good if you are heading in the right direction. (This is why so many startup businesses fail within five years.) So, charters have trumpeted their new techniques, then? Yes? No. Smaller classes cost more money, so that’s out. More experienced teachers who can help shape curriculum are too expensive, so they are out. So, magic curricula? Nope, they are too expensive.

So how are they doing it?

The answer is simple. It is magic. We sprinkle magic freedom dust on a school and it automatically gets better.

But my parents taught me that when the “magic whatever” gets pulled out, grab your wallet because somebody is trying to empty it. Twenty years of experiments in charter schools, with the results being good, bad, and indifferent have shown that the “magic of freedom” is not a commodity that translates well into educational excellence. And even if it had, I would want to see how they did it.

This is for the same reason I wanted to know how corporate profits could be at record levels during a very significant recession. If you look at the numbers, the increased profits come solely from decreases in wages paid to their workforces. No other explanation is needed. Since I know that freedom is merely opportunity, I know it doesn’t automatically translate into anything, so the magic word argument to us in the public about the worth of charter schools should make us all grab our wallets and then ask “just how are you going to take this freedom and create a better education for our children?”

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