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The problem(s) with Bloomberg’s $750 million investment in charter schools

Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks about affordable housing in Washington on Jan. 30, 2020. (Mark Wilson/AFP/Getty Images)
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Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire who briefly ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, recently announced that he was donating $750 million to help expand charter schools in 20 U.S. metropolitan areas.

Bloomberg explained his philanthropy in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which he declared that “American public education is broken” and that charter schools — which are publicly funded but operated outside of traditional school districts — were the answer.

Bloomberg has long been a supporter of charters, which supporters say provide alternatives to district-run schools. Critics say they drain resources from schools that educate most American schoolchildren.

The piece below was written by two charter critics, Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris, who discuss Bloomberg’s new investment in these schools and what they see as its effects on public education.

Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, is an education historian and public education advocate who emerged more than a decade ago as the titular leader of the grass-roots movement against corporate-based school reform. Burris is a former award-winning high school principal in New York.

Both women are leaders of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit group that advocates for public schools, and have written extensively about education policy in New York City during Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor.

Michael Bloomberg pledges $750 million to expand charter schools

By Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris

Mike Bloomberg recently announced his plan to revive American public education, which he says is “broken.” His fix for a system that enrolls more than 50 million students? He will spend $750 million to expand charter schools to 150,000 students in 20 cities over the next five years.

The former New York mayor is a smart businessman. He must know that moving 150,000 students into charter schools won’t transform the public schools that enroll the overwhelming majority of students. The likeliest effect of his gift will be to drain resources and students from the public schools still struggling to recover from covid-19. This would make matters worse for the 50 million students who don’t receive his beneficence, and it’s unlikely to help most of the 150,000 who do.

Bloomberg tells us that he will not fund just any charter school. He announced that his donation would fund only high-quality charters — the same promise made by the federal Charter Schools Program that has wasted about $1 billion on charters that never opened or failed.

Report: Federal government wasted millions of dollars on charter schools that never opened

New York’s Success Academy is his example of a charter chain that “works.” Citing the chain’s high test scores, he ignores the dozens of news reports that have exposed Success Academy’s practices that include violations of students’ civil rights and privacy; complaints of racist and abusive practices by present and former staff; push-out practices that include dropping misbehaving students off at police stations; “got to go” lists that discriminate against students with disabilities; and repeated suspensions of students for minor infractions.

Success’s “success” rests on harsh discipline codes that push noncompliant children out the door. But remember that Bloomberg once bragged about his police policy of throwing minority youth against the wall and frisking them.

Bloomberg’s own school reforms included sort-and-select policies, such as screened middle schools and test-in gifted programs that dramatically reduced access for students of color. When the NAACP — the oldest civil rights group in the country — filed a discrimination complaint against the city and its eight specialized high schools, Bloomberg’s response was “life isn’t always fair.

Bloomberg has claimed that students of color made great equity gains under his mayoral leadership. He boasted to Congress that the achievement gaps between White and Asian students on one hand, and Black and Hispanic students on the other had been cut in half.

But data from the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) disproved those claims. And what about state test scores? According to the New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO), the gaps widened.

Does Bloomberg understand the state of NYC schools?

Bloomberg’s legacy was one of chaos by design, as he imposed one reform after another in an attempt to disrupt his way to success. The New York City school system was reorganized four times during the mayor’s 12 years in office, depending on which adviser from the corporate world had the ear of the mayor or the chancellor.

His innovative thinking was often detached from common sense. In 2011, he told an audience at MIT that, “I would, if I had the ability … cut the number of teachers in half, but you would double the compensation of them, and you would weed out all the bad ones and just have good teachers.” Such a proposal ignores research showing benefits of smaller class size and on best practices for teacher evaluation.

Bloomberg applied the same philosophy of “weed them out” (championed by GE CEO Jack Welch, who was a frequent adviser to the city’s Department of Education) to the system as a whole. He shut down scores of struggling schools and large high schools that enrolled the students with the greatest needs. He replaced the closed schools with hundreds of new small schools and charter schools. As large high schools were shuttered, programs for advanced students, bilingual students, and students in need of special education were often cast aside.

The mayor and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, applied corporate thinking, surrounding themselves with management consultants and business school graduates who knew as little about education as they did. Their efforts demoralized educators in the system, who felt disrespected by Klein and Bloomberg.

Now, eight years after his last term as mayor ended, Bloomberg again has inserted himself into the education reform debate to fund one of his favorite ideas — charter schools.

The unaudited “wait lists” he uses as justification for his charter ardor have been debunked repeatedly. Some of those lists have duplicate or triplicate names; others have students who have moved away or enrolled already in another school. In 2020-21, Texas charter schools had over 100,000 more empty charter seats than filled seats. Eighty-five percent of the charter schools in Los Angeles have open spots. According to charter advocate Robert Pondiscio, only about half of the families accepted by Success Academy enroll their child.

And the recent uptick in enrollment Bloomberg cites? Much of the pandemic increases were in the for-profit online sector he says he will not support — increases that are already disappearing.

Nor has Bloomberg been swayed by the preponderance of research studies (not a few cherry-picked) that shows charter schools do no better than public schools, Even though, as scholarly studies demonstrate, charter policies attract and retain more motivated and better-supported students. NAEP tests show there is no difference in the academic performance of students in public schools and charter schools. In fact, as NAEP shows, when students reach grade 12, public schools significantly outperform charter schools.

Even as Bloomberg promises to pour money in charters, the federal government continues to spend nearly a half-billion dollars a year to start and expand charters. More than one in four charter schools fails by year five, and half are gone by year 15, according to research by our Network for Public Education. The hundreds of charter scandals that occur each year have not modified his rhetoric of school accountability.

If charter schools do no better on the whole than public schools; if many of them fail for financial or academic reasons only a few years after opening; if their lack of oversight and accountability makes them targets for grifters; perhaps it is the charter idea that is “broken,” not America’s public schools, which have been central instruments in advancing our nation’s unfulfilled dreams of equal opportunity and a well-informed citizenry.

Charter schools are publicly funded — but there’s big money in selling them

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