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The hype and reality of ‘school choice’

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In case you missed any of the endless streams of announcements, it’s National School Choice Week, and advocates are staging thousands of events across the country to talk it up. There is even a school choice train making a whistle-stop tour across the country for rallies and other such goings-on to draw attention to a movement that has been hailed as “the” or “an” answer to what ails public education today.

The only problem is this: It  isn’t. Not by a long shot.

Voucher programs in state after state have done nothing but raise big questions about how public money is being spent. For example, a recent report slammed the voucher program in Washington D.C., which has the country’s only federally funded voucher program. The U.S. General Accountability Office report said that  the local agency that administers the program — which has used $152 million in federal funds since 2004 for more than 5,000 students from low-income families – lacks the “financial systems, controls, policies, and procedures” to ensure that federal funds are being spent legally. It also says the U.S. Education Department has not provided sufficient oversight. In other states, such as Louisiana, public dollars have gone to private religious schools that teach that human beings co-existed with dinosaurs. Your public dollars at work.

As for public charter schools, here’s the bottom line after several decades of experimentation: Some are great, some are horrible, most aren’t any better than traditional schools, and the push for charters is decimating neighborhood school systems and helping to privatize an education system that should remain public. As researcher Matthew Di Carlo said in this blog post:

There is a fairly well-developed body of evidence showing that charter and regular public schools vary widely in their impacts on achievement growth. This research finds that, on the whole, there is usually not much of a difference between them, and when there are differences, they tend to be very modest. In other words, there is nothing about “charterness” that leads to strong results.

Jeff Bryant, director of the Education Opportunity Network, wrote this piece looking at the hype and reality about charters that starts out with some of the egregious stories about them:

Imagine your five-year old boy went to a school where he was occasionally thrown in a padded cell and detained alone for stretches as long as 20 minutes.

Or you sent your kid to an elementary school where the children are made to sit on a bare floor in the classroom for days before they can “earn” their desks.

Or your kid went to a school where she spent hours parked in a cubicle in front of a computer  with a poorly trained teacher who has to monitor more than 100 other students.

Maybe you don’t have children or send them to private school? So how do you feel when you find out the local school that you pay for with your taxes allegedly diverted millions of dollars through fake Medicaid billing?

Or the school used your tax dollars as “grants” to start up other profit-making enterprises … or pay lavish salaries — $300,000, $400,000 or more — to its administrators … or support a movement linked to a reclusive Turkish cleric that has being investigated for bribery and corruption.

Welcome to the world of charter schools.

Yes, yes, of course, there are wonderful charter schools that greatly help some kids. But Bryant raises the issues above, as well as other problems, because they are not isolated, and because the charter-school movement has come to represent something important  in the landscape of American education:

Charter schools have been relentlessly marketed to the American populace as a silver bullet for “failed” public schools, especially in poor urban communities of African-American and Latino/a students. Politicians in both parties speak glowingly of these schools — which, by the way, their children seem never to attend. Opening charter schools has become the latest fad for celebrities including athletes and rap stars.

Huge nationwide chains — called education management organizations (EMOs) — now run many of these charters. A recent study by the National Education Policy Center found, “Students across 35 states and the District of Columbia now attend schools managed by these non-government entities.” These for-profit and nonprofit EMOs — such as K12 Inc., National Heritage Academies, Charter Schools USA and KIPP — now account for nearly half of the students educated by charter schools.

Substantial, well-funded nationwide organizations have rapidly developed to lobby for these schools. One such organization, the Alliance for School Choice, recently received a $6 million gift from the Walton Foundation, of Wal-Mart fame.

Slick marketing campaigns  have been rolled out in communities across the country to tout the coming of new charters.

The actual academic results of these schools seems to hardly anyone, despite report  after report showing that these schools tend to do poorly on state and national tests and fail at providing equitable education to underserved students.

Yet lobbying for more of these schools continues unabated with more money funneled into the campaigns of politicians who support charters and more efforts to press state lawmakers to lift any provisions  currently in place to regulate how these schools operate and are held accountable to the public.

As a result, charter schools now serve one in 20 students nationwide, despite “mixed results” at best.

Yet how much is really known about how most charter schools operate on a day-to-day basis? Most of the people who witness what these schools actually do are students, who have little voice outside the classroom; teachers, who need to hold onto their jobs; and charter administrators, who can’t always be depended on to blow the whistle on shenanigans.

But as these institutions proliferate, so are troubling reports of what the charter movement has unleashed.

One critical issue he discusses is whether or not charter schools really are public. While they are funded with public dollars a number of rulings by judges and other officials have raised questions about whether these schools are really public or private. Charter schools have independent boards, and many are operated by for-profit companies over which taxpayers have no control. That led a judge in Washington state last month to rule that charter schools are not “common schools,” because they are not “under the control of the voters of the school district” and therefore not eligible to receive state construction funds. A charter in Arizona successfully argued that it is not a public entity, but is a private corporation, and a charter founder in Chicago argued to the National Labor Relations Board that it was a private corporation and not subject to Illinois labor laws.

For these and other reasons, critics of charter schools have long contended that private companies that run publicly funded charters don’t act like public organizations and that charter schools are part of a movement to privatize public education in the United States. Charter supporters say that is nonsense and that they are simply trying to build good schools for kids who are in lousy schools, but the reality increasingly trumps the rhetoric.

Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools wrote in this piece last fall:

There are many factors that make charters an unsustainable strategy for improving public education. Unlike most charter schools, traditional public schools accept all children, including much larger numbers of high-needs students. In most states, charters do not face the same public accountability and transparency requirements as public schools, which has led to serious problems of mismanagement, corruption, and profiteering.

Invariably, beneath accounts of spectacular charter success lie demographics that reveal fewer special-needs children, fewer English language learners, and fewer children from the poorest families. This hasn’t stopped the cheerleading coming from some quarters, but it does undermine the credibility of charter schools as a strategy for improving public schools overall…

…The current push for deregulated charters and privatization is doing nothing to reduce the concentrations of 70, 80, and 90 percent poverty that remain the central problem in under-resourced public schools.

It’s instructive to contrast charter-driven reform with more equitable approaches. In North Carolina, for several decades reform efforts were based on integrating struggling schools in Raleigh with the schools in surrounding Wake County. Efforts were made to improve theme-based and magnet programs at all schools, and the concentration of free/reduced lunch students at any one school was limited to 40 percent or less. The plan led to some of the nation’s best progress on closing gaps in achievement and opportunity—until recent rounds of market-driven school reform began to undermine these efforts as well.

Today, charters have become part of a campaign to create a less stable, less secure, and less expensive teaching staff. Nationally, charter school teachers are, on average, less experienced, less unionized, and less likely to hold state certification than teachers in traditional public schools. In a word, cheaper.

As many as one in four charter school teachers leave every year, about double the turnover rate in traditional public schools. The odds of a teacher leaving the profession altogether are 130 percent higher at charters than traditional public schools, and much of this teacher attrition is related to dissatisfaction with working conditions.

His conclusion is the same one that Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York, came to while he was campaigning: We’ve got enough charter schools. It’s time to concentrate on improving the traditional schools which educate the overwhelming majority of students and stop concentrating on a movement that inherently cannot meet the needs of all American children.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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