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Why charter schools get public education advocates so angry


There are thousands of charter schools in the United States that enroll a few million students. While they are just a fraction of the number of kids who attend school, the charter movement has been a key part of the choice movement and has affected public education in many ways. It has been 25 years since the charter movement began, and it has not evolved exactly as supporters had hoped, with too little oversight of too many charters.

In this post, Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, explains why putting the word “public” in front of “charter school” — which are funded with tax dollars — is “an affront” to people for whom public education is a mission. Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. She has been chronicling botched school reform efforts in her state for years.

By Carol Burris

When Hillary Clinton mentioned public charter schools in her speech to the National Education Association earlier this month, she was greeted with some boos. Her remarks about sharing “what works” seemed innocuous enough.  So why did the teachers in attendance react so strongly?

The obvious answer is the charter sector’s distaste for collective bargaining.  But the antipathy directed at charters runs deeper than that. Charters, regardless of their original intent, have become a threat to democratically governed, neighborhood public schools, and questions about their practices, opacity and lack of accountability are increasing as their numbers grow.

Placing the adjective “public” in front of “charter” is an affront to those who deeply believe in the mission of public schools. Charter schools are privately run academies funded by the taxpayer. Many are governed by larger corporations, known as CMOs. Some are for-profit; others are not for profit yet still present financial “opportunities.”

Democratic school governance is viewed as an obstacle by many charter school devotees. When addressing the California Charter School Association in March 2015, Netflix billionaire Reed Hastings opined that school boards were obsolete and should be replaced with a system of large non-profit corporations.

Yet the governance of public schools is one of the purest and most responsive forms of American democracy. Sunshine laws and public meetings allow citizens to have a say in how their children are educated and how their tax dollars are spent. Even in cities with mayoral control, there is some limited voice through the election of a mayor. In 2010, the then-D.C. mayor, Adrian Fenty, lost re-election largely because of his support for the then-chancellor, Michelle Rhee. While Hastings would view that as causing “churn,” communities view elections as a means by which to correct error and chart a better course.

Because the claim that charters schools are public schools is not consistently challenged, some charters are becoming more brazen in misleading prospective parents. One charter chain, Aspire, refers to itself not as a charter school management organization (CMO) but as a public school system with schools in two states.

The differences between public schools and charter schools go well beyond issues of governance. One of the strengths of a true public school is its ethical and legal obligation to educate all. Public school systems enroll any student who comes into the district’s attendance zone from ages 5 to 21 — no matter their handicapping condition, lack of prior education, first language, or even disciplinary or criminal record. Not only will empty seats be filled at any grade, if there is a sudden influx of students, classes must be opened.

In contrast, charter schools control enrollment — in both direct and subtle ways. In 2013, journalist Stephanie Simon wrote a comprehensive report exposing the lengthy applications, tests, essays and other hurdles used by many charters schools to make sure they get the kind of student that they want.

Even when some charter chains, such as Aspire, Success Academy and KIPP, have simple applications and lottery entrance, student bodies are not necessarily representative of neighborhood schools.

Below is a chart with three Success Academy Charter schools, in bold, from three different sections of New York City— Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Each is matched with neighborhood public schools in close proximity to the charter. They are listed below the charter school’s name.  The data is from the 2014-15 school year.

School name % Economically disadvantaged students % Special education students
Success Academy Charter- Harlem 1 76% 16%
PS 149 Sojourner Truth 90% 36%
PS 242 Young Diplomats Magnet Academy 93% 36%
PS 76 Philip Randolph 89% 21%
PS 7 Samuel Stern 83% 32%
Success Academy Charter-Bed-Stuy 2 60% 18%
PS 297 Abraham Stockton 82% 26%
PS 59 William Floyd 84% 25%
PS 23 Carter G. Woodson 86% 30%
Success Academy Charter-Bronx 2 67% 14%
PS 55 Benjamin Franklin 95% 20%
PS 110 Theodore Schoenfeld 95% 28%
PS 132 Garrett A Morgan 86% 25%

The data show clear, dramatic differences between the charters and the local neighborhood schools.  The neighborhood public schools have greater proportions of students who are poor and who need special education services. Digging deeper you will find stark differences in the handicapping conditions of students who attend charter and public schools, with public school special education students having far greater needs.

Even after initial enrollment, charters lose students through attrition, which also likely results in differences in demographics over time. Leo Casey of the Shanker Institute analyzed the data across all Success Charter Schools and the pattern was clear — after second grade, enrollment steadily declined for each cohort, with small variations among the schools.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of attrition is Success Academy Harlem 1, the flagship Success charter founded in 2006.  Because the charter continues to ninth grade, long-term attrition is apparent.

Success Academy Harlem 1 (2015)

2015 enrollment Enrollment when class was in Grade 2
9th grade 26 73
8th grade 44 79
7th grade 75 127

The middle column shows the enrollment at grade levels 7, 8 and 9 in October 2015.  The column to the right shows the number of students in that student cohort when they were in second grade.  As students move through the grades, attrition accelerates.

Although the New York State Education Department website lists Harlem 1 as a K-9 school, curiously, the school’s website advertises only Grades K-4.  After fourth grade, Success Academy follows a tournament model — you can drop out, but you cannot drop in. Eva Moscowitz justified this practice by claiming that it would be “unfair” for her students to be educated with students she considers to be lower achievers because they come from public schools.

That “sort and select” mindset is not limited to Moskowitz. Although some charters in New York City see their mission as educating children who arrive at any grade level, others do not. During the 2013-14 school year, 2,500 seats in charters were left unfilled because charters did not “backfill.” Considering that only 72,056 were enrolled in NYC charters that year, that number is substantial.

Of course attrition occurs in local public schools as well. Children of poverty move more often than middle-class students. The public/charter difference is that even as students leave, they are replaced throughout the school year by new entrants, who are welcomed by their principals and teachers.

It has long been suspected that high attrition in the “no excuses” charters results in part from codes of discipline that rely heavily on excluding students for what public schools would consider to be minor infractions. The strict code of discipline also serves as a screen — only parents who want a regimented and highly disciplined environment need apply.

Returning to the three Success Academy schools and their proximate neighbors, the differences in suspension rates and the reporting of infractions are startling.  The New York State Education Department issues two public, school by school, disciplinary reports. The first is the suspension rate, given on the School Report Card, which reports the number and percentage of individual students who have been suspended out of school for at least one day. For example, if a school has 100 students, and 10 of those students were suspended at least once, the rate for the school would be 10 percent.

The second report is the Violent and Disruptive Incidents Report (VADIR). Despite its ominous name, the report logs the number and kinds of incidents that result in an out-of-school or in-school suspension, counseling referrals, or suspension from school activities. Some incidents may be quite serious, like theft or weapon possession, but other may be minor, such as student pushing or a classroom disruption. Every incident must be logged.

Here is the 2013-14 data for the three Success Academy Schools and their neighborhood counterparts.

School name Number of reported VADIR incidents Suspension rate
Success Academy Charter- Harlem 1 1 14%
PS 149 Sojourner Truth 48 2%
PS 242 Young Diplomats Magnet Academy 11 1%
PS 76 Philip Randolph 25 1%
PS 7 Samuel Stern 34 3%
Success Academy Charter-Bed-Stuy 2 0 11%
PS 297 Abraham Stockton 14 0%
PS 59 William Floyd 18 1%
PS 23 Carter G. Woodson 5 1%
Success Academy Charter-Bronx 2 0 8%
PS 55 Benjamin Franklin 5 0%
PS 110 Theodore Schoenfeld 23 0%
PS 132 Garrett A Morgan 29 0%

Given the parameters of both reports, there should be more VADIR incidents than suspensions. Either Success Academy is not meeting its obligation to provide information to the NYSED, taxpayers and parents, or Success is suspending students for incidents that are so trivial they are not even listed as a category on the VADIR report.

No doubt some charters are better, and others are worse, than Success. What all share, however, is the ability to use the freedom given to them for innovation to shut out democracy, attract the students they want and hide important information from the public, even as they collect taxpayer funds.

As Diane Ravitch often asks, “If deregulation is such a great idea, why not deregulate all schools?”

I think we know the answer. And that is why charters do not deserve the word “public” in front of their name.

The Democratic National Convention is about to begin. Will the party show commitment to rein in the “Wild West” of charter schools, as new platform language suggests? Friends of public education will be watching.