Charter Schools—A Real Choice?

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are managed privately. Growing in popularity across the United States, this public/private hybrid is often presented as one of the solutions to the broken public school system supported by both political parties. Today, over two million or 4.2 percent of students in the US attend charter schools. Yet, there is not much evidence to support such an unprecedented expansion of charters across the United States.

The idea of charter schools originated in the late 1980s and was first introduced by Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. He felt there was a need for teachers “to create a small school that would focus on the neediest students, those who had dropped out and those who were disengaged from school and likely to drop out.”  Later on in 1993, “Shanker turned against the charter school idea when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing an agenda of school privatization.”

Even though there’s little evidence that charter schools are effective, they steadily drain funds that could be going toward improving public schools. In 2009, a study by StanfordUniversity’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) concluded that only 17% of charter schools delivered superior education to their public school counterparts.  (CREDO) also showed that performance at approximately half of the charters surveyed were not substantially different and, in fact, about 37% were worse than the traditional public schools.

Charter school problems don’t just revolve around student academic success.  Recently, the US Government Accountability Office claimed that charter schools “do not enroll students with disabilities at the same rate as traditional public schools” even though it is required by law. There is also a growing concern among civil rights groups that charter schools can be exclusive and more racially divided. In a Civil Rights Project report it is stated that “charter schools comprise a divisive and segregated sector of our already deeply stratified public school system.”

How to explain the continued support for an idea that clearly doesn’t work?

In California, philanthrocapitalists like The Waltons (of Walmart) are furiously at work dismantling the public system there and replacing it with privatized charters. In Chicago,Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has been a proponent of charter schools. While closing down over 54 traditional public schools just recently, he aims to “add 60 charter schools in the next five years with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is trying to expand charters across the country.”  And most recently in New Jersey, Mark Zuckerberg has donated millions to Governor Christie’s educational reform aimed at expansion of charter schools. According to Huffington Post, “This puts Zuckerberg well in the mainstream of billionaire tech executives like Bill Gates, who pump millions of dollars into efforts to encourage charter schools and put pressure on teachers’ unions.”

Propaganda films like Waiting for Superman pander to both sides of the political fence, promoting charters primarily as a way to attack one of the last bastions of the American labor movement—our teacher unions.  This dismal film is part of a far larger effort, a new “economy of knowledge production” fueled by corporate interests hell-bent on siphoning public funds to private pockets. As critics argue, private think tanks are “eclipsing independent university researchers” and sound data is replaced with talking points.

Charter schools do not offer a real equitable choice. Because of their limited space, they segregate a key population that could have made a profound difference in improving the educational experience of all the children in the community. They also take away a meaningful portion of funds that could be used to improve the traditional public schools. Charter schools are not a real choice and should be urgently reconsidered as the alternative to solving public schools’ problems.

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I am sorry Mr. Zuckerberg, Startup: Education will improve your reputation but not necessarily the lives of children

These days we hear a lot about Zuckerberg’s $100 million foundation Startup: Education, which was established in cooperation with the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker in order to improve student educational success and “champion great teachers.” In fact, this ambitious project aims to reform public education in the United States if testing New Jersey’s waters proves successful.

At its core, the idea is simple. In order to reform public education one can use a simple formula, which will embrace one billionaire and the support of local authorities. Supposedly, by implementing an entrepreneurial approach to education, it is possible to make schools accountable, transform low performing students into high achievers, and improve teachers’ performance. Wait a second. Does it mean that public education cannot be improved from within? Without private investors? What do teachers think about this initiative? What does education research have to offer? Does it imply that if you can donate $100 million, you actually have a say in shaping public education policy? Why is it so?

There is not much transparency about the operation of Startup: Education. In an interview to NJ.com, the Teacher Union President Joe Del Grosso says that he is troubled by the ongoing secrecy surrounding the Facebook donation: “We don’t know what the foundation is doing or how they intend to spend the other money.” Del Grosso insists that “with that money comes a responsibility to the public to be clear about its use.” Yet, many teachers, parents, and broader members of the community continue to raise their concerns about the murky conditions under which Startup: Education operates.

Startup: Education is another privatization effort in public education, reflecting the logic of running schools like businesses.  In 2011, for example, a $500,000 grant from the Facebook money was used to attract high-quality principals to the district who were given the authority to staff their schools as they see fit.  According to NJ.com, teachers who did not make the cut were demoted to teacher’s aide jobs or other supporting roles. The funding also went to support the establishment of charter schools and the introduction of merit pay schemes. Not surprisingly, the foundation became quickly implicated in the closure of some public schools and many teacher layoffs on the pretext of ‘low performance delivered.’

However, public education is not a business and should not be managed like a company. While there is no clear answer to the question whether private donations lead to student higher academic achievements, it is crystal clear that in a democratic society, all players – think students, parents, teachers, and local communities – should be involved in the decision-making process regarding public education.

Feel free to like the idea of the Startup: Education, “surprisingly”, on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/startupeducation.