Charter Schools: In Whose Interests?

Is choosing a school like choosing a brand of milk in the grocery store?  According to one politician, giving parents a choice in selecting  schools is no different than giving them a choice in buying milk.  Here is what the former Governor of Florida said about milk and charter schools:

Everywhere in our lives, we get a chance to choose. Go down in the supermarket aisle and you will find an incredible selection of milk. You can get whole milk, buttermilk, 2 percent milk, low-fat milk, or skim milk, organic milk, and milk with extra Vitamin D. There’s flavored milk: chocolate, strawberry or vanilla. And it doesn’t even taste like milk. They even make milk for people who cannot drink milk. So, my question to you is, shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools that best meets the needs of their students?

Bush is one of Eugene Robinson’s brie-and-chablis reformers who is a patron of the idea that most teachers in the inner city are incompetent, and that most in the “upper crust” schools are, in Robinson’s words “paragons of pedagogical virtue.”

In this post I will argue that school choice is code for the opposition to desegregation and advocacy for charter schools (note: vouchers would also fit here, but I want to restrict this article to charter schools).  In a research article entitled The Rhetoric of Choice: Segregation, Desegregation, and Charter Schools, Ansley T. Erickson, assistant professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, suggests that:

A common thread runs through opposition to desegregation and advocacy for charter schools: the rhetoric of choice. This rhetoric emphasizes the power of individual action and decision-making and veils the deep influences of policy and politics. Examining the gap between the rhetoric and the reality clarifies the history of desegregation and contributes to a respectfully critical look at school “choice” in practice today.

The rhetoric of choice and de facto segregation renders invisible the policies that fostered residential segregation and those that linked segregated schools to segregated neighborhoods. Such invisibility contributes to color-blind suburban innocence, as University of Michigan historian Matthew Lassiter phrases it, through which white suburbanites exempt themselves from culpability for segregation and inequality. Embracing the rhetoric of choice, these suburbanites imagine their own success as the product of autonomous hard work, skillfully overlooking their reliance on extensive and effective government subsidy in housing and beyond.

School Choice

“School choice” is not a simple matter of choosing a good school for one’s child to attend.  School choice, as it is now inferred, does not result in better schools, or better learning for most students, but in fact increases segregation for students of color, and provides a less than effective school learning environment.  On this blog we have shown that in refereed research studies, public schools in a very wide margin, out perform charter schools across the country.  Yes, there are some effective charter schools, but from the research we can conclude that it would have better for students to go to a public school and not the charter school in which they enrolled.
As Professor Erickson suggests, a careful examination of the history of choice should call for an inquisitive attitude with regard to the current push across the country for charter schools.  She writes:

The powerful language of “choice” over- whelmed another reality in desegregation as well. How courts and school districts implemented desegregation continued many forms of inequality. Careful to document the many manifestations of white, middle-class resistance to desegregation, historians long neglected to consider what desegregation meant to black families and communities, how it was experienced by black children. In the 1950s and 1960s, desegregation often brought the closure of black schools, on the racist premise that white students could not be well educated in these venues but in fact, they were attempts to accommodate white parental choice, to make it less likely that white, middle-class families would leave desegregating public school districts. The policy-smoothed route to the suburbs gave middle-class white families a stranglehold on city and metropolitan education policy. By threatening to withdraw, these families could turn desegregation plans to their benefit and away from equitable implementation.

 Charter schools in the year 2012 do not contribute to the desegregation of American schools, nor do they offer a rich and varied pedagogical palate that exists in nearby wealthier school districts.  Instead, as Dr. Erickson reports:
most charter schools offer much less than “free choice.” For most families, and particularly for poor families, charter schools in their best form have brought the mean- ingful, but more restricted, possibility of attending better or similarly performing schools in their neighborhood or nearby, with similarly or more segregated student populations. But considering the growing power of urban-focused, consciously branded charter networks, charters are rarely vehicles of desegregation or jurisdictional boundary- crossing, and common measurement on narrow test-score matrices limits pedagogical variation.

These issues are rarely discussed in the context of the charter school movement.  Opposition to charters is usually along the lines of money, or taking local decision-making away from school boards.  Those in favor of charters use Governor Bush’s “milk buying option” reasoning that in a democratic society parents should have choice in determining what schools their children attend.

Because of the nation’s test-based perversion, schools limit the nature of learning to test-preparation.  Many of the teachers who work in charters, especially in the inner city, are inexperienced and un-certified.  Many of these teachers leave the profession in the first two or three years.  Would you “choose” a school with inexperienced staff to spend your child?

In Whose Interest?

In whose interest is it to promote charter schools?  Unfortunately it is not the parents or students who attend these schools.  Many parents are seduced into thinking that charter schools are a real choice for them, when in fact, beneath the surface are charter management companies, investors, real estate developers, and wealthy businessmen who have ordained themselves as saviors of public education.  Their plan is to privatize schools, and regulate the teaching profession by eliminating real teacher education, and in its place use the boot camp mentality of Teach for America.

The concept of a charter school was an innovative idea when it was formulated historically (in the late 1980s by the American Federation of Teachers!).  Albert Shanker, head of the AFT, proposed the idea of charters, and Richard Kahlenberg recounts its origins:

In Shanker’s vision, small groups of teachers and parents would submit research-based proposals outlining plans to educate kids in innovative ways. A panel consisting of the local school board and teachers’ union officials would review proposals. Once given a “charter,” a term first used by the Massachusetts educator Ray Budde, a school would be left alone for a period of five to 10 years. Schools would be freed from certain collective bargaining provisions; for example, class-size limitations might be waived to merge two classes and allow team-teaching. Shanker’s core notion was to tap into teacher expertise to try new things. Building on the practices at the Saturn auto plant in Nashville, Tenn., he envisioned teams of teachers making suggestions on how best to accomplish the job at hand. Part of the appeal of charter schools to Shanker and many Democrats was that they offered a publicly run alternative to private-school-voucher proposals, which they feared would undermine teacher collective bargaining rights and Balkanize students by race, religion, and economic status.

As Lisa Delpit reminds us, the first iteration of charter schools were to be beacons of what public schools could do.  Teachers were at the center of charter schools, and they would collaborate to design new models of teaching for the most challenging populations.  Dr. Delpit, in her recently published book, Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, says charter schools:

were intended to develop models for working with the most challenging populations. What they discovered was to be shared and reproduced in other public school classrooms. Now, because of the insertion of the “market model,” charter schools often shun the very students they were intended to help. Special education students, students with behavioral issues, and students who need any kind of special assistance are excluded in a multiplicity of ways because they reduce the bottom line—they lower test scores and take more time to educate properly. Charter schools have any number of ways of “counseling” such students out of their programs.

Delpit, Lisa (2012-03-20). “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children . Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

The charter school movement is a dangerous path for us to follow.  Although charter schools are public, and use tax payer funds, they resemble private schooling in the sense that they are not accountable in the same ways that public schools are evaluated.  Charter schools have boards that are not elected, and often the managing organization is an out-of-state enterprise that swoops in and sets up shop.

As Dr. Delpit puts it, public schools, that were once the beacon of democracy,

have been overrun by the antidemocratic forces of extreme wealth. Educational policy for the past decade has largely been determined by the financial contributions of several very large corporate foundations. Among a few others, the Broad, Gates, and Walton (Walmart) foundations have dictated various “reforms” by flooding the educational enterprise with capital. The ideas of privatization, charter schools, Teach for America, the extremes of the accountability movement, merit pay, increased standardized testing, free market competition—all are promulgated and financially supported by corporate foundations, which indeed have those funds because they can avoid paying the taxes that the rest of us must foot. Thus, educational policy has been virtually hijacked by the wealthiest citizens, whom no one elected and who are unlikely ever to have had a child in the public schools.

Delpit, Lisa (2012-03-20). “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children . Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

The charter school movement is in the interests of these foundations, and charter management organizations that control much of the charter school market.

Choosing a charter school for your student is not the same as choosing a glass of milk for your family.  It’s more like making a wrong turn into a dead-end street.

What is your opinion of charter schools?  In whose interests are charter schools?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University