You have to give John Merrow credit for being fair, thorough, and dogged. Merrow is the reporter, just retired, who has covered education for the PBS NewsHour. Merrow has never been ideological and he has shown himself willing to change his mind. He is the guy who filmed the tough Michelle Rhee firing a principal and later, after USA Today broke some of the evidence, went on to question the impact of Rhee’s rigid and punitive philosophy when it emerged there was a D.C. test-cheating scandal. Merrow doggedly investigated and exposed allegations of test-answer erasures one piece of evidence at a time to create a convincing case, despite that Rhee herself has continued to deny it.
Now Merrow is looking at charter schools. He explains that he has been covering charter schools since they were first discussed back in 1988. Here is the vision he remembers described at a conference he moderated: “(T)he dream was that every district would open at least one ‘chartered school,’ where enrollment and employment would be voluntary and where new ideas would be field-tested. Successes and failures would be shared, and the entire education system would benefit.” Merrow continues: “That naive optimism would be laughable if it were not for the harm that has befallen many students and the millions taken from public treasuries by some charter school operators (regardless of whether their schools are ‘for-profit’ or ‘non-profit’).”
He faults the Obama administration, which has provided billions of Charter School Program grants to start and grow charter schools across the states: “President Obama and his Secretary of Education are always careful to say that they support ‘good’ charter schools and oppose ‘bad’ ones, even as they approve spending federal funds to support charters schools. I question whether that qualifies as strong leadership.” The U.S. Department of Education has done nothing about improving or eliminating the ‘bad’ charters.
Merrow believes it is unconscionable that, “The leading national organization of non-profit charter schools, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is conspicuously silent on the ripping off that’s going on. To me, that group’s failure to make a stink makes it part of the problem.” Merrow reports on the comments from the leader of an organization of charter school authorizers, and from the leaders of some of the big charter school networks. All of them blame the problems on another part of the charter sector—the authorizers, the bad schools, parents, legislators and courts who “work in ways that keep bad or fraudulent schools going.”
“Sadly,” writes Merrow, “the term ‘charter school’ has become equally generic and virtually meaningless… The charter school behind those walls could be a model of innovation, but it is just as likely to be a ‘drill-drill-drill’ machine or a profit-making engine for greedy entrepreneurs.” He wonders: “Why aren’t the leaders of acclaimed charter management organizations on the barricades?… How far does the taint have to spread before those folks wake up?”
Merrow proposes the launch of a charter school ‘hall of shame,’ and he prints a bibliography of links to news articles that begin to document the scope of the problem from Ohio to Pennsylvania to South Carolina to North Carolina to Michigan to New York to Louisiana to Georgia. He also adds links to reports that track problems nationally.
Several days after Merrow expressed his dismay, Michael Alison Chandler reported in depth for the Washington Post on a different but equally serious problem in D.C.’s charter schools: “enrollment cutoffs—which leave seats at some of the city’s most successful urban (charter) schools empty.” “Charter schools have far more control over how and when they admit new students, choosing which grades will accept new enrollment and whether they will take students midyear. Most of the city’s neighborhood schools must admit students at any time.”
Chandler describes arguments made by those who think charter schools, unlike public schools, should be able to set enrollment caps that enable the schools to shape their student populations selectively without taking all the students who would like to attend: “Some argue that limiting student mobility is crucial to building the kind of routines and school culture that enable success and offer students that chance at a challenging, college-preparatory education. Others say it’s not fair for publicly funded schools to have a key advantage in bolstering academic performance that neighborhood schools don’t have: the ability to limit the number of underprepared transfer students they serve….” She quotes Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas Fordham Institute, who describes a very different vision for charter schools than the one John Merrow heard in 1988: “I see nothing wrong with charters functioning as a poor man’s private school. I see much that’s right about that.. What’s not right is to say, ‘We are just the same as any other public school,’ when you are not behaving the same way as a public school.”
How do charter schools in Washington, D.C. manipulate their enrollment? Chandler explains that, “85 percent of charter schools accepted applications for all grades last year…. (b)ut some school leaders said that although they accept applications for every grade, they do not necessarily enroll students in all grades. Two Rivers, a Northeast charter school with the longest waiting list in the city, does not typically enroll students in eighth grade, its terminal year. And Capital City, a popular school in Northwest, does not enroll students in 12th grade. Officials at both schools said they are committed to replacing students who leave in earlier grades.” Chandler continues, “Lindsay Kelly, a spokeswoman for KIPP DC, said that KIPP schools backfill when seats become available in all grades as a matter of principle. But they do it ‘in the least-disruptive way possible’… enrolling them only at the beginning of the school year, a common practice in charter schools.”
So how is all this quiet selectivity in a supposedly public system (Charters are publicly funded.) rationalized by those in charge? Chandler interviews “Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, (who) has argued that if the city’s charters grow too large, there could be additional pressure to regulate the independently operated schools as if they were neighborhood schools. That would endanger the flexibility that helps fuel their success, he said, including the option to not backfill.”
I imagine that most of America finds Pearson’s idea of justifying a selective “public” system for the purpose of protecting high test scores to be a pretty foreign—and repugnant—idea. The vast majority of us live in places where we pay our taxes to support schools that are publicly funded, publicly owned, publicly operated, publicly accountable, and open to all. My children attended such public schools in an urban, inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. I student-taught at such a high school in small-town Iowa. And in the seventh grade when my family moved in January, I was allowed to be “backfilled” into a junior high school in Havre, Montana on a glitteringly cold, thirty-five-below-zero morning when my mother took me directly to the school to sign me up. She handed the secretary the records from my school in another state, she signed the papers, and I was sent immediately to first-period homeroom. In 2015 as on that 1960 day when I was registered mid-year for seventh grade, many families have to move during the school year. While today the formal school registration process may require a formal visit to a board of education’s registration office, most of us continue to expect that our children will be welcomed at school when we must transfer them mid-year.
We need to take note and consider what it means if the idea of charter schooling is radically shifting the idea that public schools will serve all children. It is becoming clear that many of the charter schools bragging loudest about their test scores are not serving the same children as their traditional public school counterparts.