Today is Labor Day. This blog is returning after a two-week break—two weeks filled with probing criticism of the controversial charter school education sector.
In a Labor-Day-related commentary, Harold Meyerson, executive editor of the American Prospect, explores the growing anti-union, anti-democratic power of the charter lobby: “Funded by billionaires and arrayed against unions, it is increasingly contesting for power in city halls and statehouses where Democrats already govern… This abrupt elevation (or self-elevation) of today’s charter school entrepreneurs into tomorrow’s civic leaders may seem surprising, but it’s part of a larger pattern… In future decades, historians will have to grapple with how charter schools became the cause celebre of centrist billionaires—from Walton to Bloomberg to Broad—in an age of plutocracy. The historians shouldn’t dismiss the good intentions behind the billionaires’ impulse: the desire to provide students growing up in poverty with the best education possible. But neither should they dismiss their self-exculpation in singling out the deficiencies, both real and exaggerated, of public education as the central reason for the evisceration of the middle class.”
Meyerson continues: “By spending sufficiently to shift the composition of Democratic caucuses in legislatures, city councils or school boards to the right, they (the charter school lobby) can undermine public education… In their mix of good intentions and self-serving blindness, the billionaire education reformers have much in common with some of the upper-class progressives of a century ago, another time of great wealth and pervasive poverty. Some of those progressives, in the tradition of Jane Addams, genuinely sought to diminish the economy’s structural inequities, but others focused more on the presumed moral deficiencies and lack of discipline of the poor. Whatever the merits of charters, the very rich who see them as the great equalizer are no closer to the mark than their Gilded Age predecessors who preached temperance as the answer to squalor.”
Then there was comedian John Oliver’s much publicized take-down of charter schools, created as less regulated and, hence, supposedly more creative and innovative than their public school counterparts that are castigated by charter proponents as hamstrung by bureaucratic oversight. If you haven’t watched Oliver’s amazing and carefully researched comedy critique, I urge you to check it out.
I also urge you to follow up by reading Jeff Bryant’s piece that expands upon Oliver’s ridicule. Bryant notes that because Oliver’s broadcast was so widely viewed, charter school advocates have rushed to criticize Oliver and defend their pet project. But, declares Bryant, “None of Oliver’s critics seriously refuted the crux of his argument that there might be something fundamentally wrong by design, rather than by implementation or intent, with the idea that a ‘free market’ of privately operated and essentially unregulated schools is a surefire way to improve education opportunities for all students… (W)hat charter advocates generally won’t admit is that many of the problems these schools cause are reflective of what inevitably seems to happen when an essential public service is privatized… Numerous experts point out charter schools blur the line from what it means to be a public institution providing a public good and that, by their very design, they expand opportunities to profiteer from public tax dollars and private public assets… Over the years, the U.S. Department of Education has rewarded charter schools with over $3.3 billion in federal funds, and with passage of the most recent federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, USDoE will send $333 million more to these schools before the current fiscal year is over.”
In the Washington Post, columnist Valerie Strauss published the transcript of Oliver’s critique and some of the response from charter school supporters. Strauss also responded to Oliver’s comedy riff by publishing an analysis from Carol Burris, the award-winning, now retired New York City high school principal who serves as executive director of the Network for Public Education: “The truth is, the deregulation that the high-scoring charter schools love so much also produces dismal charter failures, taxpayer fleecing and fraud And that, in the end, could cause the whole charter system to collapse.” Burris punctures the publicity balloon inflated by the promoters of charters over traditional public schools: “Only 4 percent of New York’s charter students are English Language Learners, as compared with over three times as many—13 percent—of the 3-8 students in New York City’s public schools. Fifteen percent of charter students in Grades 3-8 are students with disabilities, as compared with 22 percent of the students in New York City traditional public schools. These differences in who attends charters are part of a national pattern… Then there are differences in the degree of disability— a child with a mild learning disability is very different from one with severe autism or emotional problems… English Language Learners are also not a monolith. New arrivals with little if any fluency in English have lower test scores than English Language Learners (ELLs) who are close to exiting services. About 15 percent of the 3-8 students who are ELLs in New York City schools have been in the United States for less than a year, as compared with less than 1 percent in New York charter schools.”
Then there was the Labor Day-appropriate, late-August finding from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In a teachers union decision, the (NLRB) declared, “that charter schools are private and efforts to start teachers unions in them should fall under their purview, rather than the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) which oversees the public sector.” In Ohio, retired school administrator and former consultant on charter schools at the Ohio Department of Education, Denis Smith seized the NLRB’s decision as an opportunity to reflect on the definition of a public school. So much for all the bragging about “public” charter schools.