Debate Continues: Small High Schools vs. Comprehensive High Schools

The debate about high school size is back in the news.  Are adolescents better off in small high schools or are there advantages to comprehensive high schools?   Even though back in 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave up its nationwide philanthropic experiment in the establishment of small high schools when it acknowledged that small schools had not significantly raised test scores, in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg continued to expand school choice.  Bloomberg opened 656 smaller schools including charters and at the same time closed 157 schools, many of them comprehensive high schools.  In New York City many smaller schools are currently co-located in the buildings that used to be enormous comprehensive high schools.

In October, the research organization MDRC released Headed to College, another in the series of studies it has been publishing since 2010 to justify former New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s small high schools.  MDRC reports that New York City’s small high schools of choice (SSC), “have markedly increased graduation rates for disadvantaged students of color, many of whom start high school below grade level.”  The schools, says MDRC, provide “academically rigorous curricula and personalized learning environments….” “On average…. attending an SSC increased the probability of graduating from high school in four years and attending a postsecondary education program the following year by 8.4 percentage points.”

There is considerable evidence, however, that the picture is not as bright as what MDRC portrays.  A study by The New School Center for New York City Affairs (2009) documents there was massive collateral damage when large high schools were phased out and closed.  Their students—many of them low-performing—who did not participate in the school choice process were relocated to other large high schools, which were immediately destabilized by the number of struggling students who arrived at their doors.  Many of the receiving schools were subsequently closed. “An analysis of 34 large high schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx (defined as those with more than 1,400 students in 2007-2008) found that 26 saw their enrollments jump significantly as other high schools were closed… While the DOE (Department of Education) has trumpeted the success of the new small schools for at-risk students, the net gain for all high school students is much smaller because the majority of high schoolers still attend large schools… Many students who might once have been assigned to the closed schools were diverted to other remaining large schools.  Those schools saw steep increases in enrollment followed by declines in attendance…. Many were themselves then soon shut down….”

Advocates for Children and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (2009) studied the impact on English Language Learners of the closure of large high schools as small high schools were launched.  “The DOE moved forward with its plans to phase-out these schools and replace them with schools that did not sufficiently take into account the needs of Brooklyn’s ELL student population.  As predicted, these actions have effectively segregated ELLS into large, overburdened schools or the relatively few small schools that are designed to serve them, and have denied many ELL students equal access to the educational opportunities offered by the wide variety of new small schools.”  Another report from the Urban Youth Collaborative and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (2011) criticized the devastating effect of the school district’s favoring small high schools of choice over the comprehensive high schools: “High schools targeted for closure were set up to fail by being assigned high percentages of students who were overage for grade and whose skills were significantly below proficiency levels.  High schools targeted for closure were also assigned large percentages of Special Education and English Language Learner students as well as ‘over the counter’ students… These large high schools were also consistently starved, by the  DOE, of the resources necessary to meet the needs of their challenged students.”

In 2013, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform followed up with its devastating report, Over the Counter, Under the Radar. The Annenberg researchers explain precisely which students the New York City school district defines as “over the counter” (OTC)—the students who show up to register for school but who do not participate in the school choice application process: “OTC designees are among the school system’s highest needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, teens who have been incarcerated or have come from correctional facilities or juvenile detention, students living in poverty or from transient families, homeless youth, students over age for grade, or with skill levels significantly below grade, as well as students with histories of behavioral incidents in their previous schools.  Because many OTC students show up at their assigned schools without previous academic records, and because they often arrive after the school year has begun, these late-enrolling students often pose considerable instructional and operational challenges.”  “Large and medium-sized struggling high schools had, on average, a more than 50 percent higher rate of OTC student assignment than the rest of the high schools.”

Despite what MDRC describes as the success of New York City’s small school of choice for increasing the number of high school students’ graduating on time and matriculating at institutions of higher education, the reports cited here document that the New York City school district’s chosen policy of opening small high schools has not helped an enormous group of students who remain in its large comprehensive high schools.  School choice, after all, is a strategy designed to serve the students and parents who are active choosers.  I am encouraged to read Elizabeth Harris’s  NY Times story about Santiago Taveras, who, as deputy schools chancellor, helped implement Mayor Bloomberg’s strategy of opening small schools of choice and closing comprehensive high schools.  Taveras has now accepted the challenge of serving as principal of the 2,200 student, DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx: “When I heard de Blasio say he wasn’t going to close schools, I thought, ‘That’s interesting. What are we doing to do instead? I want to be part of that.'”

Harris summarizes the history of dumping high-needs students in the city’s comprehensive high schools: “But as hundreds of small schools opened, principals and teachers at the remaining large schools like Clinton often complained—and statistics often corroborated—that they were getting disproportionately high numbers of the most challenging students.  ‘It was like a light switch going off—like, oh, my gosh, where did these kids come from?’ said Ann Neary, an Advanced Placement literature teacher who has been at Clinton for 10 years.  ‘We have some fabulous students, and that’s why I teach here every day, but we got a lot of kids who couldn’t possibly have graduated in four years, and were totally happy to teach them and to help them. But then we got slapped on the wrist for students not graduating on time.'”

Norman Wechsler, the principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the 1990s, reflects upon the challenge Santiago Taveras has undertaken by agreeing to turn around the large school after all the years of New York’s assigning students with high needs to its comprehensive high schools: “It’s much more difficult now than when I did it.  The school now has a very, very high percentage of students who are very highly at risk.”

With Mayor de Blasio and his chancellor Carmen Farina committing to provide far more support for schools like DeWitt Clinton, Mr. Tavaras faces an enormous challenge and an urgently important opportunity.  The school leadership in New York City is acknowledging a reality that was denied for too long as small high schools were New York’s latest flavor of the day. Comprehensive high schools can be made to turn their very size into an asset for their students.  Harris explains in her NY Times story: “as a large school, Clinton does have some advantages, like a wider variety of classes, teams and extracurricular activities than small schools can generally manage.”  Harris quotes DeWitt Clinton’s music teacher and coordinator of student activities: “We have beginning  band, intermediate band and marching band; we have beginning chorus, intermediate chorus and advanced chorus; and we have those three levels in guitar.  The reason we have all that is the number of students substantiates a large number of staff.”


New York City’s New Teachers’ Contract Matters—To All of Us

The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, where he writes a blog.  Last Thursday, the 1st of May, the Rev. Thomas posted the following:  “May Day commemorates the Haymarket uprising in Chicago in 1886 that began as a march by workers in support of the eight hour workday.  It continues to be celebrated in many places as a day to honor workers and to rally workers to the labor movement.  But these days May Day is perhaps more aptly described as a collective “Mayday!” on behalf of workers who have been under assault for decades—lost jobs, suppressed wages, broken unions, attacks on collective bargaining, reduced benefits, and on and on it goes.”

It is therefore particularly fitting that last week on Thursday, May 1, 2014, New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio and the United Federation of Teachers agreed on a contract that will end a bitter, long running dispute.  The NY Times covered the agreement, noting that “The teachers’ union has been without a contract for four and a half years…. The retroactive pay granted in the deal is the same pair of 4 percent raises that most other municipal unions received in 2009 and 2010.” In an earlier article, the NY Times reported that New York City’s 100,000 school teachers and other school employees represented by the United Federation of Teachers had been without a contract since 2009.  (Members of the United Federation of Teachers will be taking a vote soon on the agreement.)

Many of you who read this blog may live far from New York City and may wonder if New York City’s new labor agreement with its teachers is relevant to you.  Consider that New York’s previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was a leader in the national wave of hostility toward teachers and their unions. The NY Times editorial board, which has not always been complimentary to the new Mayor de Blasio, praised him this past Saturday in an editorial: “Dispensing with the unproductive tension that tarnished the Bloomberg administration, the two sides showed that real progress can be made—on both the fiscal and the educational sides of the contract—when there is good will instead of disdain.”  Bloomberg’s active disdain for New York’s  teachers’ union provided cover for too many leaders across the country to attack teachers and their unions. It is to be hoped that  New York’s new contract with its teachers will become a symbol of the beginning of a national change of heart about school teachers.

Four years ago, the Rev. Thomas posted another blog that seemed so significant to me that I have kept it right in the front of my clipping file of articles about school teachers.  Rev. Thomas titled his piece, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers.  Here is what Rev. Thomas wrote on June 3, 2010: “Earlier this year Arne Duncan and Barack Obama publicly affirmed the decision of a Rhode Island school district to fire every teacher at a failing public high school.  Do we really think every teacher at that high school deserved to be fired?… This spring the governor of New Jersey, angry at the pace of negotiations with teachers’ unions, publicly urged citizens to vote down their school levies knowing full well what kind of devastating impact that would have on public school classrooms in his state.  This Sunday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a front page report on the teachers in the Cleveland Public Schools that, at least to me, seemed designed to paint teachers in the worst possible light as overpaid, underworked, intransigent about reform, and not overly competent.”

And since 2010, the attacks on teachers have only worsened.  Although the majority of  teachers’ contributions to the lives of their students can be named only with words grammarians would call abstract, non-count nouns—learning, reason, discernment, creativity, character, encouragement, support, perseverance, discipline—school teachers have now seen their work quantified with value-added-measures—econometric formulas based on students’ scores on standardized tests.  In fact to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, states had to promise to incorporate students’ scores on the statewide test into their teacher evaluation systems.  Teachers are being blamed for shortfalls (due to the recession and in some places mismanagement) in the public pension systems they pay into throughout their careers, even as many states do not have public employees pay into Social Security.  Now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he plans to institute new ratings for the Colleges of Education where teachers are trained.  We have come to accept the language of economics to discuss the “inputs” teachers contribute and the  “outcomes” teachers are thought to “produce,” and we’ve learned that the inputs don’t really matter.  What’s measurable in the outcomes is all that counts.

I frequently find myself thinking about the observation of Parker Palmer, the writer who devoted his career to helping people consider their vocation.  Palmer wrote The Courage to Teach to help exhausted teachers recover their connection to their sense of calling.  In his introduction to a companion volume, Stories of The Courage to Teach, Palmer asks us to appreciate teachers in ways that can neither be counted nor computed, nor measured, nor monetized:

“America’s teachers are the culture heroes of our time.  Daily they are asked to solve problems that baffle the rest of us.  Daily they are asked to work with resources nowhere near commensurate with the task.  And daily they are berated by politicians, the public, and the press for their alleged failures and inadequacies…  If you are not a teacher and are skeptical either about their plight or their dedication,… visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers for a couple of days.  Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (pp. xvii-xviii)

Thank you, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for recognizing the work of New York City’s teachers with a fair contract.



In NYC, Charters May or May Not “Backfill” Students; Public Schools Take Everybody

Who knew that New York City has a name for what lots of charter schools do or fail to do: accept new students when students drop out.  Backfilling students.  In NYC,  “backfilling students” is a practice that is chosen or rejected by particular charter school operators.

Right now it is also the subject of policy discussions in NYC about what should be expected of charter schools and charter school networks as a condition of their charters.  According to an excellent article that explains all this from Chalkbeat New York: “Charter schools (in NYC) must spell out their enrollment policies when they ask for permission to operate.  But authorizers have been loath to require charters to adopt one backfill policy or another, seeing it as one way in which the schools exercise their autonomy that defines them as a charter school, and so schools frequently include vague language in their charters.”

Chalkbeat New York continues:  “Now, the issue is growing in prominence as school leaders try to anticipate how the mayor will deal with charter schools in the years ahead, and especially how the city might charge charter schools rent to operate in public space.”   There are important considerations of equity as the new mayor, Bill de Blasio and his education chancellor Carmen Farina try to address the privilege and favored status some charter school operators received under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “One charter leader described the potential trade-off this way: The city provides space rent-free if the schools commit to more inclusive enrollment tactics.  Then the choice becomes the operator’s: do we want to go along or stick to our model and pay a penalty for it?”

Some charter school operators in NYC and elsewhere refuse to fill places vacated by children who drop out, because they claim that it is more difficult to bring newcomers fully into the school’s culture or to catch new students up academically.  “Backfilling seats that open up can pose steep challenges for schools.  Students who enter the school midyear or at one of a school’s higher grade levels can have trouble adjusting to the new school and be academically behind.  Midyear entries especially are more likely to have unstable home lives, leading to them leaving the school—meaning that one ‘backfilled’ seat might actually be filled by two or three students over the course of a year.”

This is a common situation for traditional public schools, but Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools, for example, “backfill” only young children in the very early grades—only “through the third grade, and students in all subsequent grades up to high school must have started by that grade.”  It is believed that one reason Moskowitz’s schools and others that refuse to “backfill” are able to post high test scores is because they do not continue to accept new students, as traditional schools are required to do.

In contrast, Chalkbeat New York describes Harlem Link Charter School’s policy of accepting new students to fill vacated seats.  The school’s founder believes the school should continue to accept new students in every grade despite that, “Last year 17 percent of its students cleared the state’s proficiency bar in reading, below the city’s average, and 29 percent did in math, which is at the city average.”

The issue is complicated because some charters are privileged by receiving free rent in district-owned buildings. Public funding for charters in New York is provided on a per-pupil basis.  Schools that are paying rent for their facilities must accept enough students to fill all the seats because each child carries part of the funding that will pay the rent.  The privileged charter chains, Success Academies, for example, can afford not to “backfill students” because they are not faced with the expense of paying rent.

Ironically, there isn’t a name for the historical practice of accepting all children who present themselves at traditional public schools across America. Children come to school and a place is found for them in class.  When a practice is just part of what has always happened for as long as anybody can remember, there is no reason to consider giving that practice a name.  I suppose in a traditional public school it might simply be called the “we take everybody” practice.

NYC Schools Capital Budget Shifts to Prioritize Preschool Classrooms over Charter School Co-Location

A quick Saturday post…

New York City’s new school chancellor has indicated a significant shift in priorities.  Yesterday as she described the school district’s capital improvement budget, she prioritized making sure there are enough preschool classrooms by taking money from the budget line formerly designated to prepare spaces for locating privately managed charters in public buildings.

The NY Times reports:  “The chancellor, Carmen Fariña, in describing the Education Department’s $12.8 billion capital plan, said she would seek to redirect $210 million that had been reserved for classroom space for charter schools and other nonprofit groups. The money, spread out over five years, would instead be used to create thousands of new prekindergarten seats…”

Mayor de Blasio Defends Preschool and After-School Programs with Determination

New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio made the needs of young children and pre-adolescents the centerpiece of his election campaign last fall.   A promotional website describes a well framed  “plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to fund universal pre-k for every four year old and after school for every middle school student in New York City.”

In New York approving even local tax requests is a state responsibility. Yesterday de Blasio traveled to Albany to ask members of the General Assembly to pass enabling legislation for the modest New York City income tax he seeks to levy on those earning over $500,000 annually.

Pressure from de Blasio has forced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to address the need for preschool as well, though the details are a little murky because his plan is also paired with the statewide tax cut he anticipates will help him get reelected next fall.  According to Bloomberg News,  Cuomo says pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds across the state will cost $2.2 billion; Mayor de Blasio says his plan for pre-kindergarten and after school programs for middle schoolers in New York City alone will cost $2.5 billion.  He has proclaimed he will not back down on a plan that is urgently needed by New York City’s families.

Asking de Blasio to accept his more modest statewide proposal, Cuomo charges de Blasio can’t possibly get a program set up to provide preschool for 54,000 four-year-olds by September.  Cuomo also suggests a more modest start-up and phase-in.  Proclaiming such programs should be a right for all children in New York City, the new mayor is unwilling to carve these programs back by making them available only to poor families who clearly demonstrate the greatest need.  According to the NY Times, the mayor told lawmakers, “The city’s right to self determination ought to be honored in Albany.”

Bloomberg News reports that deBlasio intends to reach all 4-year-olds by using half of almost 4,000 classrooms identified by officials within public school buildings along with sites in community-based organizations.  The mayor predicts an average cost at $10,239 per child, or $340 million annually, including  expansion and operational costs, with almost $100 million for start-up and infrastructure costs.

The mayor’s proposed tax would also provide optional after school programs at school, a library, or a community organization for 205,000 middle school students.  According to the Hechinger Report which is covering this part of de Blasio’s plan, the number of seats available in such programs has been significantly reduced during the lean budget years since 2008.  The mayor promotes this part of his plan by noting the need for good supervision to keep kids out of trouble in the after-school hours and for the kind of enrichment more affluent children take for granted: “After-school programs can help students find something they love to do, whether dance, theater, or sports, providing motivation that extends to the regular academic day.”

Mayor de Blasio says a primary reason he continues to push for a dedicated local funding stream rather than accepting Cuomo’s proposed compromise is to avoid the ups and downs of the state budget and appropriations process.  He emphasizes the need for reliable funding.  After all, New York is one of 34 states that has not restored public school funding to the 2008, pre-recession level.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, New York spends 5.1 percent less, in inflation adjusted dollars, on public education than it did in 2008.

The new mayor’s determination to defend his program on its merits has kept the eye of the press on the needs of young children, pre-adolescents and families in New York City.  His plan to put a program in place without a long phase-in demonstrates deBlasio’s determination to address inequality.  Children and families can’t wait and for most there is no way to afford a private program.

De Blasio Appoints Experienced Educator as NYC Chancellor: A Sign of Hope

In A Brief History of Reform!, life-long and much beloved educator Deborah Meier contrasts the educational philosophies of John Dewey, who believed the school should model and therefore teach democracy, and Ellwood Cubberley, the technocrat who promoted so-called scientific management of schools.  As an educator Meier founded schools that modeled Dewey’s philosophy; Cubberley was the direct ancestor of today’s school reformers.

Today Meier celebrates New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointment of Carmen Farina, a 40-year teacher, principal, and school administrator—her entire career spent serving the children of New York City.

Clearly Farina and de Blasio have much work to do to curb special favors like free rent for charters and to undo policies like almost universal school choice at the high school level.  This is the policy that the Annenberg Institute for School reform exposed last year for assigning what New York City schools formally designate as “over-the-counter-children” (the children of parents who do not participate in school choice but instead expect the district to make a school assignment) to schools already being dismantled in preparation for closure.  And then there is the school closure policy itself that is already underway to dismantle several of New York City’s comprehensive high schools one grade at a time.  Addressing these issues will be a daunting task.

As we begin a new year, however, there is reason for optimism in New York City.  A forty-year, veteran educator has been appointed chancellor.  It wasn’t too long ago that the outgoing mayor appointed as chancellor Cathleen P. Black, whose work experience was limited to publishing—overseeing Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Good Housekeeping for Hearst Magazines.

De Blasio Launches Campaign for Universal Pre-School With this Video

Here is the very lovely little video  that New York City mayor-elect, Bill de Blasio is using to promote his proposal for universal pre-school in New York City and after school programs for all students in middle school.

The state legislature would have to pass his program to tax the very rich to pay for these important programs.  He will become mayor on January 1, 2014, but he has already launched a campaign for these important programs for the children in New York City.

NY Times Series Is About Homelessness, Poverty, Inequality and Public Education

This week’s New York Times feature series, Invisible Child, about a gifted Brooklyn preteen and her life for several years in a decrepit homeless shelter with her parents and six siblings, explores—from the point of view of the child herself—the mass of ways opportunity can be crushed.  Andrea Elliott, the reporter, traces Dasani’s journey from crisis to crisis over the several years her large family resides together in a 520-square-foot room.

This is also a story of the role of a public school in the life of a child who lacks another anchor.  At school she has her own place to hang her coat.  School is a place where much of the time she can hide the fragility of her family’s stability and where the principal and a special teacher willingly care for her and her siblings.

Here is a child whose parents both struggle with drug addiction and whose mother counsels her to fight to secure her place.  But Dasani also listens to the teacher she respects, someone who grew up in the neighborhood, and who advises, “I don’t ever wanna hear, ‘Well, my mother told me to do this,’ unless you know that’s the right thing.  I am telling you, as sure as I’m sitting here, you’re gonna be held responsible for the choices you make.” “You care about your life.  There are people out there who are so hurt they don’t care about leaving here. They are looking for an opportunity to do something crazy and ridiculous.  They have nothing to live for.  I am telling you to listen to your internal barometer.  Think about your next move before you make your next move.”

At a time when schools are judged by the average test scores of their students and when teachers are being evaluated by the econometric value-added formulas that consider cumulative test score growth of all the students in each teacher’s class, it is easy to forget what teachers really mean in the lives of the children in their classes.  Dasani’s teacher—the young woman from the projects who made it out on a scholarship to the State University of New York at Cortland and then came home to be a public school teacher—serves as an extraordinary and believable role model for this child who confesses at one point, “I don’t dream at all. Even when I try'”

Family homeless is a serious and growing worry in New York City.  Elliott explains: “Children are not the face of New York’s homeless… Their homelessness is hidden.  They spend their days in school, their nights in shelters…  Their numbers have risen above anything in the city’s modern history, to a staggering 22,091 this month.  If all of the city’s homeless children were to file into Madison Square Garden for a hockey game, more than 4,800 would not have a seat.”

The series of articles, Invisible Child, is long and heart wrenching.  I recommend taking the time to read and think about it.

DeBlasio Appoints One of the Best Parent Advocates to Transition Team

The New York Daily News reports that New York City Mayor-Elect Bill DeBlasio has appointed Ms. Zakiyah Ansari to his 60 member transition team.  Ms. Ansari will be weighing in on matters as important as the choice of New York’s next school chancellor.

As a parent of eight children, all of whom have graduated from or are currently attending New York City public schools, and as advocacy director for the New York Alliance for Education Justice, Ms. Ansari has been among the most effective critics of the closure of pubic schools in New York City and the co-location of charter schools into buildings that also house traditional public schools.

She has led statewide protests in Albany for fair school funding under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court case remedy and she has been a persistent and outspoken critic of the policies imposed by Mayor Bloomberg, his appointed school board, and his appointed chancellors, Joel Klein, Cathie Black, and Dennis Walcott.

Also appointed to DeBlasio’s transition team is Kim Sweet, executive director of New York’s Advocates for Children. Sweet and her organization have repeatedly filed lawsuits against Bloomberg’s policies affecting children with special needs.

I have personally known Zakiyah Ansari for over five years and I am heartened that a skilled organizer who can represent the needs of the parents and children she knows so well will be influencing policy with New York’s mayor-elect.  What happens in New York, as we know from the Bloomberg years, impacts the entire nation.

Billy Easton, a long-time and very effective community organizer and executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, comments on the Mayor-elect’s appointments:  “There’s no question the transition team represents a dramatic change.  But that’s what DeBlasio ran on.  There’s a thirst for change.”

Universal Access and Public Ownership: Charter Schools Don’t Meet These Criteria

This past weekend a friend, realizing some of my concerns about charter schools, said, “Look.  You should go visit my friend’s charter school. He is doing a terrific job. You shouldn’t write off charter schools.”

Let me take this opportunity to go on record: I realize there are a whole range of charter schools including some that do a fine job of providing opportunities for their students.  There are quality charter schools.

But I also know that public school policy must be systemic.  Society can never balance the needs of each individual child and the rights of all children one charter school at a time.  Nor can we possibly achieve justice by creating a set of “escapes from the public schools,” charter school by charter school.  There is a problem of scale for one thing.  Public schools in America educate 50 million children.  The more promising alternative is to set about improving the public schools that struggle.  Struggling public schools are usually located in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, and they are almost always underfunded by their state legislatures.

Let me outline more specifically my concerns about relying on charters for school reform. My first concern is about access.  Charter schools serve about 6 percent of our students.  Quality charter schools that provide excellent education are doing so for a tiny percentage of the children who need opportunity. The great advantage of public education is that it is systemic.  No matter where you live—whatever state, city, suburb, small town, or rural area—you are promised a public school for your child.  Yes public schools have reflected the racism and economic inequality of the society in which they are set.  But as public institutions, they have been amenable to improvement by those seeking to make our society more just.

Charter schools are not so amenable to reform… which raises my second concern: public ownership, the right of the public to regulate the institutions that depend upon tax dollars. The public has the capacity to improve institutions that are publicly owned, publicly managed, and publicly regulated.  But charter schools, while they often call themselves “public charter schools,” are public only to the degree that they receive public dollars to operate.  In legal cases when charter schools have been sued, their attorneys have successfully argued that because they are private institutions, they are not publicly accountable.

As institutions funded primarily with tax dollars, charter schools ought to be accountable for protecting the children being educated at public expense, and they should be accountable for careful stewardship of the public dollars being spent.  Yet in too many places public oversight is missing.  While the federal government has been providing huge incentives for states to expand the number of charter schools through programs like Race to the Top, the federal government has no capacity to regulate charter schools.  Regulations must come from the fifty state legislatures, which are affected by politics and the gifts of political supporters.  My state, Ohio, is notorious for poor oversight of charter schools.  Here is the text of an e-mail blast this morning from William Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding:

“Charter schools sponsor, St. Aloysius Orphanage of Cincinnati, approved eight new charter schools for this school year. St. Aloysius contracted with Charter School Specialists of Pickerington to manage whatever responsibility the official sponsor has under law. These eight charter schools, named Olympus, applied for funding based on 1,600 students. Ohio Department of Education approved funding (deducted from public school district budgets) for 700 students rather than 1,600. These charter schools received $1.17 million of school districts’ money as of the end of October.  (It would be interesting to know how much of the $1.17 million went to St Aloysius and Charter School Specialists of Pickerington.)  All eight charter schools, with a combined enrollment of 128 students, have closed.  Three of the eight schools had a total of 15 students for which these charter schools received $29,200 per student for two months of instruction or the equivalent of over $130,000 per student per school year.  The spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) was asked by a Dispatch reporter if any of the funds could be recovered. The ODE response was that he didn’t know if any individual could be held financially responsible for any overpayment.”  The details of Phillis’ comment are confirmed by the Columbus Dispatch.

For many of us across Ohio, for years there has been a sense of mystery about St. Aloysius Orphanage. How did  this former orphanage get so much power from the legislature to authorize charter schools all across the state?  Whoever ensured that organizations like St. Aloysius Orphanage got approved as Ohio’s charter school authorizers continues to ensure that the same favored authorizers continue to operate.

The Washington Post recently examined incoming New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s education platform as a challenge to the education policies of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  DeBlasio has expressed concern about public stewardship of charter schools.  One of the things DeBlasio has promised is to begin charging rent when well-heeled charter schools occupy public school buildings. DeBlasio has flatly stated that “programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent.”  Earlier this fall  Success Academy charters, which have attracted additional state grants as well as private money, led a protest across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest DeBlasio’s proposal that such charters begin paying rent.  Eva Moskowitz, a well-connected former member of the NYC city council, is being paid $475,000 to run Success Academy’s charter schools.  According to The Washington Post, that is “more than twice the salary of the city’s schools chancellor.”