School Choice via Charter Schools: Individualism vs. the Common Good

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced new grants of $245 million (a quarter of a billion dollars) under its Charter Schools Program (CSP), for the creation and expansion of charter schools. The federal government awards these grants to what are known as SEAs —state educational agencies or, in common parlance, state departments of education—and to charter management organizations—the big chains of charter schools, many of them for-profit. But while the U.S. Department of Education continues to operate the Charter Schools Program as though nothing has changed, there is a whirlwind of controversy these days about the impact of charter schools.

In Ohio, everybody is waiting to see what Franklin County Common Please Court Judge Jenifer French will decide in the case brought by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT)—a huge online school being investigated by the Ohio Department of Education for collecting hundreds millions of tax dollars over the years for phantom students—students who sign up for ECOT but log-in for only about an hour every day, when the state requires five hours of active participation.  Why has ECOT sued for a preliminary injunction to block the state’s demand for records of students’ computer log-in times?  Because ECOT has not bothered to set up a comprehensive system for collecting this seemingly important information.  On Monday of this week, the Ohio Department of Education reported on an audit it has conducted with a sample of ECOT’s supposed students. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reports: “ECOT was paid about $106 million in state funding last year for a reported 15,322 full-time students.  But after a preliminary attendance review in March and a final review in August that required the school to verify its enrollment through student log-in durations, the department has concluded that ECOT’s actual verified enrollment is 6,313 students.  Based on the final determination, the department could try to force ECOT and its politically influential founder, Bill Lager, to repay about $60 million to the state.”  And potentially much more if there is a retroactive claw-back for over-payments in previous years.  Much hangs on Judge Jenifer French’s decision in what is rapidly becoming an outrageous scandal.

Then on Thursday, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post published the second installment of Carol Burris’s blockbuster report for the Network for Public Education on financial and academic abuses in California’s charter schools. California serves more students in charter schools than any other state, and the problems described by Burris astonish.  She describes Desert Sands Charter High School with 2,000 students, a four-year graduation rate of 11.5 percent and a dropout rate of 42 percent: “Desert Sands Charter High School enrolls nearly 2,000 students; almost all are Latino. It is part of the Antelope Valley School District, but you will not find it listed on Antelope’s website. Nor will you find Desert Sands at the Lancaster, Calif., address given on its own website.”  Burris describes a Desert Sands Charter School student whose “classroom was located in an office building across from a Walmart nearly 100 miles away from both Antelope Valley Schools and the Desert Sands’ address. Desert Sands is one of 15 independent learning center charter schools, which are defined as non-classroom-based independent study sites, connected to Learn4Life, a network of schools that claim to provide personalized learning.”  Former students “found their experience at the charter to be anything but ‘personalized.’  They described education at Dessert Sands as no more than a continuous cycle of paper packets, optional tutor appointments and tests that students continue to take until they pass. Three calls to three different Learn4Life charter schools confirmed that the instructional program was driven by paper packets that students pick up and complete. After packet completion, students take a test to earn credit… The schools are in reality a web of resource centers sprinkled in office buildings, strip malls and even former liquor stores.”  Burris, the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education and a retired, award-winning high school principal, knows what she is looking at when she evaluates a school. I urge you to read this week’s stunning critique, to go back and read her first post, and to anticipate upcoming releases.

Finally this week, In the Public Interest published a new report, How Privatization Increases Inequality and reached the very same conclusion about charter schools as Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who clarified her position in opposition to Massachusetts Question 2, a constitutional amendment that, if passed, would raise the state’s cap on the number of new charter schools that can be started up each year. In the Public Interest emphasizes two negatives as charter schools proliferate: they increase economic and racial segregation, and they drain money from the public schools that serve the majority of students and concentrations of children with special needs: “The introduction of private interests into public goods and services can radically impact access for certain groups.  In some cases, privatization can create parallel systems in which one system propped up by private interests typically serves higher income people while another lesser quality system serves lower income people. In other cases, the creation of a private system siphons funding away from the public system meant to serve everyone. In some situations, poor individuals and families can lose access to a public good completely… The rapid growth of charter schools in the landscape of public K-12 education has ignited many concerns, including their financial impacts on public school districts, the ability of state and local governments to hold charter schools accountable, and whether they provide a quality education to students. However, another related and serious concern is the evidence showing that charter schools create and perpetuate racial and socioeconomic isolation and segregation among students.”

Jeff Bryant, in his weekly commentary for the Education Opportunity Network, quotes Senator Elizabeth Warren as she rejects Massachusetts Question 2 for the very same reasons: “I’m just concerned about the proposal and what it means for the children all across the Commonwealth… Public officials have a responsibility not just to a small subset of children but to all of the children, to make sure that they receive a first-rate education.”

Warren echoes the ethical concern formulated by the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a Washington, D.C. town hall in 2011: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” There should be no losers built into the system: Jackson points to public education as the very definition of public responsibility for “lifting” all children—not just the children we might consider the winners and not merely the children whose parents know how to play the school choice game well enough to make their own children the winners.  As money is sucked out of large public districts in Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Cleveland to serve the relatively few children who can “choose” their way into a charter school, more and more people are considering the very premise of school choice in the context of their most basic values: support for the common good vs. endorsement of the pursuit of self-serving individualism.

Moskowitz and Petrilli Push Education Model Designed to Serve Strivers and Shed the Rest

It is amazing to watch Eva Moskowitz, New York City’s charter school diva, take on her arch political rival, Mayor Bill de Blasio in a charter school war she wages through histrionics and melodrama.  The two were rivals in New York’s city council, and only recently did Moskowitz decide not to challenge de Blasio for mayor in the next election.  She has amassed a powerful backing—from billionaire hedge fund managers to New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, who has proven himself responsive to the money Moskowitz’s supporters have donated to underwrite his own political campaigns.

Moskowitz, who eschews the term “brand,” has spent lots of time and money creating one.  It has been documented here and here that she and her supporters have employed the Washington, D.C. communications firm, SKD Knickerbocker, whose managing partner is Anita Dunn, the former communications director for the Obama White House.  One problem Moskowitz may not see, due to her obsession with building the power of her own Success Academy Charters, is that she may be damaging the entire charter school “brand” by persistently demonstrating the ethical problem inherent in school choice: such programs favor the few who are most promising at the expense of children who are more vulnerable and less desirable.

First, a couple of weeks ago, the PBS NewsHour aired a piece filmed by John Merrow on the outrageous suspension rates for children in Kindergarten and first grade at Success Academy Charters.  (This blog covered Merrow’s report here.)  Eva responded, typically, by attacking PBS and John Merrow.  Then last Thursday, Kate Taylor reported in depth for the New York Times on a Success Academy charter school that singled out children for disciplinary action after the school had determined that some children should be on a “Got to Go” list.  Taylor explains, “Success Academy, which is run by Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman, is the city’s largest charter school network.  It has 34 schools, and plans to grow to 70 in five or six years.  The network serves mostly black and Hispanic students and is known for exacting behavior rules.  Even the youngest pupils are expected to sit with their backs straight, their hands clasped and their eyes on the teacher, a posture that the network believes helps children pay attention… Good behavior and effort are rewarded with candy and prizes, while infractions and shoddy work are penalized with reprimands, loss of recess time, extra assignments and in some cases suspensions, as early as kindergarten.” While Success Academies must follow strict New York guidelines before expelling any student, Taylor reports that, “Success’s critics accuse it of pushing children out by making their parents’ lives so difficult that they withdraw.”  Taylor interviews parents who were called repeatedly to come to school and who were threatened that the school would call 911 if their very young children’s behavior did not improve. The implication, of course, is that if Success Academies can shape their classes by driving out “problem students”  before third grade when federally mandated testing begins, the test scores will be higher.

It has occurred to me to try to put together for this blog a history of the outrageous behavior of Eva Moskowitz, which this blog has covered on many occasions, but Daniel Katz, the director of the teacher preparation program for secondary and secondary special education teachers at Seton Hall University, accomplished just such a project over the weekend.  I urge you to read Katz’s blog post, Eva Moskowitz and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month.  It is a wonderfully readable profile of Eva and the building of her brand.  Katz begins by filling in some history for those of us who may have forgotten: “Since founding her first school in 2006, her network has grown to 34 schools with 11,000 students, and she is on track for 43 schools by next year with a goal of 100 eventually.  Her school lotteries were portrayed as the only hope of desperate parents in Waiting for Superman, a 2010 documentary/propaganda piece by Davis Guggenheim, and email records demonstrate that the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg lavished her with preferential treatment.  When both the state legislature and the office of Comptroller tried to exert legal authority to audit how Success Academy spends the public money it receives, Moskowitz has gone to court to block them – and won.  Her deep pocketed backers can raise millions of dollars on her behalf in a single night, and their donations to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with donations from Moskowitz’s own political action committee, have guaranteed preferential treatment from the Governor’s office…  In July of this year, billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson, gave a single $8.5 million gift to the network for creating even more schools. My goodness, but it is good to be Queen.  But things have unraveled a bit for Moskowitz.”

In recent days, Eva has called on her supporters to try to help with damage control.  One of them, Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-school choice, pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute, published an op-ed in the New York Daily News last Friday that declares what has has become Petrilli’s argument for charters: that they should be permitted to shun students who pose behavior problems.  The headline screams: The Real Moral Duty of Charter Schools: The Goal Should Be to Create Orderly and Challenging Environments Where Strivers from Poor Families Can Learn.  Petrilli explains that “troubled students have a statistically significant negative effect on their peers’ reading and math test scores.” He continues: “Parents understand this, and the desire for orderly schools with high expectations for student behavior is a major reason they search out high-quality charter schools.”  Petrilli criticizes public school policies: “They have to serve all comers, including students with significant cognitive disabilities and children who can’t speak a word of English.  To accomplish this next-to-impossible feat, (teachers are) told to ‘differentiate their instruction.’  We do this in the name of kindness, liberalism, and above all, ‘equity.'”

Petrilli does not discuss ways that better funded public schools could surround struggling children and families with social services or reduce class size to ensure more personal attention for each child.  Neither does Petrilli admit that what he is advocating is a system of traditional public school districts of last resort for the children who are not to be favored by attending places like Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools.  Perhaps, although he will not admit what may be the ultimate logic of his argument, he thinks there are some children who do not deserve to be educated at all.

School choice has been rapidly expanding now for two decades, and we need to be honest about what is happening across our cities.  If the parents who are the most persistent, savvy strivers opt out of the public schools and the charters find ways to shed the least desirable children, we end up with a nightmare in which parents with grit and children with discipline are are served and the rest of the children warehoused in the poorly funded institutions we require to serve all the children who appear at the door. It is a system based on competition and the exclusion of the children who show the least promise.

We ought to notice and consider the implications when politicians and far-right think tanks advocate through their actions and words that we move away from the ideal of inclusion that has been central to our understanding of public education.  Our society’s concept of public ethics has historically been influenced not only by the secular concept of the social contract but also by the traditional religious definition of justice, which springs from the belief that all are created equal, no person more valuable than another.  At a Washington, D.C. town hall in December of 2011, the Rev. Jesse Jackson warned about the meaning of competitive school choice: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Another religious leader, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the retired pastor of Washington, D.C.’s Foundry United Methodist Church, defines justice in terms that directly challenge the thinking of Eva Moskowitz and Michael Petrilli as they defend school choice: “(J)ustice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that  communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (Christian Perspectives on Politics, p. 216)

“Lift from the Bottom”—not “Race to the Top”— Is the Moral Imperative

Four years ago I listened as the Rev. Jesse Jackson defined what is wrong with today’s policies that shape the public schools.  His formulation was so pithy and so perfectly pointed at the real problem that I will never forget it.  Here is what he said: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Our deepest problem in public education is not really about some kind of technical solution to a teaching problem. Neither is it primarily a governance problem relating to elected or mayoral-appointed school boards. Neither is it about the advisability or use or administration of standards and tests, though that (very real and problematic) subject is dominating the press right now.  Our great dilemma these days is one of public morality—how we think about ourselves in community—the degree to which we care for one another—whether we address that concern in the public institutions that  serve the whole community not just individuals one at a time.  “‘Lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Blogger and Pennsylvania school teacher Peter Greene captures this reality in a recent and very prophetic blog post: “Charter fans brag about their successes.  They tell the starfish story.  They will occasionally own that their successes are, in fact, about selecting out the strivers, the winners… and allowing them to rise.  And it is no small thing that many students have had an opportunity to rise in a charter setting… Those students are able to rise because the school, like the pilot of a hot air balloon, has shed the ballast, the extra weight that is holding them down. It’s left behind, abandoned.  There’s no plan to go back for it, rescue it somehow.  Just cut it loose.  Let it go.  Out of sight, out of mind.  We dump those students in a public school, but we take the supplies, the resources, the money, and send it on with the students we’ve decided are Worth Saving… This is a societal model based on discarding people.  This is a school model based on discarding students… I repeat: It is no small thing that some students are carried aloft, lifted high among the clouds in that basket of high achievement. But I keep thinking of the ballast.”

The notion of “lifting from the bottom” has historically been at the heart of America’s understanding of public education.  In 1899, philosopher John Dewey declared, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” (The School and Society, p. 1)  Public education has been central to our definition of public responsibility.  We have believed that we are all responsible for the children who are the future citizens and leaders of our democracy—everybody.

That the idea of “race to the top” seems to have replaced the ideal of “lift from the bottom” says something about our culture’s current love affair with individualism and competition. We admire the individuals who win the race, but we don’t worry so much about everybody else. In a piece last week, the Rev. John Thomas, the former president and general minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, describes The Shrinking Public: “One of our great national stories is the flowering of public institutions—public libraries, public parks, public schools, public services, public highways, public office, public transportation, public universities, public health agencies…. Yet today that public is shrinking… Privately operated charter schools replacing closed public schools.  Tax credits for private donations to private schools, financed by public dollars.  Reduced staffing and hours at public libraries.  Rentals of public parks for the exclusive galas of private individuals.  Decaying public infrastructure, especially for public transportation.  Toll roads sold to private enterprises.  Slashed funding for public universities and, in places like Wisconsin, attempts to transform the intellectual underpinnings of higher education with the pinched goal of merely serving the employment needs of private business… Today’s wars are being fought not by a public army but by private contractors like the infamous Blackwater Corporation.  And as is obscenely apparent across the political spectrum, political campaigns for public office are being financed by an elite group of extremely wealthy private donors who will expect winners to serve their narrow private interests.”

Edwardo Porter, writing for the NY Times, describes the consequences of the substitution of an ethos of “racing to the top” for an ethic of “lifting up the bottom”: “Three or four decades ago, the United States was the most prosperous country on earth.  It had the mightiest military and the most advanced technologies known to humanity.  Today, it’s still the richest, strongest and most inventive.  But when it comes to the health, well-being and shared prosperity of its people, the United States has fallen far behind… (B)laming globalization and technological progress for the stagnation of the middle class and the precipitous decline in our collective health is too easy.  Jobs were lost and wages got stuck in many developed countries.  What set the United States apart—what made the damage inflicted upon American society so intense—was the nature of its response.  Government support for Americans in the bottom half turned out to be too meager to hold society together… Call it a failure of solidarity.  The conservative narrative of America’s social downfall, articulated by the likes of Charles Murray… posits that a large welfare state, built from the time of the New Deal in the 1030s through the era of the Great Society in the 1960s, sapped Americans’ industriousness and undermined their moral fiber.  A more compelling explanation is that when globalization struck at the jobs on which 20th-century America had built its middle class, the United States discovered that it did not, in fact, have much of a welfare state to speak of…  Call it a failure of solidarity.”

Porter cites statistics that demonstrate where our ethos of “racing to the top” has taken us.  Life expectancy has fallen for newborn girls to the degree that the U.S. now ranks 29th of 34 industrialized nations.  U.S. infant mortality continues to rise.  And in the area of public education, Porter presents the research of Stanford sociologist, Sean Reardon that, “the achievement gap between rich and poor children seems to have been steadily expanding for the last 50 years.”

Walmart Has Ruined our Towns: Will We Let the Walton Foundation Destroy our Schools?

Motoko Rich’s recent blockbuster article in the NY Times explores the vast reach of the Walton Foundation to promote and support the privatization of public education.  What has happened in Washington, D.C., writes Rich, is a microcosm of Walton’s investments in the promotion of an education revolution across the country: “In effect, Walton has subsidized an entire charter school system in the nation’s capital, helping to fuel enrollment growth so that close to half of all public school students in the city now attend charters, which receive taxpayer dollars but are privately operated… The foundation has awarded more than $1 billion in grants nationally to educational efforts since 2000, making it one of the largest private contributors to education in the country.”

Rich describes grants of over $1.2 million from the Walton Foundation to DC Prep, a Washington, D.C. network of four charter schools.  Walton also supports Teach for America, the alternative, five-week, Peace Corps-like certification program that has become a primary supplier of teachers for charter schools not only in the nation’s capital but across the country.  Not only does the Walton Foundation support particular privatized charter networks and programs to certify teachers outside the colleges of education, but it also funds the think tanks that have created and promoted the theoretical basis for today’s wave of school privatization including the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  It even “bankrolls an academic department at the University of Arkansas in which faculty, several of whom were recruited from conservative think tanks, conduct research on charter schools, voucher programs and other policies the foundation supports.”

Recently, according to Rich, Walton hired a staff person from the American Legislative Exchange Council as an education program officer. Rich lists Walton’s largest education grant recipients: the Charter School Growth Fund, Teach for America, KIPP charter schools, the Alliance for School Choice, GreatSchools Inc., StudentsFirst—Michelle Rhee’s advocacy group, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.  “The size of the Walton foundation’s wallet allows it to exert an outsize influence on education policy…. With its many tentacles, it has helped fuel some of the fastest growing and most divisive, trends in public education—including teacher evaluations based on student test scores and publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.

While Rich acknowledges serious criticism of the Walton Foundation by supporters of public education including Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, and Dennis Van Roeckel, president of the National Education Association, the stories she tells of high test scores at DC Prep and a father whose son attends Washington, D.C.’s Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and the Arts are from the point of view of particular families and parents who seek school choice for the purpose of meeting their own children’s needs.  The father admits, “Charter schools are a bit of a disservice to the public schools…. But in the meantime, between everyone fighting about it, I did not want my kids to be caught in the limbo.”

One can surely understand the lure of school choice from the viewpoint of individual parents who want to do right by their children, but one wishes Rich had done more to remind us what kind of  disservice to public education the D.C. charter school father may have been thinking about.  She quotes Marc Sternberg, who recently left Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education department in New York City to become director of K-12 education reform at the Walton Foundation: “The Walton Family Foundation has been deeply committed to a theory of change, which is that we have a moral obligation to provide families with high quality choices,” but Rich does not consider whether it is in fact possible to provide good choices for every child and family.  Rich comments, “While charter schools and vouchers may benefit those families that attend these schools, there may be unintended effects on the broader public school system,” but she does not explore closely what those effects may be.  She extolls the high test scores of DC Prep, but she does not examine, for example,  its attrition rate (an indicator in many places that charters have been known to shed students who will bring down score averages).  Neither does she report on the number of special education students, English learners, and extremely poor children enrolled (or not enrolled) at DC Prep in comparison to statistics for the District’s traditional public schools.

What does the Walmartization of American public education mean for the public education system that developed over two of centuries and that aspired to serve all of our society’s children?  Here we move from from the market world of Walmart to the more abstract principles of education philosophy, political philosophy, and public morality.  How quaint these ideas have come to seem in our corporatized and marketized world.  Our society has traditionally affirmed the principle that public education—publicly funded, universally available, required to accept all children who present themselves at the door, and accountable to the public—is the best way to try to ensure that all children are served.  We have thought of the public schools as the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need for a system that secures the rights of all children.  These goals have been aspirational, and we have made slow but sure progress in expanding the rights of children in marginalized groups to kind of public education that middle class children in the dominant culture have taken for granted.

Even in our corporatized world, there are proponents of a public system of education.  In a stirring address in 2000, at Teachers College, Columbia University, the late Senator Paul Wellstone describes society’s public moral obligation to serve all children.  He critiques the lack of equity in our public schools even as he speaks for public schools as the site where we must work collectively to serve all children: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”  The Rev. Jesse Jackson expresses the same profound ideal in this pithy observation: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Wellstone and Jackson remind us of society’s obligation to our collective children, but the idea is not merely that we aspire to equity for the sake of doing the good thing.  Both also believe that society itself benefits when all are prepared to participate actively in our democracy and all are prepared to share their gifts socially, politically, and economically.  Just over a hundred years ago, John Dewey, America’s best known philosopher of education, described this public benefit from universal public education:  “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”

For help thinking about the pervasive consumerism and commercialization of just about everything in our society today, I find myself drawn to Consumed, a fascinating book by the political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Consider the following passage in the context of Motoko Rich’s article on the Walton Foundation’s school privatization enterprise:  “The transfer of public power to private hands often is associated with a devolution of power; but in fact privatizing power does not devolve but only commercializes it, placing it in private hands that may be as centralized and monopolistic as government, although usually far less transparent and accountable, and also pervasively commercial.”(p. 145)

Barber would worry about turning the privatization of education over to Sam Walton, his descendents and the program officers of the Walton Foundation.  He would caution that these folks are less likely than a deliberative public body to look out for the interests of the children who are being lured into the charter schools in the District of Columbia and America’s other big cities these days: “The idea that liberty entails only private choice runs afoul of our actual experiences as consumers and citizens.  We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.  We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.”(p. 139)