Like the caffeine-charged salesmen who insist that this latest gadget in the palm of your hand will actually deliver eternal happiness and assuage your inner discontent for good, the knights of the charter school movement have a lot of promises and a lot of answers. They have big names (President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill Gates) and big publicity (Davis Guggenheim’s film Waiting for “Superman” earned many stellar reviews and a place in the public consciousness) on their side. Unlike virtually every other political issue in America, conservatives and liberals appear to be coming to the consensus that American education is failing and charter schools, publically-funded private schools, are the anodyne that will save American children and return our educational system to its supreme perch.
“I really think that charters have the potential to revolutionize the way students are educated,” Gates has said.
What exactly are charter schools, trumpeted as the Great Hope of twenty-first century education? The simple explanation is the one given above: charter schools are educational institutions, ranging from kindergarten through high school, that are run by private groups or businesses but receive public funds. While optimum education is the stated aim of any charter school, being private enterprises, they are also interested in the bottom line: many charter schools are established with the explicit aim of making a profit for their investors. Reflecting a trend toward deregulation that has guided much of American domestic policy over the last thirty years, the charter school movement is quickly gathering momentum.
Despite the glowing endorsements from the likes of Gates, President Obama, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, charter schools are very much like that latest gadget the slick salesman is trying to sell you: it may be sleek, glisten in the sun, and promise to make your life easier, but the shoddy craftsmanship will eventually break most of the promises the salesman dealt you in the store. American education needs to be fixed; charter schools, though, do not provide the easy solutions and in fact can have corrosive effects on students and educators alike.
“I have several problems with charter schools,” said Dr. Georges Fouron, professor of Africana Studies and education at Stony Brook University. “They divert resources from public schools to charter schools. The more charter schools you have, the fewer resources public schools have. Their rate of success is only around 20 percent. They also create a two-tier system in education—there is anguish among students who don’t get into the wealthier school, want to do well, and are relegated to poorer schools.”
The charter school opposition doesn’t have the star power of a Gates or an Obama, but it does possess one formidable figure that has undergone a remarkable career metamorphosis. Her name is Diane Ravitch. Ravitch, a professor and historian of education at New York University, served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Now a vociferous opponent of charter schools and increased standardized testing (another facet of education that Obama, Gates, and the rest all heartily endorse), Ravitch was once an advocate of both. With her 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravtich has established herself as the voice of passionate skepticism about the charter school movement.
“At the very time that the financial markets were collapsing, and as regulation of financial markets got a bad name,” Ravitch said in The New York Times, “many of the leading voices in American education assured the public that the way to educational rejuvenation was through deregulation.”
Going South: From Canada to Ross
Several charter school myths have been debunked by Ravitch. One is success. A national study of charter schools by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond known as the CREDO study evaluated student progress on math tests in half the nation’s five thousand charter schools and concluded that 17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school. 37 percent were worse than the public school and the remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school. Like the public schools they do not actually outperform, charter school quality can vary widely. There are success stories, like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, the organization that was the subject of Waiting for “Superman.” And there are failures, many of them, like Ross Global Academy, another charter school located in Manhattan that Mayor Bloomberg was forced to close due to poor performance.
Ross Global Academy provides a cautionary tale for charter school enthusiasts everywhere. Founded by Courtney Sale Ross, a multimillionaire widow of a Time Warner executive, the academy also had the dean of NYU’s school of education on its board (ironic, considering Ravich also teaches at NYU). Ross Global seemed doomed from the start: parents were alarmed when the school failed to provide a safety plan for evacuating students in case of an emergency. Unreliable leadership plagued the school within the first year as it cycled through four principals. More than 40 percent of teachers left each year, and 77 percent left last year. Teachers were reported to be ineffective and emotionally unstable, including one who fled the class in tears after being frustrated by the simple fact that students didn’t have their book bags organized. Failing test scores sealed its fate: 26 percent of students passed the state English test and 33 percent passed math.
“Education is a different animal,” said Dr. Terry Earley, Assessment Coordinator for the Professional Education Program at Stony Brook. “There is this business mentality that I think a lot of people have, ‘we can do this through business principals.’ Education is far more complex than that. It takes a whole tribe to raise a kid.”
A Different Animal
Earley’s belief, that it indeed takes more than only teachers to improve education, is a reaction to a now prevailing sentiment that Ravitch has attacked. What is that sentiment? It holds that teachers should be exclusively blamed for the failures of students or even schools. Charter schools, which do not have to employ unionized educators like public schools, can hire and fire at will, pay their teachers significantly less than their public school counterparts, and deny them health and medical benefits. Teachers suffer under the charter school model; a charter school revolution means a generation of bright college graduates who reject the teaching field because working conditions can decline substantially. As Ravitch writes in The New York Review of Books about countries with stronger educational systems like Finland, “Any Finnish educator will say that Finland improved its public education system not by privatizing its schools or constantly testing its students, but by investing in the preparation, support, and retention of excellent teachers.”
Improving our nation’s education will take more than adding standardized tests or for-profit educational institutions. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of student achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. Poverty, poor nutrition, and an unstable home life mire students in academic failure. Unfortunately, the level of education a parent has correlates to the level of education that a student will eventually achieve.
Fighting this distressingly uphill battle against these socioeconomic ills will take a concerted effort from the state, first and foremost. The reason, at least according to standardized test scores (not the most ideal, reliable, or fair indicators of success), that educational systems in places like Finland and Canada surpass the multifarious American system is the investment these countries actually make in their public schools. Funds are channeled directly into the public schools and not into private charters. Teachers are well-compensated and comparatively more elite college graduates pursue educational careers over finance or law, extremely lucrative fields in America that do not provide the same monetary windfall in other countries.
Charter schools, by definition, are not open institutions, violating the American democratic ideal that all students should have the opportunity to pursue a free education, regardless of race, creed, economic background, and mental or physical capability. A proliferation of charter schools will mean a proliferation of discrimination and stratification. After all, a charter school that wants to keep its test scores at a certain level can deny a student who is mentally-challenged because the student may adversely affect the scores and the funding the school receives. Charter schools are under no obligation to create individualized education plans (IEP’s) or assist students in the way public schools are required to do.
A Choice That Must Be Made
The problems of education will begin to be solved when funding of public schools becomes a priority over building another stealth fighter jet or drone to kill a group of people thousands of miles away. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” Dwight D. Eisenhower once said. The choice that the Obama administration should make—and probably won’t—is one between the business of war and education, which should not be a business to begin with. Charter schools are faulty band-aids masking two truths that well-heeled politicians do not want to confront: one, that if the war in Afghanistan (and subsequently our military-industrial complex) was drastically scaled back, the billions upon billions of dollars suddenly available would be enough to ensure that no school in America would ever have a shortage of staff, supplies, classroom space, educational technology, heat, or air-conditioning ever again, and two, the horrific economic inequality in America is a primary contributor to failing education.
One only has to look in our own backyard, Long Island, to see what plagues education as a whole. 127 school districts exist in Nassau and Suffolk County, each a veritable fiefdom that is funded primarily by the property taxes of that district. Wealthy districts have schools with access to the best resources available, able to spend far more on each student than districts in comparatively impoverished areas.
A microcosm of this issue can be viewed in the contiguous Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District and Roosevelt Union Free School District. Bellmore-Merrick covers the communities of Bellmore and Merrick, both predominately upper middle class, while Roosevelt is predominately lower and middle class. Able to generate nearly $96 million in school taxes, Bellmore-Merrick has high graduation rates, high test scores, and sends a majority of its students to four-year colleges. Roosevelt, which only generated approximately $21 million in school taxes this year, became in 2002 the only school district in New York to be placed under state control after decades of inadequate funding and performance. Almost ten years later, Roosevelt is finally starting to improve: Roosevelt Middle School has been removed from a state list of lowest performing schools and state test scores are gradually increasing, only after the state was drawn to a dire situation to supplement Roosevelt’s paltry local funding.
The answer, then, is equality, and equality in any economic climate is hard to come by. Though local politics across the nation would prevent every district from receiving a healthy and equal amount of funding, a movement towards equality in education, not stratification, is what must occur. Education must become an actual priority. Programs like Race to the Top, flawed to begin with, only provide lip service and little more to the issue of education. As long as banking and financial institutions are receiving underserved bailouts and the U.S. defense budget is ballooning to nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars, education cannot get the attention that it deserves. Charter schools are band-aids without adhesive. They are shallow solutions that in the short and long term will not benefit the vast majority of our nation’s students.
Try again, Bill Gates.