Opinion » Bill Cope

Ed Rush—Pt. II

The empty promise of charter schools

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In this Age of Right Wing Social Engineering--and bless you, Newt Gingrich--when an Idahoan gets upset with Tom Luna's education reforms, it is likely over the emphasis on the virtual alternatives to flesh-and-blood classrooms. The abuse of our teaching professionals, the proposal that school managers need not be from the field of education, the insider conniving by wealthy investors to influence the debate ... that may all be unfortunate, yes. But to most parents, I suspect those are peripheral issues, not so relevant as the matter of students spending school hours on a state-provided laptop, allegedly learning functional skills from some faceless tutorial program.

Many parents may not even care that Idaho tax revenues would pour out of state into the coffers of a private education machine that has been working behind the curtains for decades to get their paws on all that ed money. But throughout the flap over Luna's 2011 reforms, we have essentially ignored the evidence of past reforms, some the product of Luna's influence, and some that pre-date his administration. I'm talking about charter schools, that last great scheme that conservative ed meddlers sold us. In spite of the well-publicized belly flop of the Classical Academy in Nampa last spring, there is a perception that these independently run charter schools are successful alternatives to the abject failure of public schools.

Of course, that perception hinges on two assumptions: 1) that public schools are abject failures, and 2) that charter schools are an unqualified success. Both of those assumptions have been promoted extensively by the conservative bloc, and true to conservative form, neither is true.

The impetus behind the rush to establish more and more charter schools is that if private concerns are allowed to take the same budget money allotted to public schools, they could run the education of youngsters like a well-oiled business, discarding any teacher or administrator who does not measure up in terms of student performance. To sweeten the pot, charter school advocates insist that improvements can be made with less money.

But a large-scale survey (conducted by a Stanford economist) that reviewed math testing in half of the country's 5,000 charter schools has revealed that when matched with comparable public schools, only 17 percent of charter schools tested better. Thirty-seven percent actually performed worse than comparable public schools, and 46 percent showed no significant difference whatsoever.

Those findings are made even more remarkable when we consider the desperate lengths some charter school administrators have taken to demonstrate a superiority to traditional public schools. There are instances of charters spending up to three times the cost per student than is average in public schools. Geoffrey Canada One, a charter school founder in New York, has arranged a broad safety net of social and medical services for not only his students but their families as well. On top of the tax money his organization gets, his solicitations for donations have put $200 million at his disposal, all for the benefit of two schools. And then he uses his position (at a salary of $400,000 a year) to proselytize how public schools use too much money.

Even more duplicitous is the questionable achievements of Michelle Rhee. Currently, she is no more than a shill for the ed reform industry, fronting a pressure group called StudentsFirst--sound familiar?--but not so long ago, she was being praised as a miracle worker in her position as the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system. Only after she left that job did she admit to grossly exaggerating the claims she had made earlier--the claims that established her reputation in the first place. During her brief reign, she fired almost 700 D.C. teachers and principals, handed over $1.5 million in bonuses, and now we are learning the tests on which she based her management decisions had been fiddled with to make the results appear far better than they really were. In other words, the educators who lost their jobs were most likely the ones who didn't cheat the test scoring.

So this is the future of education into which the laissez-faire fabulists would have us leap: tricks and gimmicks and personnel trying to out-manipulate their co-workers for a bigger piece of the bonus pie. A future where every classroom decision hinges on a test result, which itself can be altered with nothing more than an eraser and a fear of being fired. A future in which your kids are impersonalized to the verge of anonymity as they stare blankly into their laptops.

Or we could follow the lead of all those other countries--Korea, Finland, Singapore, Sweden and Japan, to name but a few--that are wiping the floor with American academics. And what is their secret, seeing as how they have not polluted their systems with the empty promises of vouchers and charter schools, have not resorted to the shallow contrivance of online classes or the nepotism of installing business cronies as school managers, have not stripped their teachers of bargaining rights and a voice in policy decisions but have instead allowed unions to proliferate and prosper?

The sad truth is, while we piddle around with shady propositions like charter schools and virtual education--all at the instigation of frauds and ideologues who detest public education on principle and would be overjoyed to see the whole system collapse--those other countries will continue to pull ahead of us, farther and farther, until we have no hope of catching up. Their success is not only simple, it's inescapable. They regard their teachers as valuable and irreplaceable treasures, while we are increasingly treating ours like an infection.