Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Charter schools and the future of public education by Stan Karp

“…According to Education Week, there are now more than 6,000 publicly-funded charter schools in the United States enrolling about 4 percent of all students. Since 2008, the number of charter schools has grown by almost 50 percent, while over that same period nearly 4,000 traditional public schools have closed. This represents a huge transfer of resources and students from our public education system to the publicly funded, but privately-managed charter sector. These trends raise concerns about the future of public education and its promise of quality education for all.

“Charters and small specialty schools [are now] fragmenting [school] districts [and] creating tiers of schools serving decidedly different populations with unequal access... The Charter movement [attracts] the attention of political and financial interests who [see] the public school system as a ‘government monopoly’ ripe for market reform.

“In the past decade, the character of the charter school movement has changed dramatically. It’s been transformed from community-based, educator-initiated local efforts designed to provide alternative approaches for a small number of students into nationally-funded efforts by foundations, investors and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized school system…

“The most complete national study of charter school performance by CREDO, a research unit at Stanford University that supports charter reform, found that only about one in five charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many had lower ones. Unlike most charter schools, traditional public schools accept all children, including much larger numbers of high-needs students. In most states, charters do not face the same public accountability and transparency requirements as public schools, which have led to serious problems of mismanagement, corruption and profiteering.

“Invariably beneath accounts of ‘spectacular charter success’ lie demographics that reveal fewer special needs children, fewer English language learners, and fewer numbers of children from the poorest families…There are many other factors that make charters unsustainable as a general strategy for improving public education [as well]. Significant evidence suggests that charters are part of a market-driven plan to create a less stable, less secure and less expensive teaching staff. Other trends reflect the efforts of well-funded groups working to privatize everything from curriculum to professional development to the making of education policy.

“Nationally, charter school teachers are, on average, less experienced, less unionized and less likely to hold state certification than teachers in traditional public schools... As many as one in four charter school teachers leave every year, about double the turnover rate in traditional public schools. The odds of a teacher leaving the profession altogether are 130 percent higher at charters than traditional public schools, and much of this teacher attrition is related to dissatisfaction with working conditions.
“Charter schools typically pay less for longer hours. But charter school administrators often earn more than their school-district counterparts…This is why grassroots parents groups have been pushing back against unwanted charter expansion that undermines the quality and budgets of district schools. They promote polarization among parents and pockets of privilege instead of district-wide improvement…
“For the charter movement, parents are mainly customers seeking services with no major role in school governance or advocacy for all children. But in a system of universal public education, parents are citizens seeking rights and, collectively, the owner-managers of a fundamental public institution in a democratic society…
“Public schools have federal, state and district obligations that can be brought to bear. School boards, public budgets, public policies and public officials can be subjected to pressure and held accountable in ways that privatized charters don’t allow. In post-Katrina New Orleans, where next year virtually all students will attend unequal tiers of charter schools, there are now students and families who cannot find any schools to take them. We cannot let that happen here…

“It has become impossible to separate the rapid expansion of charter networks from efforts to privatize public education... Those who believe that business models and market reforms hold the key to solving educational problems have made great strides in attaching their agenda to the urgent need of communities who have too often been poorly served by the current system. But left to its own bottom line logic, the market will do for education what it is has done for housing, health care and employment: create fabulous profits and opportunities for a few and unequal access and outcomes for the many.
“Our country has already had more than enough experience with separate and unequal school systems. The counterfeit claim that charter privatization is part of a new ‘civil rights movement’ addressing the deep and historic inequality that surrounds our schools is belied by the real impact of rapid charter growth in cities across the country. At the level of state and federal education policy, charters are providing a reform cover for eroding the public school system and an investment opportunity for those who see education as a business rather than a fundamental institution of democratic civic life.

“It’s time to slow down charter expansion and refocus public policy on providing excellent public schools for all. Using charters as a reform strategy has become too much like planting weeds in the garden. Better to tend the soil and help all public schools flower to their full potential.”
Stan Karp is director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey's Education Law Center.

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