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Charter Schools are the Wrong Answer

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As promised, I will respond directly to people who objected to my earlier posts critiquing the charter school movement.

On June 14, The New York Times ran a front-page article about kindergarten children at the Clara E. Coleman Elementary School from Glen Rock, New Jersey who are learning about the principles of engineering through hands-on activities before they even know how to read. Their task was to design housing that would protect the three little pigs from the big, bad, wolf.

This was a wonderful project, in a wonderful classroom, with an excellent teacher, in an affluent suburban school district. Pictures that accompanied the article showed that the children in this class and school are almost all white. According to real estate estimates and the 2000 census report, in the borough of Glen Rock, about twenty miles from New York City, the medium household income was over $100,000 a year, about 60% of adults are college graduates, houses sell for about $500,000, and the population was 90% White, 6% Asian, 3% Latino, and 2% African American. For the High School graduating classes of 2004 through 2006, over 95% of students indicated that they would move on to a two-year or four-year college.

The New York Times article also highlighted a program in Manassas, Va., which has a thriving biotech industry, where the local school district has spent $300,000 on a children's engineering program since 2008 for projects like "making musical instruments from odds and ends, building bridges with uncooked spaghetti and launching hot-air balloons made from trash bags and cups." There is also a science technology program at the Midway Elementary School of Science and Engineering in Anderson, S.C., where kindergarten children "celebrated Groundhog Day by stringing together a pulley system to lift a paper groundhog off the floor."

In fact, these are all wonderful projects, in wonderful classrooms, with excellent teachers, in affluent white suburban school districts. My point is that public education and teacher preparation in the United States are not failing the American people. What is failing is education in inner-city minority communities and it is failing not because of minority parents, their children, or teachers and their union, but because government on every level, corporations, and white suburban taxpayers, do not want to pay what it will cost to rebuild inner city communities and create decent living conditions for children and their families. Inner-city minority children do not need charter schools that will have a limited impact at best, they need their parents to have decent jobs and they need to live in decent homes. There is only one miracle cure for urban poverty and it is spelled J-O-B-S!

In New York City, the charter school movement is basically an alliance between national foundations philosophically antithetical to public education, local Black politicians who are building political machines, and business speculators. For the Black politicians, the charters replace the now defunct community school boards as sources of patronage. High quality education is at best an afterthought. According to the New York City Department of Education, student population in the city's elementary and middle-level charter schools is 62% Black and 30% Latino. White and Asian families overwhelmingly prefer to send their children to the city's higher performing designer mini-schools.

Examples of what will happen to public education if the charter school movement succeeds in privatizing education in the United States are the for-profit proprietary "colleges" and the empires of church groups such as the one headed by the Reverend Floyd Flake in St. Albans, Queens. The federal government is trying to rein in, without success, the rip-off proprietary programs that make millions of dollars by accepting any "student" eligible for federal loans, training them for non-existent jobs, and then leaving the students saddled with thousands of dollars of debt that they can never pay back.

In Queens, Floyd Flake has become a very wealthy man parlaying political connects in both major parties with his church related charitable activities. The New York Times recently reported that Flake and his partners earned over a million dollar fee by transferring a church owned senior citizens housing complex into private for-profit housing that they will manage and milk for even more money. Flake, either with or without his church, has his tentacles into casinos, real estate, the delivery of government services, and of course, they run a private school. A former Congressman, Flake was investigated for income tax evasion and embezzlement, but walked when a judge throughout the government's case against him and his wife. Just wait until the Reverend Flake and the proprietary "colleges" get into the charter school business.

Here are my responses as promised:

StevieZ, who feels charters are in general held to a high standard of accountability, accused me of "a pathetic rehashing of old arguments and half truths." I guess I just disagree. As far as I can tell, in the United States private corporations receive almost no regulation or oversight. We learn of the disasters when they can no longer be swept under the rug. StevieZ, which of these quality corporations, Lehman Brothers, AIG, BP, Enron, Arthur Anderson, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Halliburton, or Toyota would you like to operate a privatized school system?

Truth agreed with me and cited the Gulen Movement as an example of how charters work. It has ties to a number of well-placed politicians manages 97 United States charter schools. He cited the website http://www.charterschoolwatchdog.com.

Randell charged that many of the recent attacks on unions have been financed by Wal-Mart. He also explained that one reason hedge fund managers are promoting charter schools is to take advantage of a Clinton era tax-exemption for anyone who invested in a not-for-profit organization. The investors are allowed to keep the interest on their investment tax-free, a loophole that allows them to potentially double their investment in eight years. This has nothing to do with education, only with profit.

Charter School Parent (CSP) defended charter schools because they do not charge tuition and are required by law to admit through a lottery system that is audited. Her school offers Special Education classes, music, art and foreign language. But of course, these are also be offered in regular public schools. CSP feels "charter schools address the issue of overcrowded schools in poor or highly populated neighborhoods." But again, there is no reason this cannot be done with regular public schools. The reality is that CSP previously sent his or her child(ren) to private religious schools and transferred to a charter because he or she wants private school education but can't afford it. I don't blame CSP for maneuvering to get the best for his or her child(ren), but what works for one family is not a solution for educating all children.

Gideon believes "the attack on charter schools is an attempt to distract from the real travesty: a public education system that has utterly failed millions of poor and minority students for decades, consigning them to illiteracy, poverty and prison. All the outrage directed at charter schools, which constitute only a tiny percentage of the public schools in this country, should be targeted at the public schools that have failed students for decades, long before charter schools came along." I agree with Gideon that public schools have failed inner city minority youth, but I believe the charter schools, not the attack on them, is the real distraction, a phony promise that will bring no real change.

Toni feels that I am "painting with too broad a brush." She has "lots of concerns with how my kids' school has been run in the past but it has never been about fleecing its nest. The school raises $300K a year just to stay afloat and it operates very frugally in terms of consultants, etc. The money is going for the kids and their music education and the staff and their development. Some charter schools ARE doing a much better job than their sending districts because of their streamlined approach and/or consistency of purpose." I know Toni, who is both a public school teacher and a very active parent volunteer, and I respect very much what she does. Her children benefited from this charter school, but I suspect they would have benefited from any school where parents like her put in all that effort. We have to find a way to "institutionalize" the Tonies of the world so all children are educated to their fullest potential, not just the few who were lucky enough to be born with parents who have the resources to negotiate school systems and provide all sorts of outside support.

Nbangali wrote, and it is worth emphasizing, that if all of New York public schools were converted into charter schools, our whole educational system will crash, I agree. I also agree with Changing who argued that real estate developers use charter schools as a hook to bring more affluent families into gentrifying neighborhoods at the expense of the current residents.