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Charter Schools Don't Do Miracles

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Charter schools are not the magic bullet that will transform urban minority public schools. As you peel away layers of the charter onion, the inevitable problems come to the surface.

Locke High School in Los Angeles has been touted as a charter school miracle. I wish it were true, but it's not. In 2008, Locke was notorious as one of the worst failing schools in the United States. It had a high crime rate and a low graduate rate, the opposite of what schools should be. At one point a race riot involving 600 students made the national news.

According to The New York Times, two years after a charter school group named Green Dot, which also operates a charter school in the Bronx, took over management of the school, gang violence was down, attendance was improved, and performance on standardized tests was inching up. The school has become one of the number one stops on the charter school reform bandwagon tour, as corporate and government "education reformers," including federal Department of Education bigwigs, get photo-ops in its newly tree lined courtyard and issue pronouncements about how wonderful everything has become.

But a closer look at the Locke miracle, way down in the Times article, exposes what has actually taken place there. In 2007, a former principal complained that Locke was the Los Angles dumping ground for problem students. Only 15% of its students could pass the state standardized math test. The first thing Green Dot did was get rid of all the troubled students and bring in a fresh supply. It also dumped most of the teachers - keeping those prepared to work longer hours for less pay, what it defined as enthusiasm. Locke reopened in Fall 2008 with a new freshman class. Green Dot also fixed up the place to make it attractive for the photo ops.

The big problem was cost, although Green Dot is a non-profit company, its administrators do get paid. The four year turnaround at Locke was $15 million over budget. This does not include part of a $60 million grant from the Gates Foundation to support state development, which makes the actual cost of the turnaround much higher. Unfortunately, the federal government has set a $6 million cap for the reorganization of an individual school. Green Dot is now more than 150% over budget. The rest of the money, $9 million, was covered by donations from foundations, supposed charities, but often business groups hoping to make lucrative profits from the dismantling of public education.

Locke is actually a good model of what educational change will really cost. The school now has additional administrators, security, two psychologists, busing, and health services for students, in addition to staff development provided by the Gates Foundation. None of this has anything to do with being a charter school. This is just the real cost of educating inner city children.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, New York questions have been raised about another miracle charter school, the Hebrew Language Academy. While 15% of the students in New York City are white, white children make up two-thirds of the students attending this school. This is essentially a private religious school for white Jewish families financed with government money. The parents have made this very clear, explaining in a New York Times article that if it were not the Hebrew Language Academy they would be paying $20,000 a year to send their children to private religious schools. Additionally, the curriculum is chauvinistically pro-Israel. There are Israeli flags all over the building and children sing songs about Israeli pioneers who built homes on empty land, the area's Arab population conveniently ignored.

This school also receives outside money to operate, from a Jewish philanthropist named Michael Steinhardt who also happens to be a hedge fund manger and a big financial supporter of Israel. The school's organizers, using Steinhardt's money, plan to open a string of similar charter schools around the country.

Sometimes I wonder whether the editors of The New York Times read the paper. On Sunday June 27, 2010 the Metropolitan section highlighted a manic superhero principal who has supposedly turned around education in a troubled Bronx middle school. What struck me was a passing remark by the principal quoted in the article and his biography.

This superhero principal actually grew up in this Bronx neighborhood and has an understanding of the life faced by these kids. However, he is in constant trouble with school authorities and has bounced from school to school. He is now under investigation by the Department of Education for three serious rule violations and was suspended at least once.

For a short time the school's principal was the founding principal of the Manhattan Charter School on the Lower East Side, but he left that charter school after a year and a half because "I don't do well working with a board of directors that are not educators."

This guy may be good. He may just be trouble. But in either case, there are no miracles in the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Los Angeles, certainly not charter school miracles. Kids do better when they are cared about and money is invested in their education. Progress in these places has nothing to do with charter school miracles.