THE BLOG

Arnie in (Charter) Wonderland

07/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Arne Duncan recently talked about charter schools on Democracy Now. The segment could have been called "Arne in Wonderland." Some of what he said:

Duncan: "We also need to work together to help people better understand charters. Many people equate charters with privatization, and part of the problem is that some charters overtly separate themselves from the surrounding district. This is why opponents often say that charters take money away from public schools. And we all know that's absolutely misleading."

No, Arne, we don't all know that because it's not true. Some, and Arne appears to be one of them, contend that since charter schools are public schools, then Q.E.D., they don't take money away from the publics. The more usual argument is that the money going to charters is offset by reduced costs at the remaining public schools. But this is not the case. It might be true if all the kids going to the charter left from Mrs. Smith's class in P. S. 101. Then we could fire Mrs. Smith. Even so, the school operating costs, transportation costs, administrative costs, etc., would remain the same. But, in fact, maybe only 3 kids leave from Mrs. Smith's class. Because money is allocated on a per-pupil basis, that's three fewer allocations. Costs are not lowered but resources are reduced. And if the three kids return to the pubic school, as happens in many cases, the money does not come back with them.

Duncan: "Charters are supposed to be laboratories of innovation that we can all learn from." The operative phrase here is "supposed to be." Study after study has commented on how similar most charters are to regular public schools. In addition, it is likely that the stifling test score requirements of No Child Left Behind have squeezed out what little innovation there ever was in the first place.

Duncan: "And charters are not inherently anti-union. Albert Shanker, the legendary head of the AFT, was an early advocate." This is true. As far as it goes. A 1988 speech by Shanker virtually launched the charter movement. But by 1994, Shanker had jumped ship and was likening the charter movement to the free-school movement in the 1960's and 1970's. In his December 11 1994 column in the New York Times, Shanker argued charters were "a recipe for chaos."

And while charters might not be "inherently" anti-union, Shanker certainly perceived them that way. In his 1994 State of the Union address to the AFT Shanker said, "We have another threat or potential threat [to the union], and that's charter schools..." Again, harkening back to the earlier reforms, "And so what is happening is they're about to have a lot of schools go out and do their own thing. This is being used as an excuse to say, well, look, if were going to have a lot of schools that are operating on their own, that are independent, then we've got to get rid of union rules, because if the teachers in every one of these schools have to be bound by union rules, then they're not going to be free and creative..." Shanker then addressed charters' union busting potential: "That's something that we're not going to tolerate. This [charter] system is not going to be used as a way of breaking the hard won rights we have fought for." A 2003 AFT report on charters concluded no expansion of charters was warranted unless and until better proof of effectiveness was provided.

Duncan: "The CREDO report last week was absolutely a wake-up call, even if you dispute some of its conclusions or its language. The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and even third-rate schools to continue to exist."

Wake up call? Arne, was living in Chicago like living in China? Did Daley preclude you from hearing news from the outside world? Charter schools have been found to be underperforming for over a decade.

Moreover, if the CREDO results are true, Arne, why are you blackmailing states with threats to withhold stimulus money unless they permit charters or lift charter caps? The logic here is astonishing. Suppose I invent a medicine and find it helps 17% of people, doesn't do anything for 46% and hurts 37%. Would the FDA approve and tout my medicine? CREDO is a Stanford University-based think tank and its findings were that kids in charters did better than matched peers in publics in 17% of the cases, worse in 37% and neither better nor worse 46% of the time. As I closed my chapter on charters in Setting the Record Straight (second edition), "Charter schools were born of perceived failures in public schools. So, if the charters are doing worse than the publics, where is the outrage about them?" Where indeed, Arne?