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Michele Somerville Headshot

Caveat Emptor--Charter School Poster Kids and Private/Public Education

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Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, closed her schools in New York, on Tuesday October 8th so as to allow students parents and teachers to join a demonstration to defend public school privatization. 20,000 showed up. That's quite a turnout. I did not take part in this demonstration, but I did attend a talk given by educator, education advocate and charter schools opponent Diane Ravitch that evening.

Ravitch started out as a charter school proponent, but has since changed her views. She makes an excellent case against "privatizing" public schools in her best-selling book Reign of Error. Most (not all) of her claims about the charter school movement echo opinions I've formed in my travels as a NYC DOE (New York City Department of Education) parent, former classroom teacher and tutor currently engaged in tutoring New York City elementary, middle and high school students.

I too once supported charter school innovation until I saw, up-close, how corporate involvement promised to exacerbate the already egregious condition of institutional racism in New York's schools. I supported charter schools until I began to see how they tend to hang (all but the savant) special needs students out to dry, and how they promote a dangerous anti-union message.

One of the chief complaints about charter schools is that they fail to welcome English learners, behavior problems, children whose parents can not be involved, and children with special needs. It's also worth adding that families that are homeless and parents who are illiterate or unable to use computers never even find out about charter school lotteries.

Students with behavior problems, English as second language learners, and students with developmental disabilities are admitted to charter schools by lottery, but once they are deemed unable to "succeed," charter schools often remand these children to the conventional schools from which they came. This kind of rejection is harmful for children. Furthermore, there is something truly pernicious about the alacrity with which charter schools skim the cream off of the very schools that have little choice but to accept charter school castaways when they wash out of "success academies."

As the parent of three children who have attended NYC DOE schools, I understand what it is to be committed to the public schools. As the mother of son with autism, I remember the great relief that came with finding an appropriate educational setting for my bright, but hard to educate, child. Parents who spoke with New York Post on the day of the pro-charter school march seemed coached as they aimed to dispel the idea that charter schools are reluctant to educate students with special needs.

One mother explained that her pre-school son's speech delays threatened to result in a special education designation. She credits her son's charter school with helping him to avoid being classified as a special education student, and with helping him to succeed.

"He was really successful in kindergarten. He had just turned 5, and he made such remarkable progress. They decided to advance him to second grade this fall, and he's still performing at the top of his class."

If this little boy is performing operations with rational numbers at the age of seven, he is advanced, and it is probable that he would have "succeeded" in any school. This mother is proud of her son for skipping a grade, as well she should be, but she doesn't know what the boy's fate would be had he attended a decent conventional public school. And what if her black son had not been academically successful at the charter school in question? What if he had bounced out and landed in her community school's special education program? Would this mother still be extolling the "privatization" of schools?

Another mother spoke about her daughter:

Abi Fenelon was desperate to find a good school for her autistic daughter, Sunyyah Foristall. She secured a spot at the Community Roots Charter School in Fort Greene.

"She was lost. The Department of Education told me my child will never be above grade level and will not attend college," Fenelon said.
"Now, she reads in the seventh-grade, middle-school level. My daughter plays guitar and violin. She writes music . . . She is the poster child of what a great public charter school can do."

"She is the poster child..." That says it all.

I do not doubt that some unenlightened NYC DOE staff may have offered an ignorant assessment of this girl's potential for college scholarship. I do not doubt the child was "lost" in the NYC DOE CSE (Committee for Special Education) system, and I do not doubt that the mother knows a great deal about this talented girl's level of contentment--which is a lot.

But I doubt very much that this exploited mother knows all she should about her daughter's academic progress, because "poster children" and their parents often need to be "managed."

As the mother of a former "poster child" for an ASD Nest program, I know how this works. My son was diagnosed with Aspergers at the age of three, and I too have felt the kind of relief these two parents describe. My son was lucky enough to land in the first grade class of New York City's first ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) Nest program. He progressed well in this elementary school. He entered a sixth grade in a middle school ASD Nest program putatively modeled after the elementary level Nest program from which he graduated, but this program turned out to be a poorly run, discriminatory, disgraceful mess.

Although my son seemed happy enough during his first year, it quickly became clear he was not progressing academically. The school's first attempt to addressing this took the form of requesting that I revise (dumb down) my son's IEP (Individual Education Plan). That fall I found failing marks on quizzes, misplaced homework, missed assignments, days of nothing at all recorded in his homework planner, and an abundance of incomplete classwork in his book bag on a regular basis.

Imagine my surprise, when I learned at the conclusion of his first marking period that my son had made the Honor Roll! This, at a school that was considered to be one of the better schools in the best public school zone and district in Brooklyn.

Parents of the children in this program were surprised and happy to learn that their children were doing so well. I too enjoyed seeing my child enjoy a feeling of success, but the smoke and mirrors aspect of the grade charade left me wary and suspect. If they were lying about my boy's scholastic performance, what else were they failing to be forthright about?

I soon realized that grade inflation was being used to create the illusion of success at the program. I learned that year that special education students receive more per capita dollars from the state than do general education students, and that students with Aspergers make excellent cash cows, and that ambitious administrators who recognize this can double-dip to excellent effect by collecting the extra special education dollars for enrolling these often highly intelligent students.

Shortly before pulling my son out of this middle school, I discovered that teachers working with him relied on a strategy for "assessing" (aka "testing") children that would guarantee a target grade. In my son's case, this target grade was "B." It is good to get B's, but the process of hammering him over and over again on the same content until he got it right made him anxious. I remember how his fervor for studying Thomas Paine's Common Sense was extinguished by the having to repeat his oral presentation on Paine over and over again until he got the B. The irony is that my son and most of his classmates a were more than capable of being on the Honor Roll--eventually, in time--without the help of grade inflation.

But their new program needed them to be "poster children" right out of the gate.

Does the mother of the violin playing middle school girl who has autism really know whether her child is progressing? My guess is that when it comes to her daughter's proficiency, the mother of that violin playing "poster child" knows what the school wants her to know.

What would this girl's experience be if she were not a "poster child" for charter school education? What if she were a male child with autism, prone to outbursts, and did not play a musical instrument? In other words, what if she were autistic and not a "poster child?" Would she wind up kicked to the curb as is the case with so many children who can't "cut it" at charter schools?

Furthermore, if charter schools really do so well with educating children with special needs, does it not make sense for many more children with autism and other developmental disabilities to attend these schools? Why aren't the charter schools clamoring for more?

This trotting out of black, Latino and special ed success stories is exploitative and sinister. It bears the stench of that "some-of-my-best-friends-are" logic. By parading a handful of children before news agencies in the service of defending school privatization, charter school leaders reveal more about their desire to appear committed to diversity than about their genuine commitment to it.

These testimonies of pro-charter schools parents are powerful, but they are tainted by the pandering that engenders them. Of course the mother of the violin-playing girl who was told her child could never go to college and the mother of the boy so smart he skipped first grade are willing to extoll their children's schools! They've been in the belly of the beast!

But once a child becomes a totem for privatization of public schools--Caveat emptor. "Privatization" of schools, if left unchecked, will weaken the public education system as a whole. Children like the three mentioned in today's reports on Tuesday's march across the bridge--the black, the brown, the developmentally disabled--will be the first to be thrown under the (corporately-funded school) bus.