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Bill de Blasio vs. Charter Schools -- A Pointless Battle

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The "war" between charter schools and Mayor Bill de Blasio has certainly tarnished the new mayor's early months.

Along with daily news stories, television ads funded by "Families for Excellent Schools" fill the airways with heart- tugging appeals from parents and families, who characterize the Mayor as the Grinch who stole their schools. He finally capitulated to the PR campaign and assumed a more conciliatory posture in an appearance this week at Riverside Church.

This campaign is calculated propaganda. The only "family" materially involved in this organization is the Walton family which, through the Walton Family Foundation, is a major contributor to "Families for Excellence." The Walton family, along with their billionaire peers the Broad family, the Koch family and the Gates family, are funding so-called school reform efforts like this around the country. The parents and children who appear in these ads may well be sincere, but they are pawns in a much larger game. Charter school operators, particularly Eva Moskowitz, head of the Success charter network, shamelessly use their students to promote their political agenda, as seen in the recent demonstrations in Albany.

The PR campaign, aided and abetted by the media, claims that charter schools are "high performing" and that parents have the right to choose a successful school rather than abandon their children to a failing (read unionized) neighborhood school. It's an emotionally appealing argument, despite broad evidence that it is patently false. With some highly publicized exceptions, charter schools do no better than the public schools they displace. And many educators, I among them, attribute the few "success" (or Success) stories to overemphasis on test preparation, rigid and unimaginative pedagogy and very careful culling of students.

But this is a mere sideshow. Comparing schools -- charter vs. neighborhood public; suburban vs. urban; public vs. private -- is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of education in America.

All of these comparisons are based on the unquestioned assumption that the success of a school's students -- standardized test scores, SAT scores, college placement -- is a direct reflection of the quality of the school. By this measure, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science are superb schools and PS 106 is abysmal; Scarsdale schools are wonderful, public schools in Harlem are awful; Columbia University is much better than City College. This is the way we have been conditioned to judge educational institutions... and it is absolutely meaningless.

Test scores and college placement statistics are a function of selection and self-selection, not of educational brilliance. In a variety of simple and complex ways, families and children are sorted into communities and schools where success is more likely because of advantages enjoyed, not education received. Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, for example, only select the students most likely to succeed in the ways thereafter cited as evidence of success. The surprise would be if these students didn't excel. These highly selective schools needn't do much of anything.

Columbia's teachers are not necessarily better than those at City College. Columbia, by dint of reputation, easily collects students who are almost certain to succeed. I should be clear that my rejection of cause and effect isn't intended to characterize Columbia, Bronx Science or Stuyvesant as "bad." Highly selective schools may in fact be fine schools, but the glittering success of their students is not proof. Similarly, Scarsdale's schools are not de facto better than Harlem's schools. The segregation of America by wealth and privilege results in clusters of students in Scarsdale who have all the advantages that predict greater success, while the debilitating poverty in much of Harlem nearly guarantees struggle. The schools' curriculum and faculty are the least important variables.

This is the dirty big secret in the charter school debate. The schools that claim success are just playing this game more subtly. They claim to take students by lottery, but the lottery is rigged in that the pool is comprised only of self-selected families with social capital and high motivation. They claim to operate with more efficiency, but their budgets are augmented by an infusion of capital from billionaire philanthropists and hedge fund managers who know a lot about PR and very little about education. They avoid audit and transparency. They suspend and expel students at much higher rates than other public schools. They have lower percentages of non-native English speakers and students with learning differences. As with the other examples of selection and self-selection, the real surprise would be if these schools didn't do a bit better on standardized measures.

Charter schools, voucher programs, for-profit educational management organizations and other tentacles of so-called reform are not going to improve education in America. They are mechanisms that will further divide us by creating pockets of relative privilege while leaving the rest of the nation's children to languish in neglect and poverty.