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Charter Schools: Education’s Fox in the Henhouse?

By Burt Saxon — December 22, 2009 5 min read
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Successful urban charter schools are showing that high demand, high support education works for all students—not just Jewish and Asian and upper-class kids, but all kids who commit to academic success. Some of these schools’ achievement gains are very impressive.

So why am I, a retired public school teacher of 34 years, cautious and suspicious?

Perhaps there’s a hidden agenda, one that may be revealed by the following questions:

1. Are charter schools “culling”? Are they taking in lots of low-income youngsters, keeping the high-achievers, and sending the rest back to the regular public schools?

2. Are high-performing charters spending huge amounts of money per student, thereby getting the large achievement gains one might expect from one-to-one tutoring and after-school and summer support? Although many charters receive less public funding per pupil than their public school counterparts, these schools can supplement their budgets with grants—and with private money.

3. Do charter schools create disinformation campaigns against the public schools, so that urban districts will turn over their schools to what appears to be an idealistic crop of young administrators with proven results?

4. Are these idealistic young administrators working hand in hand with the Wall Street investors who already have brought this nation to financial disaster? As The New York Times reported earlier this month, hedge-fund managers play a significant role in New York City’s charter movement.

5. Is the ultimate goal privatization? Have the financiers realized that voucher plans are politically dead, leading them to implement their privatization strategy through charter schools?

I doubt that privatization would improve the nation’s schools. It certainly would result in the destruction of the public school teaching profession, the last secure, middle-class occupation in America.

My own take on effective education reform is based on two seemingly contradictory assumptions: Education is a public good, and competition is a good thing. Perhaps public education should become something more akin to what the U.S. Postal Service now is: a quasi-governmental institution that allows for limited competition. Private companies compete with the post office in overnight, package, and other special deliveries, but regular mail service is left intact. A system like this forces the government-supported component to improve or lose resources.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not a shill for the public schools and the teachers’ unions. Teachers in public schools have few incentives to excel. Their pay is fixed, based on experience and degrees. The system in which I worked for over three decades took good care of me, but it did not lead me to work as hard as I could have. Could merit pay be a solution?

Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of public schools in the District of Columbia, has offered teachers there the possibility of high salaries in return for their giving up tenure protections for one year. Of course, hedge-fund managers would laugh at my calling the proposed salaries of up to $130,000 high ones, but let’s simply ask whether the potential of more pay would attract good teachers. Finding talented math and science teachers is especially difficult; maybe an incentive system would bring in candidates with better math and science skills.

But who might be willing to give up the benefits of tenure? How about those Teach For America recruits, who are only going to teach for a couple of years anyway? Even TFA’s most well-known critic, Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond, admits that the students of certified TFA teachers do better in math. This makes me wonder if a lot of these folks—the successful charter schools, the hedge-fund managers, Chancellor Rhee—are on the same team. If they are, let’s ask another question: Is this a better team than the one that’s in charge now? The one in which teachers make political contributions to become administrators, while their former colleagues who stay in the classroom have to work second and third jobs to send their children to college?

Maybe we do need some sort of incentive system for professional educators. I prefer one based less on standardized tests and more on “customer satisfaction.” And I do believe that charter schools should be allowed to compete on an equal playing field.

But I absolutely do not believe that any school district should turn over all its schools to a corporation. Special education services would be slashed immediately. Unregulated monopolies—public or private—are not good for the consumer. Privatization does offer the hope of some helpful efficiencies, but a form of public-private competition would be the better answer.

Of course there are those who would argue that I am overreacting. I have no proof that the hidden agenda of the charter school movement is to privatize American public education. Some sources (including The New York Times) say the hedge-fund managers see their involvement in charter schools as community service, rather than profit-generating. Only time will tell if this is true or not. I love community service, but I also believe that capitalists are geniuses at finding new markets and ways to put the screws on the working class.

I am among the few lucky Americans to have a decent pension and good health care, and I want others to have the same. Privatizing the public schools would not help any of us educated, middle- and working-class folks. It would just move more of us, and our children, into the ranks of the working poor.

One of my great professors in college believed that the public schools were nothing less than the foundation of American democracy. Lawrence A. Cremin of Teachers College, Columbia University, knew full well that this nation’s education system was imperfect. But he also understood that we have continually tried to reform public schools precisely because we believe in them.

Are we ready to give up on an institution that, throughout our history, has promoted and sustained our democracy? Should we not recognize the fact that our poorest students are failing to achieve at high levels largely because we have allowed wealth and income gaps that are morally intolerable to exist in this country?

The arguments for privatization sound good at first, but once you give the fox the key to the henhouse, it’s virtually impossible to get it back.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Charter Schools: Education’s Fox in the Henhouse?

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