Accountability Opinion

Charters & Their Shallow Community Roots

By Deborah Meier — May 13, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

That was an amazing and surprising find re. Milwaukee charters. I thought that at the very least they’d get the advantage of being in a more diverse (integrated) setting with more middle-class kids and that being chosen (even by lottery) would produce a kind of halo effect. Why it didn’t is what should baffle the media. But it doesn’t.

“What if there were a great debate concerning the nature and future of American society, and only one side showed up? That approximately describes the condition of the US media today,” says Ernest Partridge of The Crisis Papers. But I think there may be a slight shifting of media mood on education matters. I see a wee bit more skepticism about charters, test scores, and the data base they call upon to back up their stories. I think you’ve played your part in this wee shift.

The following story I found on the Internet intrigued me re. our curiosity about what’s in it for the Big Boys Network. Juan Gonzalez, a reporter with the New York Daily News (which loves charters) is always worth reading. The following quotes are taken from the Democracy Now! radio show he co-hosts with Amy Goodman.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, before we move on...you have a very interesting column in the "New York Daily News" today, an exposé around big banks and charter schools. JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, Amy, one of the things I've been trying now for a couple of years is to try to figure out why is it that so many hedge fund managers, wealthy Americans, and big banks, Wall Street banks—executives of Wall Street banks, have all lined-up supporting and getting involved in the development of charter schools. I think I may have come across one of the reasons. There's a lot of money to be made in charter schools, and I'm not talking just about the for-profit management companies that run a lot of these charter schools.

He goes on to discuss a 2000 law called a New Markets tax credit, which enables investors to double their money in seven years. He claims, however, that over time it loses its value and spells trouble ahead. This is worth more space to understand.

At the Meier Symposium, Gonzalez focused on something else important re. charters, which you and I have raised: their effect on the already shallow roots people have in their own communities. Can democracy, in the long run, survive the disappearance of people-to-people communities with common political clout? Does our system of politics rest on assumptions that may be outdated? That was always my concern about choice. We created a strong community at Central Park East and Mission Hill that served education well, but did it serve the functions of geographically based political communities as the base of democratic politics? That’s my conundrum.

Says Texas Ed, one of our regular reader commenters: “Sec. Duncan is....touting Sam Houston High School as evidence that reconstitution is successful. Indeed, the school was closed under a low-performing rating and achieved recognized status two years later. Good for them, right? But wait—here is what REALLY happened. The school was low-performing because too few African-American students could pass the state math test. After its shuttering and re-opening, the 9-12 school [was divided into two] schools—one a 9th grade center and the other a 10-12 school.... When the school was split, the number of African-American students fell to fewer than 30 in each school which, in Texas, is too small to be considered in the accountability ratings. Voila! The school is now acceptable, even though the combined African-American scores would have made the school low performing. Further, a new initiative called the Texas Projection Measure (TPM) was applied. ...The TPM uses a new statistical analysis to see if students who did not pass are on track to pass at the end of that level of schooling.... Now the school is recognized. But, under the old rules, the school would STILL be LOW PERFORMING. This is the type of Enron smoke-and-mirrors that our CEO-leaders are using in education like they used in business to provide ‘evidence’ that their theories work.” Without an alert media, how do we avoid such massive....yes, lying?

In the “good old days” in NYC we had similar absurdities during the weeks following the annual media posting of school test scores (in rank order). No one would bother to take note that a startling rise in scores at school X might be due to the fact that a former neighborhood school had become the “gifted” center. Instead, it was attributed to a tough new leader who swept house, etc. Even Education Week doesn’t engage in the kind of investigative reporting that Juan Gonzalez does.

But, in some ways, it’s a problem we all face—clinging to data that tells us what we want to hear and rejecting the bad news when it affects our favorite ideas. In fact, it almost seems to be an obligatory role for the heads of institutions—like schools—to tweak the data in order to produce the most positive public relations. So, too, when every major newspaper in New York City is 100 percent in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s corner.

We don’t hire PR folks to get out “the truth,” but to promote our “product.” And most school systems now invest in a lot of PR.

I’d be remiss, Diane, if I didn’t take sad note this week about the insecurity facing hundreds of thousands of pink-slipped teachers right now—regardless of its impact on schooling. Some “reformers” think insecurity is at the heart of good work. As though we must pit children and adults against each other’s interests. Instead, we need to link what’s good for the kids with what’s good for society, as we do when it comes to what’s “good” for our own children with what’s good for all members of our family.


P.S. Some of us are organizing a postcard campaign to Michelle Obama urging her to support policies that allow public schools to practice the kind of schooling she offers her own girls. Details next week.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.