Data Opinion

Who ‘owns’ charter schools?

By Diane Ravitch — July 12, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Deb,

You raise important questions about the trustworthiness of the data that government agencies release. I would hope that every math course, not just advanced courses, would teach students how numbers can be interpreted in different ways for different purposes. I have always thought that one of the truly impressive qualities of athletics was the honesty of the numbers. If the score at the end of nine innings in a baseball game is 9-2, you know who won the game. In a basketball game, the basket is set at a certain height, and the ball has to enter the net and drop through to score points. In football, the field is 100 yards long, and you have to enter the end zone to score. There is something refreshing about this transparency. I grant that umpires make mistakes and bad calls, but most of the time the spectators and the players know the score.

We are bombarded with numbers from government agencies on a daily basis. If we can’t believe what they are telling us about the unemployment rate, the interest rate, the rate of housing starts, and a zillion other things, then we are in deep trouble. I have never believed in conspiracy theories, and I tend to trust that people are telling the truth: It is just too much trouble and too improbable to get lots of people (especially career government employees) to collaborate in a giant lie.

I agree that we all need to arm ourselves with knowledge, information, and analytical skills to judge for ourselves whether the information we receive in the daily press is logical and reasonable. The other danger—aside from government mis-information—is an excess of public skepticism, the sort that feeds zany conspiracy theories. Whenever pollsters ask, they discover that large numbers of people believe very strange things, for example, that AIDS was unleashed in minority communities by the CIA or that aliens from other galaxies kidnap people and take them to their space ships to conduct experiments on them and then return them home.

We educate people with the hope that they will be prepared to think critically and skeptically about the ideas and information that they hear. We can’t afford to lose this battle.

You make the interesting reference to Joe and Carol Reich’s efforts to assert control over their charter schools in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The Reichs started these two schools in a very poor community some years ago, and the schools are now charter schools, called the Beginning with Children schools. They apparently did not like the decisions of the majority of their board members, so they ousted them, to reassert control over “their” schools.

The Reichs are very public-spirited people, and they started these schools with the best intentions. They have given millions of dollars to support the charter school movement, and they no doubt feel that the schools in some way belong to them, not to the board.

But the story about them raises the important point about who “owns” charter schools. There is a charter school located inside the Tweed Courthouse, which is the headquarters of the New York City Department of Education. It is called the Ross Global Charter School and it is “owned” by Courtney Sale Ross. Ms. Ross, a woman who inherited vast wealth from her late husband, has chosen the board, the curriculum, and apparently the staff as well. In its first year, she booted several principals. This school, though located in a public facility, is hers. New York Magazine published a fascinating piece about the Ross School.

Someone mentioned to me recently that the wealthy used to collect racehorses and yachts; now they start their own charter school! What happens when running a charter school becomes a bore? What happens when they move on to collecting something else? What will they do if they don’t get good results?

I read an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 11 with this headline: “Pittsburgh schools drop ‘public’ from name to boost image.” The superintendent, Mark Roosevelt, decided that the district would call itself the “Pittsburgh Schools,” in an effort at rebranding them. Apparently a “marketing consultant” advised the district that “public schools” have a negative connotation, and they should just get rid of that pesky word. And the leaders of the district (a.k.a., the public school district) agreed to drop it.

This is a small and maybe insignificant step in the direction we are discerning in other districts, towards privatization, towards turning schools over to whoever wants to manage them, towards delegitimatizing the very idea of public education.

What do you think?


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