Reading & Reacting: The charter school mistake

Photo: 2006-12-02 Rotten to the core

2006-12-02 Rotten to the core – cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Henning Mühlinghaus

By Diane Ravitch @ Los Angeles TImes

Thankfully , I got a chance to read and write about a this really well-written ope-ed piece by Diane Ravitch in last week’s LA Times. While this piece is probably, at least in part, a subtle marketing effort for Ravitch’s new book Reign of Error, she exposes the myth and reality of the strange dichotomy involved in the charter school concept.

In the interest of full disclosure, despite being a public school teacher I think the theory behind charter schools has some merit. I would even go so far as to accept that there may be a small place in the educational landscape for charter schools. However, the difference between the theory that generated their existence and the reality that is far too common should give any intelligent person cause for pause.

If for no other reason, the degree of corruption that is associated with charter schools across the multiple states should worry any tax paying citizen, even supporters. Yet, political climates are rarely driven by facts, instead they move with extraordinary swiftness on the tails of emotion. Plus, when there is serious advantages to be gained the momentum can accelerate faster than anyone may notice, highlighting the meaning of the old public relations saw, “By the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark.” As Ravitch contends, charter schools “have become the leading edge of a long-cherished ideological crusade by the far right to turn education into a consumer choice rather than a civic obligation.”

Of course, there are a number of people that will summarily dismiss this contention, but Ravitch collects a pretty impressive array of evidence to prove that dismissing her contention already unintended consequences. After a over a decade to study the impact of charter schools some startling findings are beginning to surface.

But charters will not end the poverty at the root of low academic performance or transform our nation’s schools into a high-performing system. The world’s top-performing systems — Finland and Korea, for example — do not have charter schools. They have strong public school programs with well-prepared, experienced teachers and administrators. Charters and that other faux reform, vouchers, transform schooling into a consumer good, in which choice is the highest value.

For some reason, as a culture and a country we are very busy buying into a world view of Life Inc. (phrase courtesy of Douglas Rushkoff) where every decision is a consumer-driven one and everything is now a commodity. This viral point of view is eroding a number of our most important institutions. With regards to charters schools, public education is being both undermined and threatened.

Considering that we are still precariously suffering from the aftermath of 2008’s economic meltdown, it is amazing to me that the idea of privatizing any civic institutions or obligations still gain traction. There was a rising tide of dissent, in the form of the short-lived Occupy Wall Street protests, that suggested that perhaps a populist rebuke would gain a foothold. Now it seems to be a footnote in recent history.

Similarly, there has been an effort certainly led in part by Ravitch that aims to educate the public and use evidence to dispel the working of a propaganda machine, which includes the current Department of Education. It is unconscionable that we, as a nation, would dismiss facts like these.

The campaign to “reform” schools by turning public money over to private corporations is a great distraction from our system’s real problems: Academic performance is low where poverty and racial segregation are high. Sadly, the U.S. leads other advanced nations of the world in the proportion of children living in poverty. And income inequality in our nation is larger than at any point in the last century.

There is little argument to be made to the contrary. One need only investigate some of the examples Ravitch uses for her intended California audience to verify the above. For the skeptical, Pennsylvania’s Cyber Charter School and ensuing controversies should provide an essential case study of what can go wrong. Still, pro-charter advocates somehow continue to trumpet their agenda despite significant data to the contrary. What’s worse, is that many of the same advocates refuse to acknowledge poverty as a significant mitigating factor in the education children. The claim also continues in spite of considerable research here and abroad that suggests a flaw in an over-reliance on a kind of rags-to-riches mythology.

Of course, there are good charters, just as there are good public schools. There are even people that overcome odds and poverty to become wildly successful. Yet, exceptions do not make the rule and policy decisions should not be made based on a handful of exceptional accounts.

It is toward the end of the piece where Ravitch begins to outline some of her recommendations for addressing the issue. This is where the book marketing comes more to the fore, but it does not belie the support for her claims. On major issues, involving the subtlety and nuance of education, a simple op-ed piece cannot hope to sufficiently develop the level of detail required. It can only serve to call attention to an issue and suggest where answer may be found.

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