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David Morris: After 20 Years, Charter Schools Stray From Their Original Mission

August 9, 2012

Instead of being laboratories for new practices, many charter schools have become for-profit enterprises with poor report cards.

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Image from Flickr via evmaiden

By David Morris
By arrangement with On the Commons

On this, the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first charter school, kudzu comes to mind.

In the 1930s the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) paid farmers $8 per acre to plant this Japanese vine whose deep root structure helps reduce erosion and enrich a depleted soil. Farmers planted more than 1.2 million acres.

Twenty years later the SCS declared kudzu a virulent, parasitic weed. Its rapid growth shades the native flora, blocking their access to life-sustaining light. As these plants die, nutrients previously used by them become available to kudzu.

Initially, charter schools were embraced as a strategy to enrich what many viewed as an increasingly sterile public school landscape. Early promoters included, most famously, Albert Shanker, President of both the United Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers. The first charter school opened in Minnesota, one of the nation’s most liberal states.

For conservatives, charter schools are an effective weapon for undermining Democratic Party strength in big cities and teacher unions. For investors, charter schools are cash cows…

“Groups of teachers and administrators who wanted to innovate and try new things would band together and little laboratories of education would emerge,” Dr. Gary Miron Professor of Evaluation, Management and Research at Western Michigan University recalls, “The idea was simple: anything valuable culled from these experiments could be copied by the district…”

Within a decade the goals of experimentation and innovation were replaced by a focus on kudzu-like growth. Charter schools were less and less viewed as a way of improving public schools and more and more seen as a direct competitor and eventual replacement for them. For conservatives, charter schools are an effective weapon for undermining Democratic Party strength in big cities and teacher unions. For investors, charter schools are cash cows as local non-profit public school laboratories morphed into multi-state non-profit and eventually for-profit corporations. More than a third of all charter schools are now operated by private corporations. Student enrollment in for-profit charter schools has soared from approximately 1,000 in 1995-1996 to slightly less than 400,000 in 2010-2011. About 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated by for-profit corporations.

As charter schools began to vie with public schools for supremacy, Congress and the White House titled the playing field sharply in their favor. To improve public education, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) enthusiastically embraced what came to be known as “high stakes accountability.” Parents of children in public schools that fail to make continued improvement on standardized tests for two years can transfer them to charter schools. If progress continues to stall the public school is closed. The NCLB pointedly does not apply to charter schools. To be eligible for funding from Obama’s Race to the Top program states must eliminate caps on charter schools.

What’s Changed with Charter Schools?

Today 2 million students attend some 5,600 charter schools in 41 states, with a waiting list of more than 600,000. In the last 18 months, 23 states have approved new laws aimed at promoting their growth. Meanwhile, cities last year announced the closing of about two thousand public schools. And this cycle feeds on itself. More charters mean less money for public schools; the more public education deteriorates, the greater the popularity and number of charter schools.

Charter schools are granted considerable autonomy. In return they have relatively short-term contracts that must be renewed. Originally renewal was envisioned as depending on whether charters were better than traditional public schools. Gerald Bracey recalls Joe Nathan, a leading pioneer in the charter school movement declaring in 1996, “Hundreds of charter schools have been created around this nation by educators who are willing to put their jobs on the line to say, ‘If we can’t improve student achievement, close down our school. This is accountability—clear specific and real.‘”

But a tension soon developed. Experimentation and innovation, by their nature, beget many failures. But politics and profits combined to stimulate a powerful reluctance to admit failure. One study for the U. S. Department of Education concluded, “Charter schools rarely face sanctions (revocation or nonrenewal).” Over its first 20 years about 2.5 percent of charter schools have been closed for academic reasons.

How many would have been closed if Joe Nathan’s metric had been used? The most comprehensive analysis of charter schools to date, done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), concluded that 37 percent of charter schools performed significantly worse than traditional public schools. Only 17 percent performed significantly better. The remainder did no better or worse.

The New Trend: On-line For-Profit Schools

The latest evolution of the charter school is the on-line, for-profit virtual charter whose number has soared from 13 eight years ago to 79 today.

Late last year, the New York Times conducted an in-depth investigation of K12, one of the nation’s largest online charter schools administrators, and Agora, one of the schools it manages. “(A) portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards,” the Times reported. “By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing. Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll. By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc, the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.”

CREDO reports that students from Pennsylvania’s cyber schools are performing “significantly worse” in math and reading than their public school peers. In Ohio, the graduation rate at five of seven electronic-charter-school districts are lower than of the state’s worst public-school system’s graduation rate.

The Charter Schools That Work Spend More Money

What we know after 20 years is that overall charter schools are no better than public schools. A great deal of evidence exists that, on average, they are worse. But there are significant successes. Those are the ones that capture the headlines or show up on 60 Minutes: Harlem Academy, KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Aspire, MATCH, and the Preuss School. These are the successful innovations the original charter school movement was seeking. And what have been the keys to their success? Intensive tutoring and an extended school year. KIPP schools, for example, have three weeks of summer school, mandatory Saturday attendance and 9-hour days. Matthew Di Carlo at the Albert Shanker Institute estimates that the successful charter school year is the equivalent of 2-4 months longer than that of traditional public schools.

But success turns out to be costly. Di Carlo posits that these kind of schools, called “no excuses” schools, require a 20 percent increase in spending. Yet many states are actually slashing spending on public education.

Today, Finland is near or at the top in international education ratings. How did it get there? By adopting a model that is in almost every way the opposite of that U.S. policymakers are promoting.

In 1996, as the charter school movement was in its early stages, Alex Molnar, now a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, presciently described what the fight would eventually be all about.

“The struggle is not between market-based reform and the educational status quo. Rather, it is a battle over whether the democratic ideal of the common good can survive the onslaught of a market mentality that threatens to turn every human relationship, inside and outside the classroom, into a commercial transaction.”

Finland’s Success in Public Education

In late 2010, Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility came to New York and Washington to discuss his new book on how Finland turned its education system around. “Thirty years ago, Finland’s education system was a mess,” Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford told the New York Times. “It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.”

Today, Finland is near or at the top in international education ratings. How did it get there? By adopting a model that is in almost every way the opposite of that U.S. policymakers are promoting. Finland upgraded standards and admissions for teaching programs and raised teacher salaries. It’s now more difficult to get into a teaching program than into law or medicine. Ninety-six percent of teachers are unionized

There is no high stakes testing in Finland, no charter schools, no vouchers, no merit pay. All schools have nurses and regular checkups and serve three meals a day. And says Sahlberg, “We don’t measure schools so we don’t say this is a bad school or this is a good school in terms of funding. All funding is based on need.” And Finland dramatically reduced child poverty, the most accurate predictor of low achievement.

One would think that Finland, with 5.5 million people, would be an excellent model for some U.S. state to emulate. One would be wrong. Sahlberg’s advice fell on the deafest of ears.

And so the kudzu like growth of charters and vouchers continues, stealing essential nutrients from a dying public education system. The demonization of teachers and the emphasis on testing are, if anything, growing stronger. The anti-public ideology is fertile ground for the noxious weeds of privatization.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota and directs its Defending the Public Good Initiative. His books include The New City-States.

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