Blog: Second Thoughts on Charter Schools, A Response to Analise Dubner

Questioning the efficacy of charter schools and their impact upon the community.

A one-year-later response to the “Got School?” blog post by Analise Dubner and the subsequent discussion it inspired:

First of all, my hat's off to Analise for a thoughtful and well-written piece.  There's little that I can add to the discussion that hasn't been said in one way or another, but I do have some questions to pose. 

I walk a delicate balance and have mixed emotions regarding this issue for a number of reasons; primarily because the organization that I founded began as a pilot program at a charter school (Open Magnet, LA’s first charter school) over a decade ago. 

But as an advocate for progressive public education (and particularly in light of New York City Mayor Bloomberg's recent $1million dollar donation to support pro-charter LAUSD board candidates and the LA Times endorsement of same), I am dismayed that there has been no real substantive discussion locally of the efficacy of charter schools.

I like to believe that all parents are well intentioned and want what’s best for their children, although some appear to be misinformed or, at the very least, poorly informed.  Many parents seem to be under the sway of what education historian Diane Ravitch calls The Myth of Charter Schools (a term she used as the title for her review of Davis Guggenheim’s pro-charter film Waiting for "Superman” in the New York Times Review of Books).

Parents would do well to pick up her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” for a comprehensive look at the history and evolution of “school choice” and “charter schools” just to understand where this discussion falls in the history of US education.

But more importantly, all concerned about the quality of education should be closely reviewing the 2009 study from the Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) or the RAND study from the same year or the 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Education, all of which conducted multi-state examinations of charter school performance and all of which reached a similar conclusion: “a fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” (From the CREDO study.)

Given this information, the question then remains “Why?”

Given that in an apples-to-apples comparison, charter schools for the large part do no better (and often worse) than their traditional public counterparts, why put all the time, energy, resources and money required to start or support a charter school rather than dedicate those same resources to the support and improvement of the neighborhood public school?

The answers I have heard when I have personally posed that question seldom (never, really) include any informed opinion about educational philosophy or understanding of school performance measures, but rather mirror those among the responses to Analise’s blog, invoking “choice,” which as Ravitch points out in her book, in the face of such quantitative performance analysis take on a decidedly defensive “separatist” tone.  Or, to use the phrase already introduced in this discussion: segregationist.

Excuse me, but didn’t we already do away with the “separate but equal” canard?

I have watched for the last 15 years as the charter school movement has chipped away at the resources and students available to traditional public schools, and only on the rare occasion seen any real substantive difference in the quality of education.  If charter schools did what they were initially intended to do (serve as learning labs to develop best practices which would then be shared with traditional public schools), then I would have less of an issue with them, but the sad reality is that I know of only one charter school in the greater Los Angeles region that makes any real effort toward professional development for public school teachers. (The CHIME Institute is the one shining example of fulfilling that mission.)

But like Ms. Ravitch, I am troubled by the impact that I see charter schools having on the educational environment of my community.  The most engaged parents and children are fleeing traditional public schools for the perceived benefit of a charter school.  The social contract is broken.  We are obviously NOT all in this together.

I can’t begin to count the number of teachers I know that have been “riffed” because of declining enrollment due to a newly opened charter school in the neighborhood.  The resulting class-size increases, split-grade classes and (worst of all) co-location with charter schools on their campus all serve to undermine the morale of the teachers and, in the case of the latter, establish an “us and them” mentality among the students.

And often the charter schools that parents support turn around and bar their child’s participation.  Heaven help you if you have a student with special needs.  There are two separate families in my circle of friends whose child was “counseled out” of the charter school they attended in the last year alone, so I know those reported stories of such practice are all too real.

Given that California is “ground zero” for the explosive rate of charter school growth, it would serve us well to consider the long-range impacts that our society will endure from the creation of such a two-tiered, have-and-have-not, us-and-them education system.  Unfortunately, the major local news organizations have failed to take up the challenge of providing such a vital social service, leaving the responsibility to the individual (and the community at-large) to become properly informed.

Since public schools don’t have marketing budgets (as corporate-backed charter schools and organizations do) that means it’s up to you and me. 

Let’s get busy.

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Elijah H February 18, 2013 at 07:16 PM
Broad accusations with broad strokes, indiscriminately levied. Typical anti-charter pro-union extremism. At least Ms Dubner and Mr Wilson show some balance and genuine thought in their arguments. You're not helping your cause in the least.
Elijah H February 18, 2013 at 07:18 PM
Just the sort of tact and balance that I expect from Mr Skeels. Good luck with that campaign, you'll need it.
Elijah H February 18, 2013 at 07:20 PM
Still no details, I have to wonder at the validity...
Dwain Wilson February 18, 2013 at 08:17 PM
Elijah, I think you miss my larger point. It's not whether one school or another has a higher attrition rate, thus making it a "bad" school. It's that the practice in general is part of the "big picture" in which charter schools pose unfair challenges to traditional public schools by tipping the scales. And there's a long list of documented instances of this around the country. You can take a look at the references from this article on Learning Disabilities Online about this very topic (http://www.ldonline.org/article/43436/) or you can try Google to see the stories from Harlem to D.C. to New Orleans to Dallas to Minnesota. Unless charter schools serve the same population to the same standards as traditional public schools are held, then I question the ethics of funding charter schools with public funds. Simple as that. So, unless your school makes a specific effort to serve the special needs students of the community, then yes, they are "involved" in leaving those more challenging (read "lower performing") students to be served by traditional public schools. See, it's not just about "your school." It's about "your community." By the way, I asked my two friends if they cared if I mentioned their school specifically. One did and one didn't. So, you'll have to settle for one: Ocean Charter.
Robert D. Skeels February 21, 2013 at 05:49 PM
There are thousands of anecdotes of the charter industry pushing out undesirable students that cut into their bottom line. However, since many here are shills for power and privilege, here's a well know example published in a mainstream magazine that isn't known for any ideological slant. http://www.gq.com/news-politics/mens-lives/201101/kicked-out-of-kindergarten I figure an example like the above will prevent anonymous folk using old testament monikers from crying foul, or making specious statements about "validity." Once more: when one individual's choice takes away choices from others, that's oppression, not choice.


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