A failing grade: Charter schools and education reform

Charter schools are a major aspect of the political right wing’s education reform agenda, which also includes vouchers and privatization. Turning failing schools into charter schools is one of the No Child Left Behind law’s sanctions, but in 2003 the first national comparison of reading and math test scores for students in charter schools versus regular public schools showed that charter school students often did worse than their counterparts regardless of family income, race, ethnicity or school location.

The comparison study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), part of the U.S. Department of Education, tested students in Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, Texas and Washington, D.C. Apparently the Department of Education was disappointed with the results, because the Report On Charter Schools was not made public until American Federation of Teachers staff were able to retrieve the information.

Presently there are 3,000 charter schools with over 600,000 students in 41 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Charter schools comprise only 3.4 percent of all public schools, but the Department of Education expects the number to increase rapidly, because it is doing everything possible to encourage the conversion of public schools into charter schools. Most of the students in “failing” public schools are African American, Latino and low-income students. It is not surprising that the majority of students in charter schools are also from these groups.

A charter school is an autonomous public school created by a group obtaining a written contract (the charter) from the state or local government to operate a school. Charter schools are funded with tax monies, mostly from a state’s education budget. The group applying for the charter must present its purpose and goals and a plan to accomplish them. The government then decides whether to grant the charter for a limited time. If the school is unable to meet its goals, the charter can be revoked.

Charter schools are subject to the same No Child Left Behind testing standards as other schools and are expected to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) as projected by the state in which they are located. But most charter schools are funded at a lower per-student rate than the regular public schools and must raise additional funding from foundation grants, corporate donations and in-kind contributions from parents and the community. This includes such things as cleaning and maintenance.

When the Jingletown Charter School opened in the late 1990s in Oakland, Calif., it had to sacrifice having a janitor and an alarm system in order to keep classes no larger than 24 students. Parents volunteered four hours a month to clean the building and do other jobs.

In many states charter schools are exempt from having to hire only certified teachers and most charter school employees are not represented by a union, allowing the schools to pay teachers less.



In Arizona

Deb Wilmer has taught at two charter schools in Arizona. At the first school there were few certified or experienced teachers. When she was hired, no one even asked to see her college degree. The turnover in staff and students was nearly 70 percent the first two years she was there. Some teachers were fired and some left voluntarily.

“This school was marketed as a college prep school,” said Wilmer. “But the graduation requirements were not sufficient for entry into the Arizona university system.”

The book used for world history and geography was poorly written and only at a fourth or fifth grade level. Group discussion was discouraged. The method of instruction was called Mastery Learning, which meant a student kept doing the same assignment until he/she got a passing grade. There was no small group instruction.

Just follow the syllabi, the curriculum director told the teachers.

Wilmer’s second charter school was located in a suite of business offices. The students were at-risk students, many with serious behavior problems. Yet the program was unstructured and poorly planned. One classroom was in a reception area with many distractions.

“There was a great deal of nepotism in both schools,” Wilmer said. “They hired personal friends regardless of qualifications.”

Charter school students in Arizona and Michigan scored up to two years behind regular public school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test in 2003. Arizona and Michigan allow their charter schools to operate pretty much as they see fit.



Segregation, ‘choice,’ and profits

Since the 1954 Supreme Court decision prohibiting racially segregated schools, many Southern states have used charter schools, vouchers and tuition tax credits to maintain segregated schools. Racial discrimination and family poverty have always been major reasons for failing schools. State governments refuse to provide adequate, equitable funding for all students. Teacher training institutions ignore the damaging effect of racist attitudes and policies.

The charter school movement became popular in the 1980s on the premise that learning could be improved through innovative methods and curricula and freedom from rigid state standards.

The Reagan administration introduced the political right’s education reform plan of “choice,” allowing parents to shop around in a “free education market” for the schools best suited for their children. Charter schools would be one of the choices.

The argument was that competition for students would force public schools to improve or go out of business. Education would use the business model. The political right had ulterior motives, though. Like vultures surveying their prey, business interests eyed the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on education each year as an opportunity for super-profits. The dismantling of public education is the ultimate plan, not education reform.

Conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, CEO America, Eagle Forum and many others began making plans. It was much easier to sell the idea of charter schools to parents and communities who had failing schools.

States view charter schools as less expensive than other public schools. Even the teachers unions, the AFT and the National Education Association, supported the concept of charter schools as long as they were accountable. Albert Shanker, AFT president in the 1980s, actually persuaded his union to support charter schools as a legitimate educational reform.

Private educational management companies are in the business of managing charter schools. The California Charter Academy is the largest operator in that state. But this company was forced to close 60 of its schools after a state investigation of its financial problems and academic practices left 10,000 students stranded in September 2004.



Progressive allure

There are progressive teachers, parents and community activists who also support charter schools as an opportunity for community control and empowerment. They want to develop schools that meet the needs of their children. Aisha Imani is one of them.

Imani is the administrator of Imhotep Institute Charter School in Philadelphia. When Imani’s Masterminds Program at William Penn High School was dismantled, she took a leave of absence to write her Ph.D. dissertation on African-centered education.

“I’m interested in pedagogy for an oppressed people,” said Imani. “Where would I go in this system to focus on the issues that concern this African American community?”

Imani is serious when she describes Imhotep as a real community school where parents and students are encouraged to help run the school as a collective. The school is open seven days a week for many extra curricular activities and tutoring. Most of the 525 students live in the neighborhood. All the teachers are certified, caring and dedicated to student progress, she said.

The students at Imhotep are similar to many of the students at any of the neighborhood high schools in Philadelphia. But most came to the charter school because they had academic or behavioral problems at their former school. This surprised Imani. She expected better students.

“Parents want a miracle,” said Imani. “But change takes time, even in a transforming environment.” The pressure of testing for No Child Left Behind took a toll on the school’s program but did result in much higher scores than last year. Imani sees inequities in the charter schools — nepotism, different pay for different teachers.

“We all need to be working together for full funding for all public schools,” Imani said.

Julia Webb teaches at a small high school in New York City. It is not a charter school, but rather a public, neighborhood school serving a very low income community. It is part of the New Visions program, developed as part of the “small schools movement.” Webb says public schools, with adequate funding, can do everything charter schools might do, and more. Her school has 400 students instead of up to 3,000 students at other city high schools. Webb’s humanities classes have 26 or 27 students. Grades are performance-based, not test-based. The 30 teachers are mostly young with two to five years experience. The Gates Foundation provides supplemental funding for the New Visions program. All schools in the program are different and may have a different innovative focus. The teachers get to know their students and this in itself supports their success. Webb first taught at a high school in Brookline, Mass., which spent far more money on its students, who came from upper middle class homes. She wishes her current school had the same kind of funding.



Real solutions

The Bush administration says the No Child Left Behind Law wants to close the achievement gap between wealthy and poor children, between white and Black students, between students proficient in English and those who are not, and between regular and special education students. But the funding for schools to accomplish these goals by 2012 has not been provided. Over $9.4 billion authorized by Congress was cut in 2004. More is to be cut this year.

The Department of Education is playing a shell game with its citizens. Charter schools will not solve the problem of failing schools.

Full funding is needed for the proven methods of education reform: smaller class size, smaller schools, comprehensive pre-school for three- and four-year-olds, after-school and in-school tutoring and enrichment programs and mentoring for those who need them, state-of-the-art school buildings equipped with updated books, materials, equipment and technology. Caring, well-trained educators who have the needed experience for the job are also needed.

Family poverty does not support the academic development of children. Living wage jobs, available health care and affordable housing are all part of the kind of environment that supports a positive family life and the cognitive development of children. Public schools do not need to be charter schools to be innovative and creative. Public education works in the suburbs. Quality public education should be a right of every citizen not a privilege of the wealthy.

Rosita Johnson (phillyrose1@hotmail.com) is a retired teacher and PWW editorial board member. *(see related story below)



Right-wing commentator paid to promote NCLB

Armstrong Williams, a conservative syndicated newspaper columnist, radio and TV talk show host, admitted he was paid $240,000 by the U.S. Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind law. Tribune Media Services has stopped the distribution of William’s weekly column to nearly 50 newspapers. “Accepting compensation from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper column creates a conflict of interest,” said Bryan Monroe, a vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists. “I thought we in the media were suppose to be watchdogs, not lapdogs.”

Williams syndicated radio and TV shows appear nationwide via Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Channel and conservative-owned Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which reaches approximately 25 percent of the television market. Williams appears frequently on CNN and FOX as a guest commentator.

For the $240,000 (more than the total of the PWW fund drive!) paid to his public relations company, Williams was to influence other Black journalists, distribute Department of Education propaganda and interview Education Secretary Rod Paige on his shows.

Democrats and other critics accused the Department of Education of bribing journalists to push government policies. Federal Communications Commission members called for an investigation into whether Williams broke the law by failing to disclose the Bush administration paid him to plug its education policies. The agency has received thousands of complaints against Williams.

Williams apologized for blurring his roles as commentator and paid promoter but said he will not return the money.

Williams began his political career as an aide to Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Williams claims that the problems African Americans face are due to their history of dependency on government welfare programs, not racial discrimination.

— Rosita Johnson