Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Are Charter Schools Terrible? In Every Way

Bills to force impoverished Kentucky public schools to pay rich corporations and churches to run charter schools are being drafted for the 2104 General Assembly as you read this.

It is impossible to overstate the catastrophe charter schools represent for school children, for public school systems, for communities, and for local and state economies.

Kentucky is one of the few states still holding out against these thieving motherfuckers.  Don't let what is happening to other states happen here.

Gordon Lafer at The Nation:

This fall, New Orleans’s Recovery School District became the country’s first all-charter district, completing a process begun following Hurricane Katrina, when the Bush administration refused to pay for reopening public schools, instead providing $45 million for charter schools to take their place. While these schools are publicly funded, the local community has no control over their curriculum or quality because they are not overseen by any democratically elected school board.

If corporate lobbyists have their way, the New Orleans model will be replicated across the country, with Netflix CEO and charter booster Reed Hastings leading the call to “get rid of school boards.”

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, a new type of segregation is spreading across the urban landscape. The US Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity and their legislative allies are promoting an ambitious, two-pronged agenda for poor cities: replace public schools with privately run charter schools, and replace teachers with technology.

What was accomplished by a hurricane in New Orleans is being pursued elsewhere by legislation. The formula is simple: use standardized tests to declare dozens of poor schools “persistently failing”; put these under the control of a special unelected authority; and then have that authority replace the public schools with charters. In 2011, Tennessee and Michigan created special districts to take over low-scoring schools; in both cases, the superintendent was specifically authorized to replace public schools with charters. This year, Wisconsin legislators considered a bill that bypassed the middle step and simply required that low-performing public schools be replaced with privately run charters. Since test scores are primarily a function of poverty, it’s no surprise that 80 percent of the Tennessee schools targeted for privatization are in Memphis, or that the Michigan and Wisconsin bills focus, respectively, on Detroit and Milwaukee.

Recently, corporate-backed reform advocates have begun insisting that no public authority whatsoever be responsible for running schools. Neerav Kingsland, the former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, warns that superintendents “must not succumb to the temptation to improve schools through better direct operation. Rather, [they] must humbly acknowledge that a marketplace of school operators will…out-perform even the best direct-run system.” Hastings similarly suggests that the role of elected school boards be limited to “bringing to town more and more charter-school networks. Sort of like a Chamber of Commerce would to develop business.”

Thus, what “slum clearance” did for the real-estate industry in the 1960s and ’70s, high-stakes testing will do for the charter industry: wipe away large swaths of public schools, enabling private operators to grow not school by school, but twenty or thirty schools at a time.

This is not an evidence-based policy; research shows that replacing public schools with privately run charters will, in itself, do nothing to improve education. But this hasn’t dampened the vigor of charter-school boosters.

Corporate lobbyists are increasingly promoting a type of charter school that places an emphasis on technology instead of human teachers. One of the exemplars of this model is Rocketship Education, based in Silicon Valley but with contracts to open schools in Milwaukee, Memphis, Nashville and Washington, DC. Rocketship’s model is based on four principles. First, the company cuts costs by eliminating teachers. Starting in kindergarten, students spend about one-quarter of their class time in teacherless computer labs, using video-game-based math and reading applications. The company has voiced hopes of increasing digital instruction to as much as 50 percent of student learning time.

Second, Rocketship relies on a corps of young, inexperienced, low-cost teachers. The turnover rate is dramatic—nearly 30 percent last year—but the company pays Teach for America to supply a steady stream of replacements.

Third, the school has narrowed its curriculum to a near-exclusive focus on math and reading. Since both Rocketship’s marketing strategy and teachers’ salaries are based on reading and math scores, other subjects are treated as inessential. There are no dedicated social studies or science classes, no music or foreign-language instruction, no guidance counselors and no libraries.

Finally, Rocketship maintains a relentless focus on teaching to the test. Students take math exams every eight weeks; following each, the staff revises lesson plans with an eye to improving scores. Rocketship boasts of its “backwards-mapping” pedagogy—starting with the test standards and then developing lesson plans to meet them. Rocketship is, as near as possible, all test-prep all the time.
(It is, of course, all about the money. Wall Street wants unaccountable, minimal-cost faux "schools.")
After decades of research, we know a lot about what makes for good schools. But there is also a handy shortcut for figuring this out: look where rich people send their kids. These schools invariably boast a broad curriculum taught by experienced teachers in small classes. Wisconsin’s top ten elementary schools, for instance, look nothing like Rocketship’s: they have twice as many licensed teachers per student; offer music, art, libraries, foreign languages and guidance counselors; and provide classes that are taught in person by experienced educators.

Thus, the charter industry seeks to build a new system of segregated education—one divided by class and geography rather than explicitly by race. Segregation may ease the politics of the industry’s expansion, allowing privileged families to see the Rocketship model as something that’s happening only to poor people, as something inconceivable in their own neighborhoods.

But such parents are mistaken. Investors are operating on a market logic, not a racial one. The destruction of public schooling starts in poor cities because this is where parents are politically powerless to resist a degraded education model. But after the industry has taken over city school systems, it will move into the suburbs. Profitable charter ventures will look to grow indefinitely, until there are no more public schools to conquer. As Rocketship co-founder John Danner explains, critics shouldn’t worry about charter schools skimming the best students, because eventually “we’re going to educate all of the students, so there’s nothing left to skim.”

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