Tuesday, November 01, 2005

When Words Lose Their Meaning

An educational blogger, http://www.joannejacobs.com/, writes about the growth of charter schools, coupled with Americans' lagging accurate perception of charter schools; apparently, only 20% of Americans see them as public schools.

Good, because they're not.

We can play intellectually dishonest games to twist and bend the English language until the results fit the needs of an agenda, but all that crazy-yoga-semantic-altering does not effect the reality. These schools aren't public. Not in the way that speaks of open to all, regardless of attitude or ability, address or aptitude. Not in the way that speaks of egalitarian social change, the closing of gaps, and the empowering of those in the most need.

Funding. Yes, most charter schools utilize public funds on a per pupil basis (And in this zero-sum game, doesn't that just make the work that much harder for those of us committed to teaching everyone?), but in order to fully realize the entire extent of their educational models, charter schools turn to corporate subsidies. Bank of America, The Gap, Netflix, policy institutes, private donors, not to mention religious institutions and political action groups -- these are the sources of funding that form the backbone of most charter schools: their field trips, increased salary and benefits, Saturday programs. When I speak of public schooling, my mind does not turn to -- "sponsored by Old Navy."

Availability. By the very design of their educational model, charter schools are selective and secluded. Most cannot exist serving entire communities. To call yourself a "public school" you should be open to the public -- all of it. Not 73, not 12, not 102. If you want to call yourself "public," you ought to be available to every single person who wishes to attend your school.

Selectivity. "We don't skim," claims a high-ranking state charter school official at a panel discussion I attended, attempting to refute the claim that charter school's successes are predicated on recruiting the best and the brightest, and only the best and brightest. My response:

1) Yes you do. Seriously. Yes you do. The KIPP school attached to our campus like some boil needing to be lanced went door to door recruiting kids. Are we to believe they did so randomly, with no research or agenda? Please. A small school on another middle school campus opened a 6th grade last year, and suddenly there were two fewer on-grade-level-and-above classes in the middle school. Coincidence?

2) Even if you don't, you still do. Given a situation where a child is not already perched atop the intellectual haystack, said child already has more going than most. To whit, parents who are involved enough to get their child into a charter school. How many children have rabidly involved parents and still fail? "But, we aren't selective, we have a lottery!" Please, let's speak like adults. Think of the selection criteria a family goes through before even entering such a lottery.
A. Parents are involved and somewhat knowledge about school/district/system.
B. Parents form an opinion of the prevailing school/district/system.
C. Parents feel empowered enough to seek solutions/ redress.
D. Parents possess the capital necessary to successfully find alternatives. Such capital could include: language, time, money, ability to process information, transportation to attend meetings, etc.
In under-resourced communities, such capital often comes at a premium, and is a special type of kid, and a special type of family, that possesses such.

3) Most charter schools, especially in their first few years of functioning, do not offer services for children with special needs.

More could be written of course. The point here is not that charter schools are necessarily bad (although the extent to which they damage preexisting school communities has never been formally studied, and man, I think it's huge), but simply this: You cannot have your cake and eat it too. If you want to be separate, fine, be separate, but you cannot maintain the same title for your institution and the same claim to public access. Your institutions are free private schools that utilize public money in the same way that many private colleges and universities are also publicly funded.

The previously quoted charter school official, at the same panel discussion, told me: "You need to change your perception of what is public. It's not handed down by the government." I agree. But neither is it funded by corporations, and inherently limited to a select few.


Blogger leyla said...

i agree that there aren't 'public' in the purest sense of the word. i agree that they aren't the solution, but more of a band-aid. that said, parents are right to send their kids there. maybe publich education--as the republicans claim-IS too fucked up to mend on a wide scale in the poorest of communities andall across the land. no child left behind is clearly just "dismantle public ed" law, isn't it?

i get your point: some of the brightest minds shouldn't spend their time and money on band-aid solutions that will eventually become enormous machines requiring constant perpetuation--the band-aid as eternal distraction. i guess the charter schools folks just think public ed is a lost cause, whether they admit it or not.. whether they label themselves as "public" in that strictest sense, or not..

7:19 AM  
Blogger leyla said...

ahem, public schools never taught me how to type. . .

7:20 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

"i guess the charter schools folks just think public ed is a lost cause, whether they admit it or not."

That's the weird thing -- the not admitting it. If I were so inclined, I'd be shouting from the rooftops that this is broken and we are better. They don't, and from all the many people I know who get involved in charter/small schools (and TFA at this point is just a minor-league training ground for KIPP, ASPIRE, Lighthouse, etc.) they get very uncomfortable when asked the "why" questions. Why is that?

Publically educated in a Title I highschool: 80 words per minute.

8:42 AM  
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5:17 PM  
Blogger posthipchick said...

i asked a small school teacher today if he'd done his celdt report cards yet and he looked confused. turns out they have never done them. i don't believe they have ANY eld 1's or 2's at all.
something needs to change in public education, particularly for low SES schools. i don't think small schools are the answer, though.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Johanna said...


12:39 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

My only problem with this post is that it refers to charter school success as though it's a given. It's not. The charter world -- bolstered by massive resources from the right -- claims endlessly, but falsely, that its schools are outperforming public schools.

I also recently attended a panel discussion on charter schools, at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco -- no idea if it was the same one. The panel included RAND researcher Ron Zimmer, who co-authored the recent RAND report debunking for good the notion that Edison Schools are superior, as well as at least one previous study of charter achievement.

It was quite noticeable that when the panel's charter skeptic, SFUSD veteran Jill Wynns, made a point, Zimmer consistently backed her up, while he gently but frequently debunked the claims of charter flack Caprice Young. Wynns' point was that charters have not shown themselves superior despite massive advantages; Zimmer, the impartial number-cruncher, clearly indicated that his findings back that up.

10:01 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Thanks for the plug and I appreciate your comments. You're right -- many/most charter schools fail to show gains significantly above those of their public "competition," especially if (and the studies usually don't) you control for things like pre-existing success rates.

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Ms. J said...

Best retort to the charter bunch I've read...period. Let me underscore two points: it is high time to focus some real attention on the impact of charters on true public schools and never assume charters are academically successful. Here in the 916 the second oldest high school west of the Mississippi was chartered to, get this, a fomer NBA player...pre charter attendance was 1800; current attendance is 1200 and falling (academic achievement is below what it was pre-charter -- the school is the only high school in the district not to have met its achievement goals). Hundreds of students in the old attendance area are now presumed to be attending other area schools, although there has been no tracking by our district on just where these kids actually went. How's that for accountability?

9:34 PM  

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