The charter-school lie: Market-based education gambles with our children

New proof that vouchers and charter schools don't reform education, just subject it to the whims of businessmen

Topics: Education, schools, Vouchers, Charter schools, NEA, Michelle Rhee, Diane Ravitch, Editor's Picks, ,

The charter-school lie: Market-based education gambles with our children (Credit: Lightspring via Shutterstock/Salon)

Just 10 days into a new academic year, classes were abruptly over at one North Carolina charter school this year.

In September, parents who had enrolled their children in Kinston Charter Academy received a letter from the principal directing them to take their children someplace else.

According to a local news report, a mere two days prior to those letters being received, the local board met in an emergency session to close the school after “low performance and disciplinary challenges made the enrollment numbers dwindle.”

Said one dismayed parent, “I feel like we should have got more notice. If they was going to close the school, they should’ve gone ahead and let us know that before we enrolled the kids.”

Meanwhile, folks at the North Carolina Justice Center are wondering what the school did with the $666,818 in state education funding it received in July that was supposed to last through October. The school had actually been overfunded for 366 students, but only 230 students enrolled.

Hundreds of miles away in Philadelphia, parents received a similar notice, this time not by a letter from the principal but from a notice on a website. Due to “safety concerns and financial instability,” Solomon Charter School was abruptly closed to its 330 students.

The school, a cyber charter that was supposed to deliver instruction over the Internet, also demanded parents return computer equipment to the school.

“I was just trying to get him a good education,” said one parent, “and now I don’t know where he will go.”

“No type of warning,” said another. “We bring our kids to school Monday; they say the school is shut down… it’s closing for good, so what are we to do?”

In the meantime, according to news reports, state officials are wondering why a school that was required by law to hold classes online was holding classes in an unsafe building instead – oh, and in a building that happened to also house a clinic for sexual and pornography offenders.



“Another charter school has closed,” began a recent article in a Florida paper, leaving 60 students in the lurch – only this time without bothering to tell district officials beforehand.

In Ohio, at least 15 charter schools have abruptly closed this year – most don’t even bother to list a reason.

In Detroit, a city wracked by debt and bankruptcy, officials scrambled to close a failed charter school by Oct. 31 this year, due to the school’s debts, which exceeded $400,000.

According to The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., spent over $1 million on closing failed charter schools from 2008-2012.

More cities are following the lead of districts like Chicago, where the largest shutdown of public schools in the nation’s history occurred at the very same time that new private charter schools were being expanded by the district.

Abruptly opening and closing schools – leaving school children, parents and communities in the lurch and taxpayers holding the bag – is not a matter of happenstance. It’s by design.

The design in mind, of course, is being called a “market.” Parents and taxpayers who used to rely on having public schools as anchor institutions in their communities – much like they rely on fire and police stations, parks and rec centers, and the town hall – are being told that the education of children is now subject to the whims of “the market.”

The supposed benefit to all this is that parents get a “choice” about where they send their children to school. But while parents are pushed to pick their schools on the increasingly turbulent bazaar of “choice,” the game resembles much less a level playing field and much more a game of chance in which the house rules determine the odds. And too many of the nation’s families – and their communities – are getting caught up in a crapshoot with our children’s education at stake.

Whether from charters or voucher-funded private schools, the explosive growth of crapshoot schools is fast becoming the norm. And too few are asking, “At what risks?”

Welcome to the charter churn

For years, public schools have been admonished to run their operations “more like a business.”

Politicians on the right and left have criticized pubic education for being a “monopoly” that is not subjected to enough “competition” in the “market.”

It is primarily this business thinking that is behind the push for public education to provide more “choice.” So now superintendents are calling themselves CEOs, and parents are being called customers.

But the questions no one ever seems to ask are, “What kind of business? And don’t most businesses fail?”

Nevertheless, the “business drivers” in education have rolled out, and essential to this line of thinking is that charter schools provide the necessary competition the public school monopoly has lacked, and the “churn” of children in the system will determine which schools stay open and which ones close.

Since when did children become “churn?”

Businesses that operate on a subscriber model, such as telephone companies and credit card providers, are deeply knowledgeable about the rate at which their customers flow into and out of their billing systems. By knowing the “churn rate” these businesses can manipulate the “lifetime value” of customers by knowing when to goose the system with incentives or extract higher revenues when demand is running high.

This faith in churn rate is behind the movement for expanding charter schools. Writing at his blog at the education trade newspaper Education Week, teacher and edu-blogger Anthony Cody recently observed, “Charter supporters are now advocating that charter schools that are not producing results must be closed with the same ruthlessness as traditional public schools … This is how markets function … We don’t need to wait long to find out if schools are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ These judgments should be made fast, and acted upon immediately.”

Leading charter school advocates tell us, in fact, that closing charters down and interrupting more children’s education is a really good thing.

According to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the overall closure rate of charters has ballooned by over 255 percent. This is “a positive trend,” said that association’s president and CEO.

Little regard seems to be given to the data that charter schools have proven to be not particularly any better than traditional public schools. The most recent comparison of charter school performance to traditional public schools nationwide found that more charter schools are doing better than they were previously. But a careful analysis of the study showed only “a tiny real impact on the part of charter schools.”

And the only real way to improve the overall quality of charter schools seems to be to close more of them down. How is this good for children attending those schools?

“This whole strategy of school reform is having devastating results,” Cody concluded. “Neighborhood schools, especially those in African American and Latino communities, are being closed rapidly and without recourse.” Even “worthwhile charter schools such as ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, which actively recruits drop-outs and struggling students, are likely to fall under the club, because they may not produce the rapid test score gains this burn and churn reform strategy demands.”

And increasingly the result is parents taking a chance in a craps game not altogether of their choosing.

Vouchers: A ticket to take a chance

If families aren’t being subjected to churn from competitive charters on the one side, they are increasingly being lured with voucher money on the other.

Giving parents vouchers and telling them to shop for a school on the private market, often risking taxpayer money and their children’s future, is another rapidly growing trend in the new “education market.”

Writing at Americans United, Simon Brown explained, “More states than ever are piling onto the ‘school choice’ bandwagon. In 2013 alone, 15 states either expanded or created voucher or ‘neo-voucher’ programs – a system of generous tax credits that are vouchers by another name.”

Again, much like the charter crapshoot, parents are told to take their chances in an open market rather than rely on local schools and trained professional teachers in a regulated program of learning.

One such state to take up this game of chance is North Carolina. Writing for NC Policy Watch, Lindsay Wagner recently reported, “For the first time in its history, North Carolina will allow taxpayer funds to go to largely unaccountable private schools, 70 percent of which are religious institutions.”

What’s not required of these private schools would set off alarm bells in most parents’ minds: “Criminal background checks, any kind of curricular goals or guidelines, credentialed and/or licensed teaching staff, and a requirement to reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of the district in the student.”

A lone state regulator is responsible for conducting site visits to all 698 of these private schools. “I try to get out to all of them once every three years,” he told Wagner, which amounts to roughly 233 school visits each year across the state.

Further, these private schools, which are receiving taxpayer money and the faith of parents who want to do what’s best for their children, are not subject to the same standards that public schools have for testing students’ academic achievement and making that data publicly available.

Instead of the raft of tests N.C. public schools are subjected to, private schools receiving school vouchers need only to “administer a nationally-recognized standardized test” that can be “any exam,” so long as the score can be compared to children in taking the same test in any other state.

Wagner looked closely at some of these schools. One, New City Christian School in Asheville, touted its ability to close the “achievement gap” between white and African-American students but provided parents with no “truly comparable” way to compare New City’s performance to local schools.

Another school, Bethel Christian Academy in Kinston, “provides its students with an educational program that in its entirety, exalts and glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ by making Him the center of all things.”

The school uses textbooks that are “God-centered,” and Wagner observed, “teach students Bible-based facts, including the following: dinosaurs and humans co-existed on Earth; slave-masters generally treated their slaves well; in some areas, the KKK fought the decline in morality by using the sign of the cross; and gay people have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists.”

“If you are a gay student or interested in listening to or creating secular music,” noted Wagner, “that’s grounds for expulsion.”

How are parents, with children to educate, and citizens, who want to direct tax money toward the best interests of children, supposed to judge the “value” of these schools?

When Wagner approached public officials with the question, “Where’s the accountability?” here is what she heard:

Rep. Marcus Brandon, a proponent of vouchers, told NC Policy Watch, “parents know what’s best for their children. If it’s a good school, parents will go there. And if it’s bad, parents won’t … The schools already have the accountability you could demand of a school because they work in the free enterprise system. If they don’t pride the product that meets the needs of the parents, those parents will vote with their feet … I had 38 schools close this year because they didn’t have the financial adequance to continue,” he added.

Where did the students go? “They dispersed and went to other schools. We don’t keep those records,” a North Carolina schools official said.

In other words, entrusting education to a voucher-driven market is mostly “a guessing game,” Wagner concluded – a “guessing game” perhaps for taxpayers, whose main risks are bad policy and wasted resources – but a whole lot worse for the parents and students involved whose failed gamble on a crapshoot school can cost an entire year of learning or more.

Shouldn’t a responsible society do something to prevent that?

The national pursuit to gamble with our children’s future

North Carolina is hardly alone in this roll out of crapshoot voucher schools.

In Oklahoma, for instance, that state’s new school voucher program spends $1.6 million in state funds to send special needs students to private schools. However, only six of the 49 private schools currently accepting voucher money – 43 of which, by the way, are religious schools – “specifically cater to students with special needs.”

Even traditional public schools are increasingly at risk to a crapshoot game of being opened and closed regardless of the effects on students.

In New York City, as Juan Gonzales recently reported in The Daily News, “the mayor’s relentless rush to shutter neighborhood schools” seems to be the chosen remedy for somehow improving them.

To local administrators, “shutting down a school and reopening it under new management is just good business practice. But to parents, teachers and students, our local schools are the anchors to our neighborhoods. They are part of the fabric of community life. The local art or gym teacher is known by and appreciated by everyone.”

Indeed, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has done much to contribute to the spread of crapshoot schools. The very schools he was instrumental in creating when he ran the system in Chicago are now some of the schools being shut down, a local Chicago news source recently informed.

This incoherence coming from the nation’s leadership leaves parents with the feeling they are “part of one big experiment,” the reporter of that story noted.

“Sometimes I think that we are all pieces in the game that they’re playing,” another parent said. “And the game doesn’t affect their lives. It affects our lives. It affects our children’s lives and the outcomes of their lives.”

Echoing this sentiment, Noah Berlatsky, writing at The Atlantic, explained, “Closings are only the latest example of a pattern of ‘reform’ and churn, in which neighborhoods without the resources or political clout to defend themselves are reorganized and experimented on.”

The alternative to crapshoot schools

Another way of running schools, as Gonzales noted, is that you don’t close the school down when it has problems. “If a school is underperforming, you add an after-school program. If there are many English-language learners, you increase language instruction.”

Are we certain that approach doesn’t work?

In the blog post from Anthony Cody, he noted, schools often do better by “building a supportive collaborative community” that creates “the conditions we need in order to grow as teachers, and improve outcomes for students.”

Cody cited programs such as the Priority Schools Campaign from the National Education Association, Reconnecting McDowell from the American Federation of Teachers, efforts by the California Teachers Association to lower class size and provide time for teacher collaboration through the Quality Education Investment Act, and the results of Chicago’s democratically controlled neighborhood schools, which do better than the administration’s “turnarounds that have received millions of extra dollars.”

Parents are constantly being told of the need for stability in their children’s lives. Are we now somehow to believe that their educational lives don’t need that stability too? Rather than being a solution for anything, the proliferation of crapshoot schools and the mindset that drives them are becoming yet another very big problem, and one our children and our communities would all be a lot better off without.

Jeff Bryant is Director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America's Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Jeff owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written extensively about public education policy.

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