The truth about charter schools: Padded cells, corruption, lousy instruction and worse results

Charter schools are sold as an answer. With awful discipline and shocking scandals, many really cause new problems

Topics: Education, Public Education, Charter schools, Diane Ravitch, KIPP, Rocketship, teaching, , ,

The truth about charter schools: Padded cells, corruption, lousy instruction and worse results (Credit: RonTech2000 via iStock)

Imagine your 5-year-old boy went to a school where he was occasionally thrown in a padded cell and detained alone for stretches as long as 20 minutes.

Or you sent your kid to an elementary school where the children are made to sit on a bare floor in the classroom for days before they can “earn” their desks.

Or your kid went to a school where she spent hours parked in a cubicle in front of a computer with a poorly trained teacher who has to monitor more than 100 other students.

Maybe you don’t have children or send them to private school? So how do you feel when you find out the local school that you pay for with your taxes is operating a scam that diverted millions of dollars through fake Medicaid billing?

Or the school used your tax dollars as “grants” to start up other profit-making enterprises … or pay lavish salaries – $300,000, $400,000 or more – to its administrators … or support a movement linked to a reclusive Turkish cleric being investigated for bribery and corruption.

Welcome to the world of charter schools.

Are there wonderful charter schools doing great things for kids? Probably. Are all these cumulative anecdotes an unfair representation of the value that charter schools can bring to some communities? Maybe.

But neither of those questions matters because of what the charter school movement has come to represent in the landscape of American education.

Charter schools have been relentlessly marketed to the American populace as a silver bullet for “failed” public schools, especially in poor urban communities of African-American and Latino/a students.

Politicians in both parties speak glowingly of these schools – which, by the way, their children seem never to attend.

Opening charter schools has become the latest fad for celebrities including athletes and rap stars.

Huge nationwide chains – called education management organizations (EMOs) – now run many of these charters. A recent study by the National Education Policy Center found, “Students across 35 states and the District of Columbia now attend schools managed by these non-government entities.” These for-profit and nonprofit EMOs – such as K12 Inc., National Heritage Academies, Charter Schools USA and KIPP – now account for nearly half of the students educated by charter schools.

Substantial, well-funded nationwide organizations have rapidly developed to lobby for these schools. One such organization, the Alliance for School Choice, recently received a $6 million gift from the Walton Foundation, of Wal-Mart fame.

Slick marketing campaigns have been rolled out in communities across the country to tout the coming of new charters.

The actual academic results of these schools seems to hardly anyone, despite report after report showing that these schools tend to do poorly on state and national tests and fail at providing equitable education to underserved students.

Yet lobbying for more of these schools continues unabated with more money funneled into the campaigns of politicians who support charters and more efforts to press state lawmakers to lift any provisions currently in place to regulate how these schools operate and are held accountable to the public.

As a result, charter schools now serve one in 20 students nationwide, despite “mixed results” at best.

Yet how much is really known about how most charter schools operate on a day-to-day basis? Most of the people who witness what these schools actually do are students, who have little voice outside the classroom; teachers, who need to hold onto their jobs; and charter administrators, who can’t always be depended on to blow the whistle on shenanigans.

But as these institutions proliferate, so are troubling reports of what the charter movement has unleashed.

Turning Our Backs on Abuse

Keeping a running tally of charter school scandals could amount to so much cherry-picking if it weren’t for the fact the tree is so loaded there’s practically nothing but fruit.

Two of the anecdotes cited above surfaced recently in schools operated by a nationwide chain called KIPP, which has been acclaimed for doing “wonderful things” to poor kids that most middle-class parents would not want to see done to their kids.

The incident where a 5-year-old student was confined in school to a padded cell prompted Chicago (where the incident occurred) blogger Mike Klonsky to write, “Brutal forms of discipline have become routine for KIPP.

“No divergence is permitted and deviants are quickly labeled, punished or expelled. KIPP has the highest student attrition rate in the nation. I recall one KIPP school where African-American children were made to sit on a bench with a sign around their neck that said, ‘CRETIN.’”

Klonsky noted the nationwide chain’s practice of using a behavioral technique, called “Slant,” that “instructs students to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker with their eyes.” It’s “military style behavior,” renowned educator Debra Meier remarked on her blog at Education Week.

Meier explained how these schools rely on “public shaming” as a form of behavior control, which often includes “children being ‘exiled’ to a special table at lunch, required to wear their KIPP shirts backwards, and other forms of public embarrassment.”

James Horn, who came across the incident where students had to “earn” their desks by siting on the floor, wrote, “KIPP requires the poorest urban children, those who have received the least in life, to earn everything at KIPP.”

Horn interviewed a former teacher from that KIPP school who recounted, “[The children] would sit there and do homework on the floor. They would fill in forms and pass them. And they had to all do it correctly, otherwise, they’d do it again and again and again … It was 100 [students]. It was all the fifth-graders in a classroom.”

Horn noted, “This is not the first time such educational atrocities at KIPP have been documented,” and he linked to a “series of incidents” in Fresno, Calif., where the school principal was accused of  ”slamming students against the wall, placing trash cans over their heads, forcing kids to crawl on their hands and knees while barking, and enforcing unreasonably strict bathroom rules, resulting in students having accidents and vomiting on themselves inside the classroom.”

“How long will we turn our backs on this kind of abuse?” Horn asked.

Rocketship to Nowhere

The questionable practices of many charter schools go beyond classroom management.

The charter cited above where students spent hours stuck in cubicles, in front of computers, is part of a nationwide charter chain called Rocketship.

According to ed-tech media outlet EdSurge, “Rocketship Education is a charter school network in hot demand, courted by urban school districts across the nation. Both Kaya Henderson, Superintendent of D.C. Public Schools and New York City’s outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg have publicly said they’d welcome Rocketship schools in their districts.” (emphasis added)

Tech market enthusiasts at EdSurge claim, “Rocketship has broken down the traditional factory school model, rethinking things like the bell-schedule, the role of teachers, the way kids are grouped, and even the physical space itself.”

What does all this “innovation” look like in practice?

As Samantha Winslow explained in the article cited above, Rocketship’s allure comes mostly from cost savings because so much of the “instruction” is delivered via computers. “The company says it saves half a million dollars a year by using fewer teachers, replacing them with non-certified instructors at $15 per hour … Half its teachers have less than two years’ experience; 75 percent come from Teach for America.”

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The chain “targets low-income students” with the claim it can raise their test scores by drilling them with computer-based instruction. “Instructors monitor up to 130 kids at a time in cubicles in the schools’ computer labs. Rocketeers, as students are called, sit looking at computer screens up to two hours per day.

“Skeptics say the Rocketship test scores just demonstrate the schools are focusing on test preparation at the expense of arts, languages, and real learning,” Winslow noted.

The Last Thing These Children Need

In these types of high-tech-driven charters, where efficiency and driving down the costs of teachers are priorities, “there is never much time to actually teach,” explained one teacher who had been employed at a virtual charter school run by the company K12.

Writing recently at the the blog site of Education Week edu-blogger Anthony Cody, the teacher, Darcy Bedortha, recounted, “Each class met for 30 minutes in an interactive-blackboard setting one day each week. Fewer than 10 percent of students actually attended these ‘classes.’ Other than that time and any one-on-one sessions a teacher and student might set up (which, in my experience, almost never happened), there is no room for direct instruction.

“I was an English teacher,” Bedortha explained, “so my students would write. They wrote of pain and fear and of not fitting in. They were the kinds of young people who desperately needed to have the protective circle of a community watching over them. They needed one healthy person to smile at them and recognize them by name every day, to say ‘I’m glad you’re here!’ … The last thing these young people needed … was to be isolated in front of a computer screen.”

The educational malpractices committed by charter schools aren’t confined to the tech-driven ones.

A tutor who had worked at a “no excuse” charter school in Boston recently wrote a letter to her former students on the edu-blog site Edushyster. She confessed, “What I saw at your ‘No Excuses’ charter startled me and still troubles me deeply. I was trained on how to discipline you, but not on the best way to help you understand material. I was lectured on how to turn your learning into data points, but was never told who you are and where you came from. Your school forced me to do things that I don’t believe are in your best interest.”

A recent report coming out of Ohio told of a charter management operation in Columbus where teachers failed to show for work because they hadn’t been paid. There were bedbugs in the school, the food vendor stopped providing lunches, and an assistant principal was making less than minimum wage. The charter operator had two other charters it operated closed down by the state Department of Education in the previous month because “inadequate staffing led to fights among students and to lunch not being served on a set schedule.”

A “Perfect Storm” of Corruption

In addition to questionable classroom practices, charter schools are dogged by corruption.

The scandal cited above in which a charter chain defrauded taxpayers of millions of dollars in a Medicaid scheme presents a “perfect storm,” according to one analysis, “of everything that might go wrong with private, for-profit ‘educators’ trying to make more than a buck from public education under the guise of charter school management.”

The D.C.-based firm Options Public Charter School managed to orchestrate a train wreck of corruption, including not only the Medicaid fraud scheme, but also payoffs of public officials and a local television news personality, diversion of funds meant for schools to personal accounts, business arrangements that siphoned funds to contractor partners, and bloated executive salaries.

The charter scandal involving the Turkish cleric is especially bizarre. As the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss explained at her Answer Sheet blog, “The reclusive cleric is Fethullah Gulen, who has been linked to charter schools in some 25 states and to other schools in dozens of countries around the world.”

But Gluen is no mere charter operator. In fact, as Al Jazeera reported, he is the head of a powerful movement in Turkey involved in “the most extensive and sensational corruption investigations” of that country’s recent history.

“The public charter schools in what is unofficially known as the Gulen network,” Strauss explained, “are believed to be operated by people – usually Turks – in or associated with the Gulen movement.”

Many of the schools have strong academic records, but have been the subject of frequent investigations of “whether some employees at some of these schools are ‘kicking back part of their salaries’ to the Gulen Movement.”

Strauss noted, “The New York Times and CBS News as well as PBS have reported on the Gulen charter network, citing problems such as whether these schools give special preference to Turkish companies when handing out contracts.”

No Scrutiny Please

One doesn’t have to dig deeply to find examples of charter school malfeasance. Indeed, all the above examples appeared in news stories and blog sites since the current school year began.

In the meantime, charter promoters do all they can to avoid any external audits or legal consequences related to what they do.

As education historian Diane Ravitch recently reported from her blog, when charter school operators in California were convicted of misappropriating over $200,000 in public monies, the California Charter Schools Association entered an amicus brief stating the defendants were “not guilty of any criminal offense because charter schools are not subject to the laws governing public schools. CCSA says that charter schools are exempt from criminal laws governing public schools because they are operated by a private corporation.”

In the same blog post, Ravitch told of a case in Arizona where another charter successfully argued that it was a private corporation, not a public school. And in Chicago, when the teachers at a charter school wanted to form a union, “the charter founder argued before the National Labor Relations Board that the charter was operated by a private corporation and not subject to state labor laws.”

Wait … and you thought charter schools were public schools?

Movement Interrupted

If it weren’t for the great marketing job the charter movement has employed, this education “innovation” would be a P.R. disaster.

So far, only the most well-informed fans of charter schools, who aren’t wrapped up in the movement ideology it has become, have changed their minds about what’s befalling schoolchildren and communities across the country.

An impartial observer of charter schools, Rutgers professor Bruce Baker, once hoped charters would be a possible source of “some creative, energetic leadership … that might be associated with a mission-driven start-up school, coupled with an ounce or two of deregulation.”

Recently, however, his perception has changed. “This whole movement has gotten way out of control – it has morphed dramatically – especially the punditry and resultant public policy surrounding charter schooling. Sadly, I’m reaching a point where I now believe that the end result is causing more harm than good.”

Recently, Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools wrote, “Nearly every teacher dreams of starting a school. I know I did.

“But I also know the charter school movement has changed dramatically in recent years in ways that have undermined its original intentions … The counterfeit claim that charter privatization is part of a new ‘civil rights movement,’ addressing the deep and historic inequality that surrounds our schools, is belied by the real impact of rapid charter growth in cities across the country.”

His conclusion? “It’s time to put the brakes on charter expansion and refocus public policy on providing excellent public schools for all.”

Amen.

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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