26 April 2007

How Snow White proves a cautionary tale.

I loved yesterday's story in the Washington Post about charter schools. Charter schools are one of those things that sound really good, but are in fact terrible, destructive tools in an ongoing ideological battle between those who support equal access to education and those who would like to see public funding for education, and hence accessible public education, wither away.

Charter proponents of course don't believe this, and point to their dedicated parents and teachers, their beautiful new building, and progressive curriculum. Those items indeed point to the seduction of the charter school movement: freedom to construct innovative curricula, more local decision making on how to spend your budget, involved parents (sometimes charter school enrollment requires parents to commit a certain amount of hours to the school each year). These are good things, make no mistake. However, they are essentially the kickback you receive so that right-wing foundations, think tanks, and politicians can dismantle public education for the majority of Americans.

In addition to public money that charter schools receive -- money that used to go to traditional public schools -- charter schools often receive grants from right-wing foundations that seek to promote the charter school movement, often using the rhetoric of "choice." Think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, both bastions of elitist bullshit whose main goal is to concentrate wealth and power, promote "school choice" not for the actual opportunities it affords to parents and children in failing traditional public schools, but rather because it has proven their most effective wedge against the "great enemy": teacher unions. Of course, they can't come out and say it, so they use the cover story of "choice" and the feel-good notion that they're protecting the poor and minority students. Cue violins. They have simply championed these untested education experiments in the most vulnerable sectors of society: the poor and minority neighborhoods that have been excluded from political decision making.

The District of course is a great laboratory; denied meaningful political representation in Congress, we're a great target for half-baked policy because we can't respond except through kissing the rings of the great colonial fathers and asking for their benign protection. As a result, the District is overrun with failing charter schools. How failing? Well, according to the Post, charter schools are actually doing a poorer job educating the children than are the traditional public schools:
The boom has not been hampered by poor test results. Seven percent of charter schools met No Child Left Behind standards last year, compared with 19 percent of the traditional public schools. The dismal results in part prompted Fenty (D) to propose giving the State Education Office the authority to revoke charters.

Neither number is terribly impressive, but I'm willing to take 19 percent over 7 percent any day of the week (NCLB standards by the way should always be looked at with several grains of salt: you can excel in all but one component of the NCLB standards and that one component, let's say special education or attendance rate, will label your school as a failing school.).

The larger problem is that public education is failing large numbers of students. However, charter schools have not proven to be the answer to that question, and once they've done the work of the right-wingers in this country and dismantled traditional public schools and teacher unions, the generous grants from the conservative and libertarian foundations will disappear, leaving charter schools as underfunded as traditional public schools.

If you think there's inequality across the public education system now, just wait until the right-wingers withdraw their devil's share from the system: charter schools will rely more and more heavily upon the parents to make up budget shortfalls and fulfill time commitments. In schools with large wealthy populations, that will be fine: some traditional public school PTAs routinely raise several hundred thousand dollars a year in wealthier neighborhoods. However, in schools with large populations living in poverty, where the working poor take two or more jobs to make ends meet, the donations of money and time will be less available. We will essentially recreate in a more extreme form the inequalities that currently exist.

Traditional public schools have problems. It's true. But the problems don't stem from teacher unions (by the way, it's bullshit that unions keep bad teachers from being fired: bad administrators keep bad teachers from being fired by failing to document offenses or to perform due diligence in the role of supervisor), etc. We need to understand that the schools have been tasked with functions beyond education in our sped-up society, and we need to fund those functions: daycare before and after school, breakfast (DCPS thankfully funds breakfast for its students), increased guidance counselor demands due to decreased contact time with parents, etc.

We are, unfortunately, not a society that looks upon education seriously. We hem and haw about it, produce tired nostrums about the failure of the schools, but as a society we don't want to admit that the system can't be fixed without a massive commitment, both in money and prestige, to the function of education.

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