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What Do Charter Schools Do Better?

Dear Diane,

I know you saw this article in last Sunday's New York Times.

" 'You get the religion fast.'

"Mr. Petry, 38, and Mr. Greenblatt, 52, may spend their days poring over spreadsheets and overseeing trades, but their obsession—one shared with many other hedge funders—is creating charter schools, the tax-funded, independently run schools that they see as an entrepreneurial answer to the nation's education woes. Charters have attracted benefactors from many fields. But it is impossible to ignore that in New York, hedge funds are at the movement's epicenter.

" "These guys get it," said Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City Council member, whom Mr. Petry and Mr. Greenblatt hired in 2006 to run the Success Charter Network, for which they provide the financial muscle, including compensation for Ms. Moskowitz of $371,000 her first year. "They aren't afraid of competition or upsetting the system. They thrive on that." "

I'm at a loss for words because I think it shouldn't be necessary to be chilled by the above description. But I suspect that many readers will simply be delighted that these rich young men have "gotten religion"—and that the religion they've gotten is to play a role in starting their own schools for the least advantaged youngsters.

So, I won't explain. But I will think about it. Because I remember years ago talking with a very wealthy and respected business couple about their work on behalf of the "I Have a Dream" foundation, supporting kids after school and on Saturdays. I may even have said something about how I'd love it if they'd just put the same money into improving the regular public schools. We discussed why it is that giving to the opera is "in," but not giving to public education. And I think I even recommended that they start their own public school.

They did. I visited and liked it. It was a "regular," irregular public school. I believe today it has gone charter. Along, probably, with the schools of the founders' friends. It's "in."

The oddest thing, as you note, Diane, is that New York City's mayor himself takes credit for the charters, but not blame for the public schools he directly controls. He's a fanatic for test scores, but the NAEP scores (the only psychometrically reliable tests NYC students take—in 4th and 8th grades) show no improvement since 2003 in math or reading. No closing of the gap (correction: a narrow one for low-income, but not African-American students, in 8th grade), virtually no change in the numbers who meet specific benchmarks, etc. Meanwhile, even schools that are doing no better or worse than others are being closed and replaced with charters. It's as though Bloomberg/Klein were bragging about what they have not accomplished in their own back yards, which require them to encourage the replacement of the regular, publicly accountable system for a privately accountable one. They've relied for quality on one simple measure: Can it attract money and students sufficient to stay alive? (And, offering unprecedented public and private inducements, so that when a charter and regular public school share a building, the latter's resources are actually less than the former's—including, above all, class sizes. Apparently, in NYC charters, class size matters, but not in NYC regular public schools.)

I keep feeling that I've missed something. Have the past decades convinced us that the marketplace is more accountable than public institutions of democracy? Have there been fewer scandals during these same years in charter schools than regular ones? And how would we know? What do they do better—other than attract the "in" crowd's money?

While K-12 education was made universal because it seemed important that every single potential citizen be well-educated if democracy was to flourish, we have substituted the idea of democracy with the idea of the "marketplace." The less regulated, the better—ditto for charters. "Good" charter states are those considered by their allies to be those that are least regulated. Does it sound familiar? (Actually, there is relatively little interest in charters outside of urban poor neighborhoods—by voters or hedge-funders.)

Whatever makes us think that someone is going to be a better whistle-blower in the education of largely low-income city kids than they were about what was happening to our mortgages, banks, etc.???

The next step, I think, Diane, is to convene folks committed to the preservation of directly democratically controlled schools responsible for the future of every child within their jurisdiction. Then we might "safely" discuss new ways to conceive of better educating the young for full participation in democratic life—from the polling place to the jury room and everything in between. We won't all agree, but we might initiate some well-thought-out alternatives that could catch the attention of those wealthy funders and, more importantly, those politicians who share our goal.

We need our own new, eight-year study, like the one Ralph Tyler led in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as I recall. His was a controlled study of high schools. We could do it better now.

Meanwhile, the future is not yet written, so we need to keep up the spirits of those who are roughly on "our side"—despite other disagreements. It's hard enough lately to keep up my own spirits, but.... If I believe all that rhetoric I fed kids for 47 years in our schools, I have no choice, because what Misters Petry and Greenblatt and their friends "get" is something that I think will damage our most vulnerable future citizens.

Best,
Deborah

P.S. Does it remind you of how industries went south for better "business environments," and then went further "south" (overseas) for the same? Alas, it will be harder to out-source our schools.

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