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The Problem With Charters

Dear Deborah,

Last week, I warned that the explosive growth of charter schools would lead to financial and political scandals, as greedy entrepreneurs and unprincipled speculators discover the riches ripe for the picking. A reader challenged me, and I offer as the latest (but not the only) evidence a story that appeared in The New York Times on Feb. 15 ("At Bronx Vocational School, Concern Over Plan for Charter"). The New York City Department of Education intends to close a construction trade program at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School and replace it with a charter called the New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries. The existing program prepares students for paying jobs in state-approved technical shops. The DOE says the school's four-year graduation rate of 46 percent is reason enough to shut it down. (According to the Times, the DOE has already closed down Smith's 22 other technical shops—heating and ventilation, plumbing, electrical installation, carpentry and architectural engineering—all of which produced graduates ready for well-paying jobs.)

But consider the charter that DOE is putting in place of the closing construction program. The charter is 18 months old. According to the Times, "its founder is facing federal charges that he embezzled from a nonprofit company. Thirty percent of the students left after the first year, as did most of the teachers. And despite its name, it has no experience running hands-on vocational programs." The founder, who has resigned from the charter's board, is part of a politically powerful family in the Bronx. "Almost none of the original teachers remain, and 5 of the 15 teachers who were at the school in September have left or have been replaced (two for medical reasons), including one who filed a grievance claiming he was fired because he supported a unionization drive. The teachers, who work without contracts, pensions, scheduled raises or job security, have overwhelmingly supported forming a union." The school has had two principals in its 18-month existence. Because the school is new, it has not produced any academic data.

The current Smith program prepares job-ready graduates. The charter school says it will "use the building trades as an academic theme, discussing architecture in global history class and asking students to write essays about opportunities in construction."

This situation strikes me as an excellent example of what is wrong with the current "reform" proposals. A school that works very well for half its students is being replaced by one with a blemished record. The only virtue of the charter is that it is new. It may get worse results than the existing program. Why don't school officials try to strengthen the existing school instead of rushing in to kill it?

I was originally a supporter of charter schools because I had the same vision for them as the one enunciated in the late 1980s by Ray Budde and Albert Shanker. They saw charters as laboratories for public education, places where teachers could try to discover ways to reach unmotivated students. What was learned in charters, they believed, would then be transferred back to the regular public schools, to help them do a better job with the students who were hardest to educate.

Good ideas, as we know, go oft awry. As soon as the charter concept got well established, it became the leading edge of the privatization movement, and its goal was not to help public schools, but to supplant them.

For-profit firms saw them as a great business opportunity. Right-wing ideologues saw them as a chance to bust teachers' unions. Voucher supporters saw them as a replacement strategy that had fewer political problems than vouchers. So, the mantra arose that charter schools are really "public" schools, when in fact they are private schools that receive public funding. If the receipt of public funding means that an institution is no longer private, then there are no private colleges or universities in the U.S., except for the few that refuse federal aid of any kind (like Grove City College and Hillsdale College). Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are still private universities even though many of their students are funded by the government. The charter school movement, in its current incarnation, is intended to privatize a large chunk of American public education.

I think that is a very bad idea. It will harm American education and our nation. We need a strong and successful public education system. Charters should collaborate with public schools, rather than seek to replace them. It should be their unique mission to help the students who need help the most. Dog-eat-dog competition makes no sense in the educational sphere.

Diane

P.S.: The day before this blog was to be published, the New York Daily News reported that the NYC Department of Education retracted its decision to give space in Smith High School to the New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries. Not because the DOE had a sudden attack of good sense, but because questions were raised about conflicts of interest involving high-ranking officials of the DOE, who served on the board of the charter school while employed by the DOE. One is the chairwoman of the charter board. The other, who is acting interim deputy chancellor of the school system, was on the charter board until last June; he chaired the hearings at which it was decided to close Smith. Getting free public space would have saved the charter school $130,000 a year in rent. This must have been a high priority for its board. The question is, if city officials are working in the interest of charter schools—which enroll 3 percent of the city's children—who works in the interest of the 97 percent who are enrolled in public schools?

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