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You Say Charter -- I Say Semi-Private School

This Spring I devoted several posts in this space to a debate over the merits of charter schools. I shared the thoughts of a charter school proponent, and my own response. Today I am offering the thoughts of a fellow Oakland teacher, who is critical of the emphasis on charters. Please read and respond.

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By Steve Neat

Charter schools have a track record of inconsistency at best. A Stanford University (2009) study--the most comprehensive done yet--found that only 17% of charter schools outperformed public schools according to the tests that receive the most attention as the only evidence of effectiveness. 37% did not perform as well as traditional public schools. Charter schools, however, represent a critical step away from traditional public schools, where public money goes to a public entity run by democratically elected officials, and towards yet another privatization scam. Charter schools are private entities funded by public money. They are semi-private. Look up charter in the dictionary. It's defined as "an official document in which certain rights are given by the government to a business." "Public charter" is an oxymoron. Certainly there are some charters that are wonderful neighborhood schools, but schools of this kind could be--and have been--replicated under the traditional public school model. Charter schools have been agents of destruction in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. A parent there put it best when she said, "They stole our public schools, and they stole our democracy while we were out of town." Here in Oakland they are stealing our public education and our democracy and we don't even have the excuse of being out of town. It's not only particular charters here and there that are failing. The entire charter movement has failed, whether you call them public or not.

Time and again in the past 20 years experiment after experiment has used our students--particularly our students of color--as guinea pigs in attempts to close the "achievement gap." We do not have an achievement gap. We have a poverty gap and we have a funding gap. Of course poverty is not such an easy problem to solve, nor is the problem of adequate school funding, so we have to invent problems that have a simpler solution. The latest idea is that the problem is ineffective teachers protected by unions. So now the solution is to use test score pay to prod teachers into finally educating the children (I'm not sure what they think we've been doing). They used to call it merit pay. But since "merit" really just means "worth" or "goodness," perhaps the term was too vague. Its new name is the value-added model because however extensive is the damage done to our society by the corporate world, the business of America is business. The corporate world sets the agenda and the corporate world decides our vocabulary list. Money is made from public schools. More money could be made if schools were completely privatized and unions were eviscerated.

Just as is the case with charter schools, all evidence indicates that the value-added model (latest study coming from Vanderbilt, September this year) is not effective in raising students' test scores. So even if we start with the loaded assumption that higher scores on bubble-in, high-stakes, once-a-year tests somehow equates with education, test score pay does not improve the education of our children. Yet test score pay continues to be pushed. Even within the text of [recently defeated local bond] Measure L the adjective "effective" was inserted before "teachers." Why? I consult my dictionary again and I find that "effective" is defined as "bringing about the result wanted." Now isn't that interesting? What is the result wanted? That was never explained by the people who--at the very last minute inserted the word "effective" in the ballot language of Measure L. Did that word lead to the loss of the measure? It was certainly a factor, and when a vote is so close, any factor could have been the difference. The fact of the matter is the value-added model has no merit, whatever new name for it you come up with. In addition, people in positions of power in education shouldn't throw around terms like "effective" without clearly defining what they mean.

I'm not a billionaire TV personality. I'm not a failed Chicago schools chief turned Education Tsar. I'm not a millionaire motion picture director. I'm not even an OUSD director. But I have been a classroom teacher for nearly a decade now and I'm getting very tired of buzzwords and schemes like public charter, merit pay, value-added, effective, and rigor (which I bet you didn't know actually means "great strictness or harshness"). My brother was in the Air Force for 6 years. We've had lots of conversations about euphemisms ("blue-on-blue mishap," "insurgent," etc.). I find it particularly offensive that some people who purport to have the best interests of our children at heart use words in the same deceitful way as people who are in the business of killing. If they want to use words in the same way as those who wage war, then I declare a war of words on them. Every time I hear "public charter" I will say "you mean semi-private school." Every time I hear "achievement gap" I will say "you mean poverty gap, or funding gap." Every time I hear "merit pay" I will say "you mean test score pay." Every time I hear "value-added model" I will say "you mean business model." Every time I hear "rigor" and every time I hear "effective" I will ask "What do you mean?" and when they give me their answer, then I will say, "I think you need to pick a more accurate word."

I urge all of you to do the same.

Steve Neat has taught elementary school for 10 years in Richmond, CA and in Oakland. He has been active in union organizing and activism since 2004. He is currently an officer in the Oakland Education Association and an elected representative from Oakland to the California Teachers Association State Council.

What do you think? Should we consider charter schools "semi-private" schools? The achievement gap a poverty gap? Merit pay as test score pay?

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