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Charters: A Tale of Two Cities


This is a blog about charter schools--and how context shapes perception. A few months ago, I attended Michigan's PSA (Public School Academies) conference--and, although an admirer of the "free the educators" principles underlying the charter movement, was more than a little disturbed at how the MI charter hierarchy spent less time talking about exciting charter school innovations than beating up on the public schools and whining about money.

A friend recently sent a link to this NY Times article, with the notation "creepy!" Creepy, indeed. It seems that hedge fund managers--the hot, risk-taking financial cowboys of Wall Street--have adopted charter schools as their charity du jour.

The article is rife with off-putting details: Hedge fund managers play poker while resting their drinks on the artwork of poor kids whose educations they're helping fund! They have eight-figure incomes--and they're compassionate! One guy is so nerdy that he wears fleece and has an outmoded Blackberry! They're such rebels that they named a charter funding initiative the Robin Hood Foundation!

Paradoxically, all of this makes me feel much better about the public school academies in Detroit. There is no Wall Street in Detroit--and our signature industry is underwater and barely breathing. In fact, one of the most exciting charters in greater Detroit is the Henry Ford Academy, where Ford Motor provides support for a creative, cutting-edge curriculum based on design and technology. Nothing like the distasteful hint of noblesse oblige displayed by the NY hedge fund managers (whose own children, naturally, attend the finest private schools).

And that's what bothers me most--the suggestion that hedge fund managers believe they know how to educate children well, and deserve praise and admiration for supporting boutique charters, while ignoring the larger, systemic problem of getting all kids ready for an uncertain future.

Then there's this, from charter school advocate and blogger Whitney Tilson: "[Charters are] the most important cause in the nation, obviously, and with the state providing so much of the money, outside contributions are insanely well leveraged."

Speaking as a person whose TARP tax dollars have recently been "insanely well leveraged" by Goldman Sachs, I'm not certain I want hedge fund managers making decisions about public schooling.

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