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Who 'owns' charter schools?


Dear Deb,

You raise important questions about the trustworthiness of the data that government agencies release. I would hope that every math course, not just advanced courses, would teach students how numbers can be interpreted in different ways for different purposes. I have always thought that one of the truly impressive qualities of athletics was the honesty of the numbers. If the score at the end of nine innings in a baseball game is 9-2, you know who won the game. In a basketball game, the basket is set at a certain height, and the ball has to enter the net and drop through to score points. In football, the field is 100 yards long, and you have to enter the end zone to score. There is something refreshing about this transparency. I grant that umpires make mistakes and bad calls, but most of the time the spectators and the players know the score.

We are bombarded with numbers from government agencies on a daily basis. If we can't believe what they are telling us about the unemployment rate, the interest rate, the rate of housing starts, and a zillion other things, then we are in deep trouble. I have never believed in conspiracy theories, and I tend to trust that people are telling the truth: It is just too much trouble and too improbable to get lots of people (especially career government employees) to collaborate in a giant lie.

I agree that we all need to arm ourselves with knowledge, information, and analytical skills to judge for ourselves whether the information we receive in the daily press is logical and reasonable. The other danger—aside from government mis-information—is an excess of public skepticism, the sort that feeds zany conspiracy theories. Whenever pollsters ask, they discover that large numbers of people believe very strange things, for example, that AIDS was unleashed in minority communities by the CIA or that aliens from other galaxies kidnap people and take them to their space ships to conduct experiments on them and then return them home.

We educate people with the hope that they will be prepared to think critically and skeptically about the ideas and information that they hear. We can't afford to lose this battle.

You make the interesting reference to Joe and Carol Reich's efforts to assert control over their charter schools in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The Reichs started these two schools in a very poor community some years ago, and the schools are now charter schools, called the Beginning with Children schools. They apparently did not like the decisions of the majority of their board members, so they ousted them, to reassert control over "their" schools.

The Reichs are very public-spirited people, and they started these schools with the best intentions. They have given millions of dollars to support the charter school movement, and they no doubt feel that the schools in some way belong to them, not to the board.

But the story about them raises the important point about who "owns" charter schools. There is a charter school located inside the Tweed Courthouse, which is the headquarters of the New York City Department of Education. It is called the Ross Global Charter School and it is "owned" by Courtney Sale Ross. Ms. Ross, a woman who inherited vast wealth from her late husband, has chosen the board, the curriculum, and apparently the staff as well. In its first year, she booted several principals. This school, though located in a public facility, is hers. New York Magazine published a fascinating piece about the Ross School.

Someone mentioned to me recently that the wealthy used to collect racehorses and yachts; now they start their own charter school! What happens when running a charter school becomes a bore? What happens when they move on to collecting something else? What will they do if they don't get good results?

I read an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 11 with this headline: "Pittsburgh schools drop 'public' from name to boost image." The superintendent, Mark Roosevelt, decided that the district would call itself the "Pittsburgh Schools," in an effort at rebranding them. Apparently a "marketing consultant" advised the district that "public schools" have a negative connotation, and they should just get rid of that pesky word. And the leaders of the district (a.k.a., the public school district) agreed to drop it.

This is a small and maybe insignificant step in the direction we are discerning in other districts, towards privatization, towards turning schools over to whoever wants to manage them, towards delegitimatizing the very idea of public education.

What do you think?



I love your race horse analogy. Can I borrow it? It's not that the Reich's or the Gates' are necessarily bad people. If it wasn't for Gates, half the countries in Africa would have no heath care system or defense against malaria or AIDS. But the real question is, why should they, or we, have to be dependent on handouts from the world's richest man, when it comes to public health care, schooling and other basic necessities of life? Why do we allow our schools and communities to be turned into Dickensesque beggars? More please!

We've posted a question of the week on our blog to see if our audience can come up with ideas to improve the education system in the US. Specifically, we're discussing ideas to reduce the functional illiteracy rate. No one has brought up privatization yet, but that's an interesting topic - worthy of a discussion of it's own. Perhaps you could participate in our conversation.

Who owns charter schools seems almost rhetorical, doesn't it? Charter schools are public schools funded by taxpayer dollars. The primary concern from charter critics is the funds a charter takes away from the local public schools. Why any state would allow an individual/family, regardless of their fiscal means, to have a controlling interest over such a public entity is a mystery. It's almost oxymoronic to the charter philosophy.

My primary concern about charters -- and I taught in two -- is not that they're siphoning funds away from public schools. My concern is that many of them are operated by individuals whose interest is not equalizing educational opportunities but instead in promoting their own agenda -- which often is more about protecting their class and position in society than it is about education. Too many charters resemble private schools in the sense that they cater to students whose parents might not quite be able to afford private schools but by no means lack cultural capital.

In addition, at one of the charter schools where I worked, I witnessed far too much "counseling out" of students who both had behavioral problems and were not performing well academically. The phrase "school of choice" was used far too often as a euphemism for "if you bring down our test scores, we'll choose to squeeze you out of our school." And that is a HUGE concern.

I guess I have a different idea about charter schools. A little over two years ago we made the decision to transition from a private Christian school to a charter school. The reason for this was the economic area in which we live. Parents struggled to afford tuition, yet they wanted an alternative to the traditional public school. The time was too short for us to apply to the state for a charter of our own, so we became an expansion campus of an existing charter school. The transition was somewhat difficult as many of the parents expected much the same style of school as the Christian school, although we had been careful to emphasize the differences we anticipated. It remains our desire to "own" a charter school, but not to exalt our name or protect our class. We have a heart to educate children and look for ways to succeed in that endeavor. I know there are a lot of negative connected with charter schools, but our plan revolves around the positives we can give the students of our community.

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