By John Radosta, a Parkway parent
As the mayoral race heats up, a number of candidates have made the cornerstone of their education plans their support for “raising the charter school cap.” That means the limit to the number of charter schools that can operate in Boston.
One candidate (Dan Conley) even suggests removing the cap altogether. Much of their reasoning is based on an unwavering belief in several myths regarding charter schools, instead of independent research. To voters who haven’t investigated the reality of the situation, these myths sound plausible, even encouraging. However, the truth about charter schools in Boston is far less savory than purveyors of so-called “ed reform” would have you believe. Here are the facts of the situation.
Myth 1: “Charter schools provide choice, and choice is good, right?”
Choice is good, if it’s an informed choice. But with charter schools, a family’s access to choices ends once they’ve chosen to send their child to that school. To take a simple example, many Boston Public Schools now have a uniform, but there are many legitimate reasons why a family might oppose uniforms, and public schools are forbidden by law to sanction a student who does not comply with wearing a uniform. In a public school district, such as Boston, any member of a municipality, whether a parent or not, can go to that district’s school committee meetings and provide input and raise concerns. In addition to that, BPS parents can join site councils (a body required by law) and parent groups at school, among other opportunities to participate.
On the other hand, at a charter school, despite its being “public,” a student would be given demerits for something as small as a miscolored sock (see below for the results of such demerits). Also, parents have no input on what is in the curriculum whatsoever. At a charter school the choice is, “follow what we say, or you can choose to leave.”
While charter schools run on public funds, a wide range of court rulings and definitions by government agencies show they are, in fact, “private entities.” For example, employees, including teachers, are subject to federal labor laws that are applicable to private employers, not state laws for public employees.
Most charter schools in Boston are run by “independent” boards and though they have a supportive relationship with the city for such things as transportation, buildings, and even bulk purchasing, they are not overseen by the BPS, the school committee, or the city government. For the most part, these boards are made up of hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and others in the financial and business sector. For example, the board chair at KIPP Massachusetts, Michael Kendall, is a partner at Goodwin Procter LLP’s Private Equity and Technology Companies Group; the treasurer, Nathan Sanders, is a director at Bain Capital.
At the Edward Brooks Charter School in Roslindale, the board chair is Scott Oran, Founder and Managing Director of Dinosaur Capital Partners, and Lauren Kushman is a principal in NewSchools Venture Fund, “where she manages the Boston Charter School Fund and focuses on investment strategy, due diligence and management assistance for the firm’s portfolio ventures.”
Myth 2: “Charter schools get results”
In study after study, charter schools across the country are shown to have about the same, or lower, results as public schools. In the last month the most vaunted charter schools in New York City were shown to have significantly worse results than their public school “competitors,” which was particularly embarrassing to the charter defenders and investors. Two weeks earlier, it was discovered that Florida Superintendent Tony Bennett, who had instituted an A-F rating system while he was superintendent in Indiana, and then did the same in Florida, had manipulated the grading system in order to give a charter school started by a major funder of the GOP a boost from a C to an A. When the damning emails emerged, he at first defended his actions, then resigned his position in Florida. Both Indiana and Florida have now dropped the rating system altogether.
But here in Boston, many charter school advocates point to theCREDO study that says Boston’s charter schools are fantastic. However, the CREDO study has come under fire for manipulating results and for using questionable methods. For example, while the study claims that the success of charters has grown during the past several years, advocates neglect to mention that it compares the results of a larger group from several years ago to a smaller one now. It’s smaller because the worse-performing schools have been closed. In other words, the scores that pulled down the average have been removed, leaving the appearance of “growth.”
Another criticism of the study is that it compares real charter school students to their “virtual twins.” Remember playing street ball with “imaginary runners”? We always agreed they could advance only as many bases as the real runner, or else they’d always score, right? Well, with CREDO, the imaginary runners are always lame.
Also, unlike public schools, charters are not required to take students mid-year. They also use a variety of methods, such as “counseling out” and “no excuses” discipline standards that result in inordinately high suspension rates to encourage students who are likely to bring down test scores, such as ELL and special education students, to leave. Neither option is available to a public school, nor should they be.
Myth 3: “Charter schools provide better discipline”
Many parents cite discipline as a reason for sending their children to charter schools. Charter students are quiet in the hallways, and they sit up straight and are polite. Charters tout their “no excuses” discipline as a means to success. In fact, the motto for the KIPP schools is “Work hard. Be nice.” Of the seven student “responsibilities” on the Boston Preparatory Charter School Contract for Excellence, only two are directly related to academics. The other five are about following behavioral rules.
The fascination with charter school discipline leads to many unusual results. For example, suspension rates at Boston area charter schools are exceptionally high. In 2011, Codman Academy Charter suspended 23.5% of its students. The Edward Brooke, 24.9%. But those aren’t the highest rates. Boston Preparatory found that 35.1% of its students couldn’t follow the Contract for Excellence well enough to keep from getting suspended. UP Academy beat them by 3%. The top of the heap is reserved for Grove Hall Preparatory Charter and Roxbury Preparatory Charter, where the suspension rates are at an even 50% and a whopping 56.1%, respectively. The MATCH ED discipline handbook emphasizes that the teacher must be authoritative and even features a picture of martial arts movie star Chuck Norris with the caption, “Is this Chuck Norris? Or a mirror?” At “no excuses” schools, students can be disciplined for simply not looking directly at the teacher at all times. One school tells chatty students to “make a bubble,” because you can’t talk while your cheeks are puffed out.
Myth 4: “Charter schools hire the best teachers, with the most up to date training”
Charter schools do tend to hire teachers right out of school, but the goal is to keep salary and benefit costs down, not to take advantage of the best ideas in education. The reality is that in an economy with 53% unemployed or under-employment for recent college graduates, younger teachers are more likely to accept jobs with long hours and low pay, at least until they have to support families. According to one study by Stuit and Smith, the odds of a charter school teacher leaving the profession versus staying in the same school are 132% greater than those of a traditional public school teacher. The result is a constant turnover of excited but inexperienced teachers.
Due to Boston’s charter schools claim to serve the students with the highest needs (except for Special Ed and ELL students, who regularly get “counseled out” of charter schools), that means that those students are being taught by the least experienced teachers. For example, at the MATCH Academy, 103 of 142 teachers are under the age of 26. Perhaps that’s why charter “no excuses” discipline demands absolute compliance: novice teachers simply don’t have the class management skills that one acquires with experience. While most research into best practices stress differentiated forms of instruction to reach the many different learning types a classroom of students presents, most charters use single, rote forms of instruction. The students who need the most stability in a school environment get that stability from a style of instruction, not from teachers who get to see them grow and develop – because they are not likely to see the same teachers from year to year.
The simple truth is that charter schools are part of a strategy used by the corporate sector to discredit public schools with the goal of privatizing education. By hiring mainly recent college graduates who will not stay in the profession long enough to attain professional status, a charter school saves on benefits, pay raises commensurate with experience, and paying into a pension system. By closing buildings and giving them to charter schools, the city not only sheds those costs, but will save on maintenance, as well. This has already been started and is in various states of completion in Louisiana, parts of Michigan, Louisiana, and Wisconsin. Just this spring, Chicago closed more than 50 schools due to “underutilization,” then, this week, announced that, due to overcrowding, about 50 charter schools would be added to the district. By using for-profit management organizations, charters funnel public money into private pockets. Meanwhile, those “EMOs” companies attract millions from investors, so long as they can show improvement on test scores – quite an incentive to focus on rote learning and weeding out the underperforming. The fact that most of these charters focus on mainly minority neighborhoods is particularly disconcerting. That students in the poorest neighborhoods will be taught mostly test-prep and rule-following guarantees a well-behaved entry-level workforce.
It should raise flags that this movement is being funded by three main groups: the Walton family (whose Walmart chain is vehemently opposed to unionizing and other basic workplace niceties), the Broad Foundation (which advocates the closing of public schools and the transfer of the buildings to charter schools, and whose unaccredited Superintendent School has graduated a number of disgraced school leaders) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which refuses to acknowledge that poverty has any effect on education, despite the reams of research that says so). Across the country, charter schools and their for-profit management boards have been involved in one financial scandal after another.
Boston can not charter its way into the future. Raising the cap will develop a two-tier system that will leave the neediest students in the public schools, while at the same time draining the resources necessary for addressing their needs. That’s likely to translate into higher taxes for all of us. There’s no question that the Boston Public Schools need to improve quality across the city, especially in high-poverty neighborhoods. That’s the responsibility of all of us, whether we have children in school or not. The schools’ success will benefit all of us; they are the foundation of a well-run democracy. To cede our “choice” to more charters is to give profits to corporations on the backs of our children.