Wednesday, August 18, 2004


Dumb your child down the Republican way

There is an article of faith to which you are expected to subscribe if you attend the Church of the Right-Wing Lunatics—that any task performed by the government can be performed both more cheaply and more innovatively by the private sector. This dogma has led to the mercenary army to be run by Aegis in Iraq and the $100 laundry bag cleaned by Halliburton. It has also led to the rise of the charter school.

Charters are self-governing public schools, often run by private companies, which operate outside the authority of local school boards, and have greater flexibility than traditional public schools in areas of policy, hiring and teaching techniques.

There are now more than 30,000 of them serving more than 600,000 guinea pigs.

Now think about this, boys and girls—if charter schools are run by private companies, the companies expect to make what? That's right—a profit.1 So in addition to the teachers' salaries, the physical plant, the textbooks, somebody is expecting to get some bucks significantly above the salaries of a principal or a superintendent of public schools. After all, next to God there's only the profit motive.

Where's the profit going to come from? From the vaunted private-sector enhancement of efficiency? How could that be achieved? More students per teacher is about the only "efficiency" I can imagine. Well, there's always "cost-cutting." But there's not much to cut, except teachers' salaries, maintenance of the physical plant, and expensive textbooks.

Since privatizing public school money is such a transparently bad idea, you will not be surprised to learn that George Bush thinks charter schools are just spiffy, and that they have been given a big role in his "No Child Left Behind" Act. Specifically, the law mandates that consistently underperforming schools are to be closed—or be converted into charter schools. (Are you beginning to get a whiff that the plan all along was to destroy the public school system?)

Now comes the first national study comparing 4th graders in charter schools with those in the conventional public schools. I say "now comes," but the study was actually released by the Department of Education (DoE) last November. They just forgot to mention it.

Some gadflies over at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) went online and came up with the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, popularly labeled by the media as the "nation's report card." When the results were discovered,

Federal officials said they did not intend to hide the performance of charter schools, and denied any political motivation for failing to publicly disclose that the data were available. "I guess that was poor publicity on our part," said Robert Lerner, the federal commissioner for education statistics.

I guess it was, Bob.

What the study found was that charter schools scored below conventional public schools in all areas, but significantly below in reading and math. The AFT found that these results held up when the data were compared with the data for inner-city schools and for poor children in inner-city schools. The lag was by as much as half a year.

The right-wing spin machine has been spinning ever since the fertilizer hit the spreader.

Chester Finn is former Assistant Secretary of Education, and now president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which concerns itself with such things as the "Stealth curriculum: Manipulating America's History Teachers."

He was interviewed on NPR and by the NY Times to give "balance." On NPR he said of the study,

It says that by and large charter schools are not doing any better than the regular public schools to which they are meant to be alternatives and under some circumstances they might be slightly worse at least for 4th graders, at least in reading and math....It merely gives you the opportunity to be different.

Breathtaking. But, Chester, there was never any evidence to support your ideas, and now there's evidence against them. Have you considered other lines of work?

Meanwhile, NPR reported yesterday that California has forced a shutdown of the largest operator of charter schools in the state, the California Charter Academy. The Academy runs 60 schools. They were closed for "financial and academic irregularities." ("California Closes Company's Charter Schools")

On a positive note—and so as not to hear that defeatist line "But what is the alternative?"—take a look at Bill Moyers' NOW from last week. The entire hour was given to a story on Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, a New York City public school. It's an inspiring story of what can be done with true innovation—and social services. If you care about education, don't miss it.


1 George Bush's brother Neil realized there was money to be made in education. He founded an educational software company called Ignite! that uses "kindergarten methods to teach middle-school material to society's 'hunter-warrior types.'" Of course, where there's a Bush, there's a scandal sure to follow—and follow. [back]

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