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Charter Schools: Education’s 21st Century Philospher’s Stone?

Charter schools are seen as a cure-all to raise test scores of American students. It kind of like a philosopher’s stone, or a 19th century elixir, to serve as an antidote for the ills of traditional public schools. Many policymakers are motivated by the delusion that choice and competition is the answer to solving problems facing our schools.

Public schools are the only agent that can create a sense of community among diverse communities from which students come. Charter schools have not done this. In fact, charter schools have further segregated children from each other, and we know that this is not a good idea.

Yet, it is quite obvious that policymakers have ignored the research that has been conducted by university-based researchers, rather than “partisan think-tanks.” Instead they are enacting laws around the country that will enable for-profit charter management companies to swoop in and establish charter schools, almost at will. These laws further destabilize public schools, and remove the locus of control of local schools, and put it into the hands of unelected bureaucrats (political appointees).

Beacons for Excellence

In her new book, Dr. Lisa Delpit suggests that the original idea of charter school has been corrupted. She explains that originally, charter schools were designed to be “beacons” for educational excellence. Charter schools were to be designed to develop new approaches to teaching, especially for the most challenging populations of children. Their results were to be shared with other public schools.

As Dr. Delpit explains, the initial concept has been corrupted. She explains:

Now, because of the insertion of the “market model,” charter schools often shun the very students they were intended to help. Special education students, students with behavioral issues, and students who need any kind of special assistance are excluded in a multiplicity of ways because they reduce the bottom line—they lower test scores and take more time to educate properly. Charter schools have any number of ways of “counseling” such students out of their programs. I have been told by parents that many charter schools accuse students of a series of often trivial rule infractions, then tell parents that the students will not be suspended if the parents voluntarily transfer them to another school. Parents of a student with special needs are told that the charter is not prepared to meet their child’s needs adequately and that he or she would be much better served at the regular public school around the corner.

Delpit, Lisa (2012-03-20). “Multiplication Is for White People“: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children . Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Some of the charter bills that have been passed will result in an increase in politics and influence peddling in the context of multimillion dollar opportunities by establishing charter schools in various counties in each state. Real estate investment firms will find a pot of gold in these states. Firms will come in a purchase land and/or empty buildings (schools, factories) and then in turn lease them to for-profit charter school management companies, such as KIPP, Academica, or Charter Schools USA. Boston worked out a deal in the interests of corporate investors.

In today’s Education Week, Ember Reichgott Junge, one of the authors of Minnesota’s 1991 charter bill, discusses the history of the charter school movement. One of the points she makes that resonates with Dr. Delpit’s message is that charters were given prominence when Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, “challenged attendees at an education reform conference in Minnesota in 1988 to imagine how teachers might partner with the public education “system” to encourage risk-taking and change.” His suggestion was to create charter schools as a way to professionalize teaching. Unfortunately, the charter school idea has been marketed as a business opportunity for entrepreneurs. The author of the Education Week article appears, however, to have a conflict of interest with the initial conception of charters in that she is vice chair of corporation that helps finance charter school facilities.

Charters in Georgia: Audits & Constitutional Amendments!

Charter schools have been an issue in Georgia, especially this year. The most important issue is that Georgia is moving very close to enabling the creation of charter schools across the state without local school board approval. On the November ballot, Georgia citizens will be asked to vote to support an amendment to the education code in Georgia by modifying the state constitution.

At the same time, there are growing concerns about the financial improprieties of some charter schools: case in point—the Fulton Science Middle School Academy.

The Fulton Science Middle Academy, a math and science charter school in Alpharetta was audited by the school district after questions were raised about financial decisions made by leaders of the school. The Fulton County School superintendent said that the results of the audit represented the most “egregious” problem he had ever encountered in his career. In an Atlanta Journal/Constitution article, Maureen Downey reports that the audit revealed financial misconducts including lack of competitive bidding, conflicts of interest, co-mingling of funds, hiring of Turkish citizens for teaching positions, payment of visas for staff members and their families, and payment of airline tickets to Turkey for summer visits. Fulton Science Middle is one of three charter schools that are run by Grace Institute which includes Fulton Sunshine Academy, an elementary school and the Fulton Science Academy High School. The superintendent intends to audit the remaining schools.

All three schools are high performing academic charter schools founded by Turkish entrepreneurs with ties to the Gulen movement.

The issue for me is not the specific affiliation of these three schools in Alpharetta, Georgia to the Gullen movement per se, but how Georgia charter advocates have lobbied the legislature, and the governor to set up a move that will overrule a Supreme Court decision last year. To corporate reformers, charter schools are seen as the magic bullet that will save our schools from the incompetence that they lay at the feet of public school teachers, principals, and parents. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  • In May 2011, the Supreme Court of Georgia in the case Gwinnett County School District v. Cox, ruled that charter schools must be approved by local school boards of education. Many legislators and charter school lobbyists were not pleased by the Supreme Court of Georgia’s decision to neuter the state commission on charters, and submitted legislation in this year’s legislative session to circumvent the court’s decision by making an amendment to the State’s constitution.
  • In March, 2012, the Georgia legislature passed a bill (HR 1162) that amends the Georgia State Constitution by establishing state-wide policy that will enable the Georgia General Assembly to establish special schools that will include charter schools without the approval of local schools.
  • On May 3, 2012, the governor of Georgia signed a bill that will restore the state’s power to approve and finance charter schools without local school district approval. The legislation, however, needs voter approval in November because this bill is a constitutional amendment.

To rub it in, the governor signed the bill at Cherokee Charter Academy, in Canton, Georgia.

Without the approval of local districts, Georgia will open its educational system to a stampede of charter school corporations and real estate brokers who see this bill as a cash cow.

Georgia State Senator Doug Stoner, District 6, who voted against HR 1162, believes that the Charter schools amendment would set up a dangerous system. He wrote this in his newsletter:

To change the Constitution in order to create a charter school or any “special school” favored by current or future state bureaucrats, and forcing local school districts to accept such schools would set up a very dangerous system that clearly violates the concept of local control. I cannot support such a state government mandate, especially when the legislative majority has slashed local school funding by more than $1 billion in recent years.

Locally elected school board members across the state have spoken out against HR 1162, which comes as no surprise. It is certainly reasonable to ask why the state is creating a new funding stream for charter schools while reducing financial support for other schools, forcing reduced education calendars, elimination of programs and teacher furloughs.

These are decisions that should be made by school districts at the local level, not from a high-rise office tower in downtown Atlanta. The sponsors of HR 1162 say it is necessary to overturn a Georgia Supreme Court ruling against state-mandated charter schools. But common sense says the court got it right. That’s why I will oppose HR 1162 if it comes to a vote in the Senate this week.

Effects of the Georgia Amendment

If the Georgia Constitution is amended as set forth in HR 1162 it will result in the following kinds of events in the state over the foreseeable future.

  • The Georgia Charter School Commission will be able to create its own network of charter schools throughout the state in direct violation of Georgia law.
  • The Georgia Charter School Commission will supersede the authority of local boards of education by authorizing new charter schools, that in the end will be paid for by the taxpayers. According to the Supreme Court of Georgia, “no other government entity can compete with or duplicate the efforts of local boards of education in establishing and maintaining general K-1 2 schools. And it further states that local boards of education have the exclusive authority to fulfill one of the primary obligations of the State of Georgia, namely “the provision of an adequate public education for all citizens” (Art. VIII, Sec. I, Par. I.).”
  • The destabilization of public schools. Charter schools established through state commission will use local funds (along with grants from the state), thereby further damaging the financial state of local public schools.
  • Real estate investment firms will find a pot of gold in Georgia. This firms will come in a purchase land and/or empty buildings (schools, factories) and then in turn lease them to for-profit charter school management companies, such as KIPP, Academica, or Charter Schools USA. This is big business in Florida. Two-thirds of the charter schools in Florida are run by for-profit companies, who exist on the backs of the taxpayers of Florida. The management companies charge fees that sometime exceed $1 million per year per school.
  • Increase in politics and influence peddling in the context of multimillion dollar opportunities by establishing charter schools in various counties in Georgia.

It’s in the voters hands–In November, the voters in Georgia will vote on the amendment.

Philospher’s Stone?

In a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, “charter schools are touted as the reform model that will boost student achievement by allowing schools to be innovative and by having parents, teachers, and the community more a part of the decision-making.” But as I have shown elsewhere on this blog, charter schools simply do not do as well as their public school counterparts, and indeed, students would be better off going to public schools.

We have reported on this blog that two major research studies indicate that charter schools do not perform nearly as well as traditional public schools. In a study published by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, hundreds of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia were studied to find out what was the impact of these charter schools on student learning.

Here are some of their findings from the CREDO study:

  • Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
  • Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total.
  • The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools instead.

Used with permission of Dr. Michael Marder

Dr. Michael Marder, at the University of Texas has studied not only Texas charter schools, but charter schools in other states including Florida, New Jersey, New York, and California. He has found that most charter schools do not do as well as the traditional public schools. Follow this linkto his analyses of charter school data presented as easy to understand visualizations. The link will take you to a movie in which Dr. Marder walks us through a very large data set that he presents as visualizations. He analyses the relationship between poverty concentration vs. achievement, and compares regular public schools and charter schools, as well ethnicity. The image on the left shows every Texas school (regular public and charters) as circles of varying sizes (number of graduates) and color ( fraction of non-white students). As you can see, and as Dr. Marder has concluded, the there a strong relationship between poverty concentration and achievement.

It turns out that charter schools do not increase student performance on academic tests. In fact, charter schools tend to turn away English language learners, and special needs learners. Most charter schools have created segregated environments, which in the words of The Civil Rights Project, has been a civil rights failure.

Enabling the state to establish charter school is not only a big mistake, its not educational sound, and probably is unconstitutional.

What are your views on the value of charter schools? Should the state have the authority to create schools without local school board approval?

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordina...