The bottom line in the debate about charter schools


  When it comes to New York City's public schools, one thing is not in dispute: there are problems, a lot of them.  The city's kids have below average math and reading scores, and very high drop out rates - of 50 large US cities, NY is close to the bottom, at 43rd.

And while there are disagreements about the reasons for these problems, the big dispute these days is about the solutions, and specifically, about the role of charter schools and their relationship to "traditional" public schools.

One skirmish took place recently, in the basement auditorium of the Ralph Bunche Trilingual School on West 123rd Street in Harlem. The room was almost full, as parents and community residents held a tense "town hall meeting" with school Chancellor Joel Klein.

Increasing the number of charter schools has been a major priority of Bloomberg and Klein's Department of Education. Plans are set for fall openings of 24 more, bringing the total to 123, and the mayor is pushing the state legislature to allow him to add another 100. Charter schools would then make up 22% of all schools in the district.

At the meeting, parents' questions focused on the area's charter school explosion (24 of 29 charter schools in Manhattan are located in Harlem). Many expressed anger and frustration with the DOE's policy of placing charter schools in existing school buildings, which most cities do not allow. Existing schools have been forced to cut space usage and programs or move to other less desirable locations.

Even parents who said that they don't oppose charter schools in principle, talked about the "separate and unequal" situation that is developing, the fomenting of divisions within communities, and the negative impact on the children in the regular schools when their learning and recreational space is usurped by a charter school, often without discussion or advance notice.

But some parents were there to support the charters -- the charter school "movement" has relied on the fact that many families are indeed desperate for better schools for their children, and the worst schools are mainly in working-class, especially Black and Latino, communities.

Klein claims that the DOE has only the children's interests at heart, and that charters give parents choices and advance school reform. The idea is that charter schools can do better with less, and can experiment with educational approaches, unfettered by the restrictions (read union rights) within the public school system.

But national research has shown that in fact, many charter schools are falling short, with one study finding that only 17 percent offered students a better education than public schools - and that 37 percent were actually worse.

New York City's charters have had better results, on the other hand. What is different?


One big part of the answer is that they do not, in fact, have "less" resources. Those charter schools that are housed in public school buildings (two-thirds of the total) receive approximately the same amount per pupil as public schools do. And charter schools have access to other resources: high powered (and highly paid) CEOS and governing boards, favored relationships with DOE officials and other connections with Wall Street and the corporate world, and NYC has a lot of that.


Parents are obviously motivated by their children's needs, but Bloomberg and Klein's motivation is another thing entirely.

The Chancellor said at the meeting that the DOE only wants the best for children in neighborhoods like Harlem. But in 2008, the DOE enacted budget cuts that disproportionately hurt the highest poverty schools, and cancelled out the positive effects of increased need-based funding from the state.*

In 2005 and 2006, Bloomberg successfully fought efforts that would have reduced class size, a proven way to enhance learning and reduce the achievement gap. His opposition was undoubtedly due to the proposal to fund this by continuing the city's tax surcharge on personal incomes over $500,000.

And just last month, the mayor's handpicked Panel on Educational Policy voted to close 19 schools despite overwhelming community opposition and expert testimony about available alternatives, including federal funds, for turning these troubled schools around.

The bottom line is that Bloomberg's dream of school reform is a corporate one: weakened union protections for staff and teachers, an expanded role - and profits - for the private sector, and as little public funding and regulation as can be gotten away with. That scenario cannot provide quality education for all children, which is what the growing movement is fighting for, and which like all the issues facing working people, will require unity and mobilization to win.

*"New York City's Contract for Excellent: Closing the Funding Gap or a Funding Shell Game", report by the Alliance for Quality Education and the Fiscal Policy Institute found that the DOE cut more from the schools with the highest poverty rates.

Photo / CC BY-SA 2.0



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  • One more reason to give Obama and the Dems the boot:

    By Rob Levine
    The Triumph of Conservative Philanthropy
    Thursday, March 4, 2010

    Yesterday the Star Tribune reported that the bottom performing five percent
    of Minnesota primary and secondary public schools will be subject to
    draconian punishment, including the possible closing or restructuring of 34
    schools. Of those schools, half are Charter schools.

    Minnesota has 2,637 public schools. Of those, according to the Minnesota
    Association of Charter Schools, about 152 are Charters. Doing the math, that
    means that 17 of 152 Charters are failing, versus 17 of 2,485 regular public
    schools are judged failing. That amounts to about 11 percent of Charters
    failing versus a little more than one-half of one percent of regular schools
    failing - meaning Charters in Minnesota are about 17 times more likely to
    fail than regular public schools.

    This comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed the educational
    attainment levels of Charters versus regular public schools. A study from
    Stanford University last year found that Minnesota Charter schools perform
    "significantly below" the level of regular public schools.

    So what will be done with these failing Charters? What is the point of
    "restructuring" a Charter school, when it was a failed experiment to begin

    As I've said repeatedly, Charter schools are an experiment that has failed
    miserably. It is now a political movement, not an educational one, and it is
    the children of Minnesota who are now the continuing victims of a scam based
    on creating a "market" for schools where none existed, and where none can
    truly exist.

    Mike from Minneapolis

    Posted by Mike, 03/05/2010 2:25pm (5 years ago)

  • Good article. Charter schools are a major problem in New Jersey with our newly elected governor Chris Christie. He has cut funding to public schools and has gone across the state promoting charter schools. In the meantime, teachers are given "merit-based" pay and corporations give money to schools only to see it swallowed up by the people at the top or their cronies. The students lose out and do not receive a better education. The charter school "movement" needs to be replaced with truly effective education/tax reform that will increase the ability of our public schools to educate our children no matter where they live.

    Posted by Vinnie Amoriello, 03/05/2010 11:25am (5 years ago)

  • As the good comrade Jim Lane said, charter schools are nothing more than part of the privatization process. It simply doesn't make any sense outside of that context.

    Consider, for a second, the right-wing theoretical perspective which is that we should introduce some free market dynamics into the education system to revitalize it. The problem with this is that the biggest free-market motivator of all -- "we invested our money in this and if we don't do a good job we're going to lose it all" -- is still not there.

    You have less government accountability, but still little or no private accountability. The top brass at the charter schools know that as long as they scrape by with the bare minimum results on a handful of standardized tests the taxpayers will be forced to prop up their venture whether they like it or not. In this sense it really is the worst of both worlds.

    The proof is in the pudding: charter schools are not any better than fully-public schools, and are usually worse.

    Obviously the ideological crusaders behind the charter school movement either A) didn't think it through very well, or B) didn't really expect much out of it and are going to use their failure as a pretext to push for full-blown privatization.

    Posted by Jesse Jack, 03/03/2010 12:35pm (5 years ago)

  • This isssue is not confined to New York City. In San Antonio there are 16 separate and unequal school districts! Of course the two or three located in largely White and more affluent neighborhoods have better resources, newer facilities and better acadamic scores.

    The oldest school district, San Antonio Independent School District has been closing schools in the past two years making it more difficult for inner city school families. The local Chamber of Commerce and local corporate bosses have been behind the scenes in these closings and privatizating more schools has got to be on their hidden agenda.

    Texas forbids collective bargaining for public employees, so the reactionaries cannot the same falsehoods used against teacher's unions in states such as California, Illinois and New York. Instead local school bosses blame parents for the failure of the school system. Yet when parents express their opposition to school closures, they are for the most part ignored. However parents have been successful in keeping schools open by organizing and resisting in public the school superintendent's scheme to close some schools. This unfortunatley is the exception and not the rule.


    Posted by Pancho Valdez, 03/02/2010 1:20pm (5 years ago)

  • Been there and done that as well.
    If one looks at a school budget one sees more money is directed toward personnel administration,retirements,benefits,buildings,non-essential funding and less and less actually gets to the student to address their needs.
    When an Educational System is programmed as a one shoe fits all it is doomed from the start. The failure to recognize the different levels of INTELLIGENCE,yes I.Q. does factor in this mess, APTITUDES, Attitudes and DESIREs of students is a part of the big problem.
    I attended a Vocational High School where the students were expected to become the Labor force of the community while the College Prep H.S. got all the new books, teachers with advanced degrees ( It later became the CHARTER School of theearea) and FUNDING. With all the stumbling blocks created by the Education Department many of those who dropped out or woke up to what had happend to them went on to college or trade schools and excelled in thier chosen paths.
    I am all for neighborhood schools for k-6,then students should be directed toward vocational training, tech schools and college prep, based on their IQ, Appitude and Interests. If they are not in school they should be drafted into the military for 2 years. After successfully completing 2 years they should have the option of a Trade School or College or remaining in the military.
    Society has an oblication to educate its people and the people have an obligation to CONTRIBUTE their knowledge and abilities.
    As Marx once state "Those who do not work do not eat!" And after Society provides the means to produce and there are those who refuse to contribute they should be placed on work crews.

    Posted by chuckwagon2u, 03/02/2010 1:04pm (5 years ago)

  • Right on

    Posted by D. Bester, 03/02/2010 3:18am (5 years ago)

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