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Reforming the U.S. Education System

Rethinking Charter Schools

by SETH SANDRONSKY

Keeping the Promise? The Debate Over Charter Schools (Rethinking Schools, March 2008) details a growing trend in U.S. public education. That is the chartering of public schools to non-profit and for-profit operators.

To this end, six essays and one interview flesh out the relevance and significance of the charter school movement. Charter schools, begun two decades ago to spur innovation in learning and teaching, have been a force to push out labor unions. It is common for teachers at charter schools to be at-will employees, with no job protections. However, not all charter schools are union-free. It is worth noting that there are teacher’s unions in charter schools. A case in point is Boston’s Pilot Schools, begun 13 years ago, according to Dan French, an author, educator and contributor to Keeping the Promise?

Crucially, contributors to the book—educators, parents and researchers—localize the factors and forces involved in the rise of charter schools from the East Coast to the Midwest, South and West Coast. This is a strength. It can help readers to get a better sense of the over-all national trajectory of public school policy.

In Ohio, David Brennan’s White Hat Management, a for-profit charter school firm, drew on his political ties to the state’s former GOP Governor George Voinovich and the Republican Party. This visible hand helped Brennan to shape state education policies which facilitated his educational entrepreneurship. In New Orleans, public officials and charter school operators exploited the awful devastation from Hurricane Katrina and shameful reaction of FEMA to turn the city’s schools upside down. Consider this. “In one short year, New Orleans had become home to the highest concentration of charter schools in the nation,” writes Leigh Dingerson, a community organizer, educator and co-editor of the collection, along with Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson and Stephanie Walters.

American citizens with scant economic and political power, non-whites last hired and first fired in the labor market, are often easy pickings for charter school operators. These entrepreneurs do not proceed alone as they compete in the mythical marketplace of free competition between buyers and sellers of goods and services. To the contrary, charter school operators across the U.S. can and do turn to well-heeled donors. One of note is Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates. In 2003, his largess helped propel former NBA-All Star Kevin Johnson to charter Sacramento High School, located in a low-income, multi-racial neighborhood. The school is operated by Johnson’s non-profit St. HOPE Academy, under a continuing federal probe for how it spent $800,000 in federal funds from 2004 to 2007.

The contributors to Keeping the Promise raise crucial questions of equity and fairness in education policy. This arena of struggle reflects the national class divide, the widest among developed countries worldwide.

SETH SANDRONSKY lives and writes in Sacramento. He can be reached at: ssandronsky@yahoo.com.

 

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