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Flunking Charter Schools

by PAUL BUCHHEIT

Now we know our ABCs. And charter schools get an F.

The Chicago teacher strike is over, but the assault on our nation’s children has just begun. As with all free market systems, the price is set high enough to ensure a profit for the companies doing business, even though not everyone will be able to afford their product.

With our private health care system, 1 out of 6 Americans are uninsured. It’s frightening to think of a private educational system in which 1 out of 6 children have to settle for an inferior education.

We’ve learned a lot in recent years from the struggles within our schools. Here are three sensible considerations for anyone involved in the education of our children.

A. Assessment of Teachers? Before Hiring, Not After.

It’s nearly impossible to judge the long-term effectiveness of any one teacher, given the incalculable variables of student demographics and school funding. And independent-thinking Americans are reluctant to look beyond their own country’s borders for solutions.

But perhaps we should try. Finland’s schools were considered mediocre 30 years ago, but they’ve achieved a remarkable turnaround by essentially challenging their teachers before they’re entrusted with the welfare of the children. Teachers undergo rigorous masters-level training to ensure proficiency in the teaching profession, which is held in the same high esteem as law and medicine. In keeping with this respect for learning, government funding is applied equally to all schools, classes in the arts are available to all students, and tuition is free.

The results? Finnish students, who are not subjected to the travesty of standardized testing, finish at or near the top of international comparisons for reading, math, and science.

It’s not just Finland with such impressive results. Research at the National Center on Education and the Economy has confirmed that educational systems in Japan, Shanghai, and Ontario, Canada have prospered with an emphasis on the preparation of teachers for the essential task of instructing their young people.

Privatizers might argue that unions will eventually corrupt the highly qualified teachers. But they would be wrong. Almost all Finnish teachers are unionized. In the highly unionized U.S. public education system, according to a recent OECD report, teachers put in more hours and receive less pay than in almost all other developed countries.

The problem in the U.S., then, is not the teachers, but a lack of respect for our children’s futures. The child poverty rate in Finland is about 5 percent. In the U.S. it’s an astounding 23 percent. It’s hard to concentrate on school when you’re hungry.

B. Budget Cuts? No, Let the Tax Avoiders Pay Up.

Not many upper-income parents would allow their children to attend a school without a library, but that’s the case for 160 Chicago public elementary schools.

Not many would accept the claim by Milwaukee’s charter school advocates that playgrounds “significantly limit parent’s educational choice in Milwaukee.”

Nor would they tolerate a school system with one counselor for every 800 students, as in California.

Or a school without a full-time arts or music teacher, especially after a College Entrance Examination Board study found that students participating in public school music programs scored an average of 107 points higher on the SAT. But 42% of Chicago’s schools are not funded for a full-time arts or music teacher.

In 1954 Chief Justice Earl Warren summarized the important Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education: “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments…Such an opportunity…is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Instead we get cutbacks. States reduced their education budgets by $12.7 billion in 2012, and in 2013 the majority of states will be spending even less. Nearly 300,000 positions have been eliminated in the education sector since 2008. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced reduced funding for disadvantaged public schools and early-childhood education.

In order to avoid the cutbacks, we need to go directly to the source of the revenue problem. Wealthy individuals and corporations aren’t paying their taxes. The $250 billion avoided each year by corporations (as their tax rates plummeted from 22.5% to 10%) could pay for five million highly educated new teachers. The $450 billion avoided annually by the richest 10% could pay for almost ten million teachers.

C. Charter Schools? They Flunk.

Milton Friedman’s 1955 article, “The Role of Government in Education,” argued for a voucher system that would allow parents to purchase the school of their choice for their children. Just as Friedman’s supply-side free-market beliefs have been proven wrong, so also the notion of privatizing education is doomed to failure.

The evidence against charter schools is overwhelming. Their relative ineffectiveness is documented by studies from Stanford University, the Department of Education, Johns Hopkins University, and the RAND Corporation.

In addition to their poor performance, charters are more segregated, less likely to accept students with disabilities, and conducive to a widening of the racial and rich-poor education gaps.

Also, charter school teachers have less experience, and their turnover rate is higher.

Yet the media-supported myth of school privatization persists. Charters sustain this myth, according to noted education scholar Diane Ravitch, by “skimming off” the most motivated students from disadvantaged neighborhoods. They claim to select students randomly. But a study of the highly regarded KIPP Charter School chain shows a pattern of “selective attrition” in which underperforming students are “counseled out.” About half of Kipp’s students leave between the 5th and 8th grades.

Charters can pull off their charade of success, because the privatization myth keeps disillusioned parents waiting at their front doors. There are currently about two million students in 5,600 charter schools throughout the U.S., with 600,000 children on the waiting lists.

In the end, perhaps the strongest argument against charter schools is that they’ve never been scaled up to a level that accommodates the majority of students. The profit motive wouldn’t allow such equality of opportunity without drastic cutbacks in teacher salaries and student support costs. After all, the people at the top need to grab their salaries first.

Paul Buchheit teaches Economic Inequality at DePaul University. He is the founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (UsAgainstGreed.orgPayUpNow.org,RappingHistory.org), and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul@UsAgainstGreed.org.

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