As Schools Open

With the start of the 2019-2020 school year, the ever-present debate over the issue of charter schools has found its way onto the pages of all kinds of publications. I read the daily Rhode Map that is published by the Boston Globe, an attempt to move into a state that was the long-secure territory of the Providence Journal, a paper which is in decline according to a  retired journalist from the latter with whom I correspond.

As a former educator who worked for decades in Rhode Island, I have a passing interest in what happens in the state. Nearly a decade ago, Rhode Island spearheaded a nationally recognized push to eliminate its legal obligation to honor the cost of living adjustment (COLA) that retired teachers and other state and local workers were guaranteed. Rhode Island won that battle and most unions who represented those workers in the legal battle were left licking their wounds, hobbling away with their tails between their proverbial legs. In all fairness to those unions (I am still a member of the American Federation of Teachers), they were outgunned by the anti-pension forces that current Governor Gina Raimondo brought to bear against retirees with her links to the anti-pension movement across the US. Rhode Island was a Waterloo in the battle to take money out of the pockets of retirees. It was sort of like pushing a grandparent aside to get across the street. This reflects the great loss of power of unions, as they became the targets of the few and the wealthy with Reagan’s first successful shot across the bow of the air-traffic controllers union. A global economy ended the pact between the capitalist class of owners and their workers that had existed since the New Deal.

When Rhode Map began publishing articles about the push to expand charter schools in the impoverished and dysfunctional school district in the state’s capital city, Providence, it was no surprise.

It’s interesting to follow the trajectory of the growth of charter schools across the US. Their inception was in the attack of Ronald Reagan against public education in the US with his administration’s publication of A Nation At Risk. Note the parallels between Reagan’s attacks against unions and the beginning of the war against public schooling, students, teachers, and teacher unions in the US. The juggernaut against public education was part of the push to privatize public schools and turn them into profit mills for the oligarchs. Lots of birds could be killed with a few stones in the attacks on public education in the US and education’s place as a bedrock of democratic institutions.

Here’s how Rhode Map frames the debate over charter schools in the troubled Providence school district:

State lawmakers approved mayoral academy charter schools in 2008, but supporters of the idea tell me [editor of Rhode Map] they weren’t prepared for the test they face now. Here’s my look at how Providence’s mayor stands in the way of the expansion of Achievement First, and why there isn’t much anyone can do about it.

As always, the argument for charter schools and their expansion is used as a given and a good, when in fact charters rob other schools in school districts of needed money to buy books, hire teachers, specialists, and administrators, repair and build school infrastructure, and buy basic school supplies. The charters often serve as sieves, through which kids with special needs, including behavioral problems, are winnowed out of these schools and left for the public schools to educate since the public schools must take all students who come to their doors and who live in a particular schools district.

Diane Ravitch, a former member of George H.W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s Department of Education, puts the dilemma of public schooling in these terms: “The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty-not bad teachers.”  Ravitch went on to become one of the foremost critics of charter schools and has written extensively as an expert on the subject in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010), and Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013).

Here’s a video and accompanying article from the New York Times that went viral in 2016 of a teacher scolding a young child during a math lesson at a well-known charter school. “At Success Academy School, a Stumble in Math and a Teacher’s Anger on Video,”(February 12, 2016).

While the latter may be a temporary and human lapse in teaching behavior and strategy, readers need to keep in mind that charters not only cull the students that they want for their schools from the public schools, but they can bar unions, have huge teacher dropout rates, and can be difficult to manage within the larger public school system where they are located. Often, new teachers at charters don’t last for more than a single year in the classroom. The big issue here is that charters take money available to the public schools in a school district and further the spiral of downward achievement that poverty can create.

The US is a nation with national, state, and local governments that sometimes penalize poor and innocent kids. Should it come as a surprise, then, that innocent immigrant children at our borders are penalized by taking away toothpaste, soap, bedding, medical care, and education?

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).