Charter Schools Are Not the Solution to Public Education in the US

While I would enthusiastically support the concept of creating a charter school to test a new instructional model and would certainly approve the use of incentives to encourage families to place their children in that school, that is not the way charter schools are being utilized here in Fort Wayne, Indiana nor, I suspect, in most other communities in the US.

The Charter schools with which I am familiar are might posture themselves as innovative but, in reality, they are little more than lifeboats floated out into the murky sea of public education to give the few families that are so inclined a place to which they can escape from the public schools.

There are insufficient numbers of these lifeboats to accept more than a miniscule percentage of the total population of children who are in the figurative “damaged ships” that are our urban public schools; thus, such schools can have no more than a marginal impact on the challenges facing public education in America.

The fact that we create these avenues of escape for the most motivated families and their children and still expect the teachers of the abandoned school to improve scores on standardized competency examinations is absurd. Charter schools may be a lifeline for a small number of families but they are a virtual sentence of death, or at least imprisonment, to the abandoned schools and to their students and educators.

The message this sends to the community at large is “we cannot do anything to fix our most challenged public schools so let us, at the very least, help a few families and their children escape.

The practice of using school vouchers is also creating its own series of adverse impacts. Not only do vouchers drain scarce tax dollars out of the accounts of our most challenged schools, those dollars are not creating outcomes that are significantly better for the students as, at least locally, the performance of charter schools on competency exams is disappointing. Worse yet, is that a portion of the tax revenue siphoned out of the budgets of our public schools is being utilized for purposes other than the education of our children.

I know, personally, of two Catholic parishes in Fort Wayne that have found vouchers to be a profitable enterprise and have used the revenue to pay off the parishes debts to the Dioceses or to address non-school related financial concerns while requests for school related uses of the funds have been denied. Now that this practice has come to light, that unfortunate and inappropriate practice will be discouraged, hopefully, if not discontinued.

We say that our purpose is to fix public education and that is expressed in our collective mission statements. Our behavior suggests that we have given up on at least our urban public schools as lost causes.

The fundamental problem with education reform is that it amounts to little more than tinkering with obsolete educational processes that contributes, greatly, to the failure of its students and the overwhelming majority of educational reformers, “corporate reformers” or “traditional,” seem oblivious to this reality. No matter how many times we keep re-shuffling the same deck we will continue to get the same 52 cards. Unfortunately, they are the wrong cards.

If the reader can allow his or her mind to consider, imagine that we have landed on another planet with a couple of million families and we want to set up schools for our children. If we were to take advantage of this unique opportunity and design and educational process from scratch, would it appear anything like public education looks in the United States of America, today? If we were to apply any amount of imaginative, exponential thinking the answer would be that the system we would create would bear little resemblance to what we have here and now.

The saddest fact of all is that reinventing our educational systems and processes would not be all that difficult if only we would open our hearts and minds to a new way of thinking about education. With but a few exceptions, most of the things we would do differently would require nothing more than a majority vote of the local school district.

I am proposing that we apply a systems-thinking approach utilizing present day business principles to reinvent education in America. I am not talking about such business principles of the corporate board room as financial incentives, competition, privatization and entrepreneurialism. In fact, these are the exact wrong business principles.

The business principles to which I refer are the principles learned in an operational setting such has: focus on one’s customer; identifying and focus on one’s mission, structuring the operation to meet its objectives, problem-solving, teamwork, integrating quality assessments into the learning process, and giving the people on the production line (teachers and administrators) the tools and resources they need to do the best job of which they are capable.
In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I offer a comprehensive blueprint for change.

My request to educators and reformers alike is: let us pause for a moment, clear our minds, and listen to the ideas of someone with a fresh perspective. What do we have to lose other than a few minutes of our time? This is something else smart businesspeople have learned. They often seek out consultants with a broader perspective to challenge their assumptions and paradigms. They even pay for this service, which is the best indicator of its perceived value.

The “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch, Chapter 3 – The 4th Installment of my Journaled Review

This chapter is devoted to a discussion of what Ravitch and others refer to as the “Corporate Reform Movement.” She notes that this movement has its roots in Milton Friedman’s 1955 introduction of the concept of school vouchers that enable parents to choose where the public funds can best be spent relative to the education of their children. Ravitch charts the path of this “privatization of education movement” through President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation, and President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative.

What has resulted can best be described as a “mob rush” toward privatization of education in which test results are utilized to hold public schools and their teachers accountable. This movement designs to break what they believe to be the stranglehold that unions have on public education in America and create a scenario in which schools and school districts must compete on the basis of the performance of their students in an environment where parents, using vouchers to break down economic barriers, are free to choose what they believe to be the best choice for their children.

Somehow, it is believed, that the magic of the free market will somehow transform public education and, in the process, begin to reduce the poverty in which so many Americans must live. The irony could not be more graphic.
To suggest that competition between schools in a free market environment can somehow cure the poverty that has resulted as a consequence of the imperfections of a free-market economy is nothing short of absurd.

Inevitably, a free market system will gravitate toward the money and making money available to parents through the utilization of vouchers is not sufficient to divert the system from its relentless search for deep pockets.
Free markets require much more than the wherewithal of the consumer. For a free market to function effectively it also requires that the products and service it provides must meet the needs of the consumer (demand). Even this is not sufficient, however. The consumer, also, must be sufficiently knowledgeable to discern which products and services are most likely to fulfill their requirements.

This is where the misinterpretation of the reasons why our systems of education fail such a large percentage of American children comes into play. We mistakenly assume that the greatest problem with public education in America is poverty. On the basis of that assumption we conclude that the poor are motivated to act in what “we” perceive to be in “their” best interests. We envision that parents living in poverty will rush to take advantage of school vouchers to give their children an opportunity for a quality education so that they can enjoy a better life.

The unfortunate reality, to which we are so absurdly blind, is that the problem with public education in America is not poverty. It is the hopelessness and powerlessness of a people who have given up on the American dream. Many parents in our most challenged schools do not elect to take advantage of vouchers simply because they are not motivated to do so. They do not believe in our systems of public education and they do not believe an education will provide any benefit to their children.

As a result, our most challenged schools and their teachers are left with the least motivated students, the least supportive parents, and less resources with which to work with them.

Schools that are the recipients of the voucher boom, on the other hand, find themselves with unexpected revenue that proves to be insufficient to deal with a new population of students with minimal motivation to learn and parents who demonstrate minimal commitment to the education of their children.

This privatization movement will not bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots, it will only deepen the rift. It also gives parents from all but the most influential demographic strata even less control over the education of their children as education will not be truly accountable to the people of a given community.

Diane Ravitch is absolutely correct when she says that “privatizing our public schools is a risky and dangerous project. . . . It will hurt children, shatter communities, and damage our society.”