Monday, August 3, 2009

More Common Sense Fact Based Questions About the Voucher and Charter School Debacle

Jennie Smith, the Dade County Education Policy reporter for, wrote a free flowing common sense look at education in the piece “America's education system perpetuates the gap between rich and poor.” It’s an encouraging sign that more people are starting to wise up. Are you listening Arne Duncan?

The conservative "solution" to the problems in public education seems to be, more often than not, privatization (despite the fact that none of the nations with top-performing education systems rely on a model of privately owned or managed schools). Their faith in the ability of the so-called "free market" to improve everything seems to know no bounds. But it is an oft-seen brand of privatization that is not self-sufficient. After all, the very point of capitalism is that the government is not supposed to interfere: once these private organizations rely on tax dollars for survival, and in the case of schools need the government funding to exist in the first place, we are no longer really talking about true capitalism at all--just about politicians favoring the private sector over the public sector, favoring profits over public service … any politician who espoused the privatization of education in the truest sense of the word would never gain any significant support among voters, because that would be reverting to a (fortunately) long-outdated, feudalistic system where only the moneyed classes would be able to educate their children … so conservative politicians push for the next-best thing they can reasonably find support for: private school vouchers and charter schools.

If politicians feel there is a crisis in American education--an idea that is in itself debatable, as the quality of public education in the US has remained relatively stable since the 1970s, one might hope they would look to countries with excellent education systems for ideas. Finland was credited in 2004 by OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) with the best education system in the world. Finland's education minister credited their enormous economic investment in education as the primary factor, along with parental support and involvement, having small, local schools where students stay from ages 7 to 16 before entering into an academic upper secondary school or a vocational upper secondary school, with very few students dropping out, and places in higher education for 65% of students (universities and most materials are free in Finland), and hiring and retaining highly qualified teachers at all levels of the system

If none of the top-performing education systems in the world are based on private schools receiving taxpayer funding, what on earth makes us believe that this is a viable solution for the problems plaguing education in America today?

Charter schools are the #1 pet project in education for conservatives. They are packaged and sold to the public as offering choice to parents, and promoting competition with public schools so that, in turn, public schools will be forced to improve in order to stay "in business." Tax dollars marked for public education are then diverted to private organizations holding a charter with the state. Though most states require those organizations to be nonprofit, there are some, like Imagine Schools, who turn a significant profit through shady real estate deals through the real estate arm of their business. Furthermore--and perhaps more importantly--so far there is no conclusive evidence to support that charter schools are any more successful at improving student achievement and/or closing the achievement gap than traditional public schools. And in the state of Florida, according to the CREDO report linked here and above, charter schools actually fared worse overall than traditional public schools.

A major national report released in July shows charter students nationwide trailing their counterparts in traditional public schools, and the trend is even more marked in Florida, which ranked among the six states with the least effective charter schools.

(Charter schools) do not have to play by the same rules when it comes to expelling students. I was told by a friend who teaches in a nonprofit charter school in Miami that his school is quick to expel students; since it is considered a "school of choice," they have the right to "get rid of" students who are causing problems, even when those problems would not be sufficient to get a child expelled from a regular public school.

The fundamental issue underlying the problems in American education is that the gap between the rich and the poor is huge, and continues to grow. Funneling taxpayer-funded profits into the hands of private charter management companies will not fill the gap between the rich and the poor

There is a prevalent notion that parents should have the right to choose what and how their children learn, meaning that many parents, particularly those who are very religious, choose to send their children to religious schools or even to home school them. Very often, their motivation is not a sincere belief that the quality of the education will be superior, but to shield the children from "secular" ideas, and even science: they want their children to learn creationism (and creationism only), that the world is only a few thousand years old, that dinosaurs and human beings coexisted, and they want to protect their children from the "dangerous" theories of evolution and climate change, among others. By holding private and religious schools, and home schools, to the same standards as public schools, part of the incentive for many parents to place their students in those schools (or teach them at home) would dissolve.

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