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Deborah Keisch Polin & Tim Scott: Let’s improve all public schools

EDITOR’S NOTE: The authors of a May 17 guest column, “The high price of charters,” respond here to comments published since their essay appeared. The Gazette continues to welcome reader views on the issue of charter schools, school choice and public funding of education.

Previous articles by Kipp Armstrong and Susannah Howe (“Don’t blame public education troubles on charter schools,” May 23), Jeff Wagenheim (“Charter schools: innovation engines,” May 24) and letters from James Burke and Bob Brick remain available at GazetteNET.

The modern day benefactors of these market-based “reforms,” who are now driving the proliferation of charter schools, include both Democrats and Republicans joining with billionaire “philanthropists” Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Walmart along with the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Foundation, among others. These values are reinforced by what we see as guest columnist Jeff Wagenheim’s anti-union inferences. Both nonprofit and for-profit charters (Massachusetts has for-profit charters) serve as a means to this end and are heavily marketed as the logical alternative to everything that ails public education.

The numbers in our May 17 guest column came directly from state and municipal sources, not a charter propaganda “fact” sheet from which respondents in the May 23 Gazette appear to have collectively cribbed. We were being generous. The figure we quoted the city paying to charters next year ($1.6 million) did indeed account for the reimbursement that allegedly will be paid back to the district. It isn’t useful to look at per-student tuition when calculating reimbursements, as the reimbursement formula uses the overall percentage of increased charter costs to the district each year. According to an aide of a Massachusetts state legislator, these reimbursements are also being increasingly underfunded by the state every year, despite charter proponents’ claims that the district gets the money back and more.

To be clear, charters are not traditional public sector schools. They are unaccountable to locally elected school committees and appoint or elect their own boards who control their budgets and hire and fire employees. Charters are labeled “public” due to being publicly funded and free ... for those who are “fortunate enough to win a spot” via a lottery.

In our interview with educator/author Jonathan Kozol about western Massachusetts charters, he claimed, “Charter schools, which are just a halfway step to vouchers ... are almost always more segregated than regular public schools. These schools always seem to have a niche effect. ... If you set up a cutesy, artsy academy, you’re not going to get the really dirt poor people. This is built in apartheid! ... Paulo Freire would turn over in his grave if he knew what (Bob Brick and his new Holyoke charter school) were doing. The fact is that even with the best of intent, to create an institution which is just one more building block in the structure of undermining public education ... to me this is an abomination.”

Most charters in western Massachusetts are considered boutique in nature, meaning they serve the niche demands of privileged communities. The comments in the Gazette suggested these writers enjoy this version of charters, with all the elite trappings while turning their noses up at the “mediocre” education system left behind and accuse those who point out this inequity of being divisive.

The respondents’ claims are riddled with contradictions. The repeated assertion that charters are open to all, followed by the caveat — to anyone who wins a spot in the lottery — underscores the hypocrisy. Lotteries are anything but fair, as lotteries require losers. Across the board, western Massachusetts boutique charter students are more affluent and whiter, and charters overall house fewer children with special needs and less ELL students — these are publicly available facts from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, despite how the charter propaganda machine attempts to twist them. This is democracy?

Charters may have a rich curriculum and devoted special education services that their students enjoy, while public school students face severe cuts to resources and services. Public schools are also filled with loving and dedicated teachers and staff — but their hands are increasingly tied in this age of austerity.

Our current public system is far from ideal, but we must collectively make it better for all families, because a well resourced universal public education system with a robust curriculum, a unionized (empowered) staff and true accountability to their communities offers the greatest potential for a democratic society.

Every parent cares deeply about the education of their own child. However we need every parent, every community member, to care about the education of all children. Opting out of the public system will only ensure its destruction.

Deborah Keisch Polin and Tim Scott were co-founders and producers of Education Radio, a national radio and podcast program featuring interviews, testimony and analysis on issues facing public education in the U.S., archived at education-radio.blogspot.com.

Legacy Comments17

Kipp…no matter how much you assert that we are using tactics and deliberately being dishonest – it simply is not true. It is beginning to feel like that is your tactic, to focus on discrediting us as individuals rather than focus on the issues. I have no agenda, I am not being dishonest – there is no reason for me to be. These are issues I am passionate about, and I want to get the facts out in a public dialogue – that is it. There is no “unusual” definition of public – it is actually quite well documented and we spent quite a bit of time, in both articles, explaining exactly what that means. And this is actually a radically progressive viewpoint, not a conservative one. We were very clear about what we meant. Any layperson could absolutely understand that. And the whole point of dialogue is that individuals absolutely have different understandings of essential words – I am guessing that you and I have very different understandings of what “democracy” means, for example. Pulling apart those differences is essential in a dialogue. Yes, I abhor high stakes testing. However the charter movement often claims that they are “performing” (another testing word I hate in education) at a higher rate than public schools and this just isn’t true and needs to be pointed out. I could point out so many inaccuracies in your argument, and we have – your complete misrepresentation of reimbursements, for one, or your assertions that lotteries are somehow fair, which they are not – and then I could suggest you are being deliberately misleading and dishonest. However, I am not doing that b/c – and perhaps I am wrong - but I do in fact believe you believe what you are saying to be true – I just think you are inaccurate. Until you accept that our argument comes from a place of true integrity, I don’t know how we can have a productive discussion about the issues. (once again i couldn't post this as a direct reply, which is why it is coming here - it is a reply to Kipp's post on 6.4)

This is a reply to comment above from kippnadas on 6/1 - for some reason I couldn't reply directly to that comment. Kipp – that’s fine if what we are saying doesn’t reflect your particular experience – it still isn’t accurate to say that we are making untrue statements. Just because you are public in name, and just because you are subject to state review doesn’t mean that you operate, practice, publically - for all of the reasons we have already mentioned. I, and many others, do not agree with this categorization of the word public. Much of what we are saying isn’t mutually exclusive from much of what you have been saying – for example your charter may have a rich curriculum and yet charters are still an instrument of the privatization of public schools (again, this is a very explicit agenda of ed reform policies). Great that you are educating kids with challenges. It is still a fact that there are more children with challenges left behind in public schools with fewer resources to be able to address them. I was certified to teach k-8th grade in an intensely progressive program – with a focus on arts and music and constructivist learning. Of COURSE I want this kind of environment for my own child and for all children and it is intensely painful for me that my child has to be subjected to an environment where testing is increasingly driving the curriculum and budgets are cutting anything that can’t be tested. It is heartbreaking. In my opinion, ALL children are lost in this kind of environment – ALL children need a rich curriculum. Yes you depend on state funding, but that funding (tuition) is guaranteed from the state based on your enrollment, BEFORE the state cuts its funding for public schools so you aren’t impacted by those cuts. Districts operated on razor thin budgets years ago, and they keep getting slashed further where at least you can count on your funding. When you say “nobody” is suggesting solutions, whom are you talking about? There are many people across the U.S. who are fighting for solutions and against current education reform policies. Charters are indeed one of the many instruments we are fighting. Standardized testing and curriculum is another. School closures are another. And the list goes on. The bottom line is that we are talking about very different worldview – those of us fighting for these things are fighting for the common good, rather than individual choice, and recognize that a true democracy depends on a truly public education for all children.

Also -- It is important to note that the state is complicit in facilitating the privatization of public education via NCLB and RTTT, and in that, the state of MA states that charters will be governed like private non-profit organizations.

Although wonderful to agree completely on the damages of testing, I have to continue to respectfully disagree on your slant regarding public/private. Public is public period. It is uncool in my book to use your own definition of public and attempt to sway opinion alleging charters are private. That is what feels frustrating to me. As for suggesting solutions, I'm asking you to offer up a few in the columns you are authoring (my response to this one does just that if published). It feels like you are simply pointing the finger at charters, with tainted definitions, without attempting to answer the financial problems. I realize the stats you point to have some strong implications, however, I continue to argue that the stats are not rock solid. There are non-quantifiable financial/demographic details muddying your stats. Just my opinion.

And I have to continue to disagree back. Public is most certainly not public, period. It isn’t about me being uncool, and it isn’t about my own definition - I wish it were that parochial! There are many scholars (legal scholars included) and activists who have noted the changing definition of public over the past decades, driven by the ideology of neoliberalism, privatization, and more broadly a “free market” approach to conceptualizing and restructuring of all pubic goods and services. This includes what is known as “public-private partnerships,” a corporate concept that is driving the charter school movement which has been successful in introducing private sector norms and culture into the design, operation, and management of publicly funded charter schools.You can’t just say that you are public because you call yourselves public and the state labels you as such because, as we have mentioned, the state is complicit in this shifting definition. This isn’t just happening in education, but everywhere – all public spheres are being increasingly privatized. Yes, we could have chosen to write a column on an issue (solution) that more of our progressive friends and neighbors in the area could agree on – like a call to get rid of high-stakes testing. But entirely rethinking charters, to us and many others, is also a solution. And it seems that nobody wants to talk about it for fear of offending their friends and neighbors b/c it is an issue that splits the so-called left. I know many people in our area that support the views Tim and I (and others in letters to the Gazette) have laid out, but who don’t want to lay public claim to them for fear of upsetting friends. To me, this is a conversation that desperately needs to be had b/c it has been ignored for too long. (One tiny corner to start seeing that this isn’t about the opinion of a handful of people: http://dianeravitch.net/2013/01/04/courts-and-nlrb-charters-are-not-public-schools/)

I guess we will have to agree to disagree. What I see you doing is using tried and true political argument tactics (generally used by socially conservative PACS). If you are using an unusual definition of a word you should first note that, and then go ahead and make your argument. You make some interesting points, but if folks are not well versed in the issue and reading your words as a means of education, they receive a confused understanding at best. Personally I prefer to debate using the same definition of essential words. There are additional difficulties I have regarding our discourse. For example, you express disdain for MCAS and testing in general (which I applaud), and then (mistakenly) accuse the charter school I am involved with of having mediocre results. At least in this case the layperson can see the flawed argument. Again, I welcome a discussion - just prefer an open, fair and square one... I agree many are standing on the sidelines from both sides for various reasons. My hunch (and hope) is that in this community of educators and scholars your tactics are not falling on unsuspecting minds. It's too bad, because my sense is you are far smarter than I, and persuasion is the great gift of our founding fathers, but I'm not persuadable due to your tactics...

Jeff, The underfunding and increasing segregation and inequity in public education makes me anything but gleeful – it is abominable. It might help you to understand what Kozol is referring to by reading The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. (btw the word apartheid refers not only to particular events in South Africa but to policy in general that results in segregation – you don’t see this happening in U.S. Education?) Or, give a listen to our interview with him or any of the other shows we produced on Ed Radio – there is one on Gates – perhaps that will help, too. Our district takes an enormous NET hit to charters after reimbursements – we were not ignoring the reimbursements, it is just that the figure we quoted has nothing to do with them (perhaps except that it will likely be greater b/c the reimbursements are likely not to be paid in full). There is nothing that we are saying that is dishonest – and we are happy to engage in a discussion about all of it, in a public forum or in person. A discussion can still be constructive even if it challenges your assertions and worldview, which perhaps is what is happening for you and preventing you from being able to have it. This isn’t about the two of us going away – this isn’t just our opinion – there is a national movement of students, teachers, scholars and activists who share exactly these options and knowledge base. This isn’t a personal attack on Jeff Wagenheim or on your kid’s charter. All of us are passionate about public education for ALL children and we will continue to fight for it.

This is such a thoughtful and helpful reply to Mr. Wagenheim. I have no pony in this race, but I do care about the state of public education, and I do care about respectful discussions about challenging topics.

Bottom line: Your column was so filled with willful misrepresentations that I had no interest in sparking a discussion with you. I've had highly charged conversations with those who oppose charters, and I've enjoyed those exchanges because I can trust that their facts as actual facts and then simply make my counterargument ... or in some cases find common ground. But when I read in your column about the impact on charters on Northampton public schools that "charters are privately managed and operated” -- something that is true in some places in this country but certainly not in our area -- I can only conclude that you're willing to distort in a vain attempt to fortify your point. And that was only one of many examples. So, no, I'm not interested in having this important discussion with you. I will gladly have it with others who challenge my worldview but do it honestly.

Jeff - it is not at all dishonest to say that charters are privately managed and operated - it is how you view the definition of that - I believe that they are. We do not confuse the local boutique charters with "for profit" charters, which exist in our state but not in our local community - and we've been clear about that. I would have a discussion with you or anyone and defend that point - in my opinion given the way that charters are managed (with a board that is elected or appointed from within), that they are unaccountable to local school boards, that they are not at the mercy of state funding, and that they are not required to accept all students as public schools are (a lottery is not the same as having to accept all students in your community) - and on and on -- that this makes them nothing like public schools and look much more like private organizations. So what you are claiming is dishonest is really a differing view point. I disagree with practically everything you have said, and pretty vehemently, but I haven't accused you of dishonesty because I believe you truly believe what you are saying, even though I think you have been misled and haven't done your research. I'm not sure how you can continue to claim we are being dishonest when all of what we said can be backed up by fact - just because you keep repeating that we are being dishonest doesn't make it true - despite that being the method of many politicians. If you want to be taken seriously you will have to actually back that up with something. I, too, have had many productive and respectful conversations with others with differing views (including charter supporters)..you say you have, but have done nothing to demonstrate that here. You are the one who is preventing constructive conversation....and again, I am happy to continue to try. For me, this is an essential issue that needs to get out there and that is the most important point.

I understand your viewpoint argument, but it does not reflect my experience. As a volunteer member of a board of trustees for a charter school I am considered a "special employee" of the state and mandated to take frequent ethics courses from the state and submit annual conflict of interest statements. The board is subject to open meeting law, and accountable to the DESE. I just met with two DESE representatives to review our school's adherence to the DESE accountability plan. The visit included the DESE representatives reviewing a year of board minutes -which they asked numerous questions about. The DESE site visit made it clear to me they are watching our school closely. Also, we are entirely dependent on state funding. We do fundraise, but so do district PTOs. Our fundraising is pathetic, and clearly contrasts with the idea that our school is catering to valley elite families. What frustrates me about this series of columns/letters is that with my limited awareness through my volunteer work I can see the omissions and untrue statements and angles pursued by the authors painting a very different picture of the charter school I know. We are entirely public, and run on a razor thin budget with too lean of an administration. We have a school with a wide diversity of challenges, and we are educating kids who might well be lost in traditional district schools. Also, why is nobody suggesting solutions?

It's possible to have an honest discussion about charter schools without attacking the intentions and expertise of others. Mr. Wagenheim's comments (here and in his guest writer piece) are consistently sarcastic and disrespectful. He questions the agenda of the authors, yet he doesn't acknowledge his own bias as someone who has children in a charter school. He says "Leave the discussion to those capable of an honest exchange," yet he himself leaves out important information. He suggests that charter schools aren't elitist because absolutely anyone can go to a charter school if they're lucky enough to get in -- but what about parents who have no car to drive their children to school every morning and pick them up in the afternoon? He presents himself as an expert on education, yet to my knowledge, he's not an educator. He says that charter schools are needed engines of change in education, but his own children's charter school has mediocre scores at best on MCAS at the elementary level. If you compare those scores to other schools in the area, while there are various blips up and down, you can see that the charter school is doing no better than other schools even though its student body is (as others have said) wealthier and has fewer students with significant disabilities. I might have been more able to hear Mr. Wagenheim's message, but his sarcastic tone and his refusal to see that there may be more than one side (his side) to this argument were problematic.

I don't dispute that there are challenges for some families, Andrea, but to characterize charter school populations as elite or even affluent is simply wrongheaded. Every day when I go pick up my kids at Hilltown, there's a group of anywhere from a dozen to two dozen kids standing outside the school waiting for the PVTA bus into Northampton. There are carpools from other communities. People who don't have a car or don't have a driver available at 8am or 3pm find a way to get their kids to and from school. As to the rest of your comment, regarding my sarcastic tone, I stand guilty as charged. I am capable of having a civil discussion of even as highly charged an issue as public education, but when I see facts (charters are private?) and figures (funding reimbursement ignored) deliberatively distorted, my response aims not at the meat of the argument but at its unreliable source. Which proves that I'm not the expert on education you claim I am.

My intention was not to characterize your children's school population as elite or affluent, but to remind you that a charter school education isn't available to everyone and that socio-economic background does play a part. I would venture to guess that most Hilltown kids are taking the bus for reasons of convenience or lifestyle choice (environmental awareness), not because their parent or parents don't own a car. Plus, is it really considered appropriate to put a kindergartener or first grader on a public bus alone? Or a child with significant disabilities? And if a parent takes the child to school by bus, then he or she needs to be able to afford an adult's bus fare. As for carpools, you actually need to *own* a car to participate in one, and there have to be other kids from your area who are going to the same school. More important to the entire conversation is that your response presumes a sense of agency on the part of parents -- that all parents have the knowledge, experience, and confidence to seek out a charter school education, send in an application, and then figure out how to get their child to school and home from school every day. Let's face it -- charter school educations are *not* equally available to everyone, and anyone who claims this has never lived a life where there's not an extra dollar or two available for bus fare.

I'm sure there are a few Hilltown families who use the bus in order to be green -- this is Northampton, after all -- but the vast majority of bus use and carpooling is due to parents having to be at work. As for kids too young to ride alone, I'm told by my 4th-grader son that the older kids keep an eye on the younger ones. The school community makes do as best we can, having no access to a school bus. And I'm sure folks would come up with a creative solution to help out a family that had no car and couldn't afford the 75-cent PVTA ride. The bigger obstacle, as you suggest, is persuading parents that it's worthwhile for their children to try for a spot. I don't know what charter schools can do to make a case for that, other than offering as much help as possible in making things work for the family.

Shame on you for gleefully citing an outrageous Jonathan Kozol comparison of charter public schools to apartheid. That's offensive to the people of South Africa who suffered through decades of severe consequences. And it's offensive to the families of this community, whether their kids attend local district schools or charters. I do appreciate one thing about this column: that you finally acknowledge the reimbursement paid to districts by the state for children who attend charters. It would have been nice if you hadn't willfully ignored that in your first column while laying out the "facts" of education fundings. See how I put "facts" in quotation marks? I did that to indicate that what you called facts were not really facts, or at least were missing significant elements that would make them truly factual. It's a device used to call something into question -- as you did above when you described Bill Gates and others as "philanthropists." Are we to assume, then, that you have some doubts as to whether the Gates Foundation has actually donated any money to charitable causes? Or is this just more of your sloppy flinging of innuendo? Reasonable people can discuss their differences of opinion and/or philosophy about education or any other topic. But that cannot happen when one party uses distortion in order to support a position. For that reason, I hope this is the last we hear from you two on this topic. Leave the discussion to those capable of an honest exchange.

The correct link to our interview with Kozol is: http://education-radio.blogspot.com/2011/12/looking-back-with-williams-kozol.html

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