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.
NORTHAMPTON — While claiming progressive ideals, proponents of school choice, competition and charter schools share many of the same views as the free-market ideologues who pioneered the school choice movement as a means to undermine public education.
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.