Jim Palermo: Don’t believe the spin on charter schools

Last modified: Wednesday, April 09, 2014

SOUTHAMPTON — Clare Higgins, whom I greatly admire, presented in her monthly Gazette column March 29 insights that invite a continuing conversation regarding the role of charter schools. Higgins may be correct when she states that charter schools “are here to stay,” but I sure hope she’s wrong.

The last thing our country needs is a Humpty Dumpty scenario for the education of our children: one in which our cherished public school system is pushed from the wall by charter schools and made to shatter so badly that all the king’s horses and all the king’s resources would be unable to restore what we foolishly destroyed. Improve, yes. Destroy, no.

Unfortunately, too many progressives, including some in our community, have bought into the propaganda that public schools are bad and that teachers are too incompetent to be able to meet the needs of their children. There often is a degree of arrogance and entitlement that inflates the opinions of those who believe they know better than professional educators and, most regretfully, that they know more than the people whose children are being underserved by public schools.

Too few commentators have had to endure the crushing weight of poverty which is at the heart of student underachievement.

And too many of us are so focused on the alleged “exceptionalism” of our own progeny that we think only of what is best for our children, without sufficient regard or understanding of the plight of students who are most in need.

We begin with the assumption that American kids are not as well educated as the students in other countries, because our students finished in the middle of the pack with regard to the test — the Progamme for International Student Assessment, or PISA for short — that is administered to 65 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries.

Underreported, however, are studies that question PISA’s reliability. But then, who wants to get bogged down with a bunch of statistics?

As poverty and its attendant problems have been identified as the most significant factor affecting student performance, the PISA results may be skewed. Compelling research has shown shortcomings in the PISA sampling methodology, including the fact that there were a disproportionately higher number of economically disadvantaged American students included in the study than were included in other countries.

In a comprehensive study prepared by the progressive Economic Policy Institute, it was noted that “class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared.”

As skewed, incomplete or unreliable as PISA data may be, the data was the impetus needed by the charter school industry to begin to carve out its money-making market share.

As an aside, not-for-profit does not mean a company does not earn a lot of money. It only means that dividends are not paid to stockholders and that no corporate taxes have to be paid.

So revenues are paid to the CEOs and managers of charter school companies and to private companies that operate charter schools. In most instances charter school teachers are paid less, and receive fewer benefits than teachers in traditional public schools and have very high teacher turnover rates.

Because they are largely excused from playing by the same rules as traditional schools, class sizes may be kept small, problematic students can be pushed out and students with behavioral or learning issues can be excluded.

So when we think of providing options for inner-city parents, charter schools are not much of a choice. In many instances the students who perform well in charter schools would also perform just as well in public schools — for after all, they are more likely to come from homes in which education is valued.

And as for the innovative curricula attributed to charter schools, the fact is that amazing innovation also takes place in public schools — without a profit motive in mind. So, what options should we offer economically challenged students?

Become informed about the charter school business, and don’t believe all you read in the corporate press. There is more to be said, so let’s continue the conversation. And let us vow not to privatize public education.

Jim Palermo lives in Southampton.


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