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Public Schools vs Charter Schools demystified

NY - FEBRUARY 25 2014: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a press conference in an elementary school gym in NYC. De Blasio, speaking beside NYC schools chancellor Carmen Farina, (L), released details on his plan to implement universal pre-K.
NY - FEBRUARY 25 2014: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a press conference in an elementary school gym in NYC. De Blasio, speaking beside NYC schools chancellor Carmen Farina, (L), released details on his plan to implement universal pre-K.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

While the conflict becomes more heated around the subject of Charter schools and the privatization of educational resources, some careful distinctions need to be made. The most contentious issues result from over-generalization of what constitutes a Charter School in the first place. Essentially, a charter school is a school which receives public funding but operates independently. It has created a plan and been granted a Charter by a State Licensing Board, such as SUNY, or the Board of Regents. Without going into every nuance of the genre, we need to distinguish between the various types of Charter organization, many of which meet the original guidelines of providing an experimental alternative: And if you’re still confused – think ‘Christians’. There are as many denominations of Christians as there are of Charter schools, and they certainly don’t all look alike!

· Not-for-profit

· For-profit. Of these, they can also be:

· Those started by parent groups, (e.g. Our World Neighborhood Charter School, in Queens.)

· by organizations such as the UFT;

· as a social experiment such as Harlem Children’s Zone,

· as an arts, science – ‘themed’ - initiative – and more!

· Part of a chain of similar schools (KIPP, Green Dot, Expeditionary Learning, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Success Academy – they run the whole gamut!) Enter their names into Google – they all have shiny websites!

It's important to realize that the Success Charter Schools creating the most vociferous protests about their right to free, co-located space represent the For Profit / chain species. Their TV and advertising budget alone would pay the rents for all their NYC schools – but the battle goes much deeper. See this Bill Moyers Interview: http://www.alternet.org/education/diane-ravitch-public-schools-sale. Success Academy has deep pockets, and a tremendous publicity/propaganda machine behind it funded by the privatizers (the hedge fund / venture capital billionaires, Eli Broad, the Walton Family, the Gates Foundation etc), working to undermine generations of Best Practices, Developmental Research and fairness in order to increase the investment potential of the venture capitalists who are betting on capturing a huge slice of the education budget of the United States. The stakes are high. They have to consolidate privatization and also the commitment of huge municipal fortunes to the testing and assessment industry which includes the provision of curriculum materials, training, teacher guides, workbooks, and disposables of all kinds, in an effort to monetize the coming generations of children. All this depends on demonizing and undermining the Public Schools, which the majority of students actually attend! The purpose of providing an alternative to ‘failing’ Public Schools is legitimate on its face, and yet window dressing for the larger objective of the privatizers.

Their tactics are ruthless. Who can possibly believe that closing their schools and enforcing families with little children to board buses in the depths of winter and parade about in the freezing snow of Albany to impress legislators is a valid use of time, and not exploitation, a reprehensible abuse of power? Will those children have to make up the day of canceled classes when they were denied an education in order to maximize the profits of a for-profit charter chain that pays its chief executive more than the Mayor himself receives?

The hidden down-side of high test scores:

Success Academy has touted their high scores in the ELA and Math tests imposed on schools under the RTTT/Bloomberg/reform agenda. To quote from the authoritative Stanford University 2013 study of outcomes, (link here- http://stanford.io/1kdkD4r ) they found (P.23 #2) that 'the fraction of charter schools that outperform their local TPS alternatives is 25% of charter schools in reading and 29% in math. This marks an improvement since 2009 when 17% of charter schools outperformed their local TPS in math. The fraction that performed worse declined slightly in math (31% down from 37% in 2009) and in reading accounted for 19% of charter schools.' Not exactly convincing stats. However, Success Academy has the ability to exclude or counsel out children who may potentially lower their scores or not fit in with their rigorous behavioral expectations.

In my 5 years of daily substitute work around the city, I see more and more children under the age of 8 who are developmentally unprepared for the rigors of classroom life as it is impacted by the demands of testing outcomes. While there are many compliant children who can manage their curiosity and their bodies so that they aren’t actively breaking the rules, with class sizes too high, and a single adult in the room to meet the physical, emotional and academic needs of every child, these are not optimum learning conditions. That is where you will see the suspensions, the temper tantrums, the acting out, the defiance, the disengagement, the labeling of kids as ‘bad’. While I mentioned that many kids are compliant, that is no reason to suppose that they are thriving, the way they would in a more open-ended, inquiry based classroom. I know at least three schools with ‘C’ ratings and the threat of closure hanging over them who nevertheless are providing safe, caring and nurturing places for their children, and meeting their incredibly diverse needs with humor, humanity and joy. There IS no one size fits all. We have got to get away from this mindset before our children are turned into miserable, failing zombies!
Let us look for excellence in all areas of education, stop issuing mandates from a data-driven ivory tower, and give schools the space, resources and autonomy they need to thrive!

Several examiners with differing views have written about this topic. See the suggested links below, and subscribe to my column for upcoming articles.