Monday, September 21, 2020
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A plea against charters rises from Bethlehem

Like many public school educators, Carol Burris doesn’t like what the charter school movement is doing to public education in the US. She’s the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, a group opposed to privatization efforts for public, or government, operations, and was named the 2010 Educator of the Year and the 2013 New York High School Principal of the Year.

An abandoned steel mill in Bethlehem, Pa. (iStock)

But as this election has taught us all, putting on the hat of a journalist from time to time and digging for details about a specific case behind one’s cause can make for a powerful punch in driving the point home. As this election and several cabinet picks from President-elect Donald Trump have also taught us, our next president thinks public schools aren’t serving the needs of our students and ought to be, in many cases, scrapped for a better model for US education.

“As president, I will establish the national goal of providing school choice to every American child living in poverty,” he said in September. “If we can put a man on the moon, dig out the Panama Canal, and win two world wars, then I have no doubt that we as a nation can provide school choice to every disadvantaged child in America.”

Ignore, for argument’s sake, the political exaggeration of the word ‘every’ in referring to just a few students who attend failing public schools. Poor families in Naperville, Illinois, or Rockville, Maryland, aren’t exactly screaming to get away from the public schools. Plus, disadvantaged students living in some areas of the country, particularly in rural areas, don’t have any option besides their neighborhood public school. Giving these families vouchers to pay tuition at a private school will only drive them to for-profit online schools with slick marketing. Mr Trump can’t change that unless he or his friends build legions of schools.

Also ignore, because we have to, Mr Trump’s uncanny ability to put winning a war or sending a rocket to the moon on the same level as a political notion like school choice. I would be OK with putting the quality of education kids receive on the same level as NASA, but school choice is a business plan, not a national goal.

The term ‘school choice’ generally refers to allowing parents to decide for their own children which school to attend. If that’s a school that requires them to pay tuition, then Mr Trump’s plan, if carried out to total fulfillment, would take the money the government had collected from taxes for the schools, however that’s calculated, and send it to the school the student’s parents decide their child will attend.

Also taking the program to its fulfillment, we find a country where every schoolchild represents money. If you think a kid is ‘more than a score,’ just wait. Once a kid has to be ‘more than a dollar sign,’ the protests are really going to kick in. You thought opt-out was severe? Just wait.

Anyway, in the meantime, a school voucher system, where the money follows the child to a greater or lesser extent, will create incentives for schools to market themselves to schoolchildren. None of this noisy marketing will have anything to do with improving the quality of education at those schools, however. You thought Facebook ads were bad for kids? Just wait.

In fact, Ms Burris documents, in her excellent Washington Post article, one charter school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, whose name and return address were on a postcard that featured a stock image of a teen in despair and attacked the public schools. This is, admittedly, one example, but the voucher-and-charter privatization movement hasn’t even gone national yet, and oversight of the kind of marketing for-profit schools can do is lacking in general.

But public schools in America’s Christmas City are doing OK in educating the large number of citizens in that city, where abandoned steel mills dot the landscape but universities, medical networks, and other businesses keep people employed. Most of the students are minorities, and about 60 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Schools see “few dropouts,” Ms Burris writes, and “an outstanding music program keeps kids engaged. Bethlehem’s two high schools offer AP courses, and SAT scores are consistently close to or above the national average, with most students taking the test.” Most.

What this did to public schools in Bethlehem

My sense of fairness says we should give the Innovative Arts Academy Charter School a fair treatment, and the school has categorically denied any involvement in the postcard.

I tried looking, but the school’s CEO resigned after the postcard fiasco. That’s about all the info I could find. The business records for the school are, like any private corporation, inaccessible to public information requests. As a result, all we the public can get are news reports, tweets from students, and the like.

But one thing is accessible, and again, it involves money, not the quality of education students are receiving at Innovative Arts. We know that for every student whose parents decide to enroll him or her in Innovative Arts Academy, the public school district in Bethlehem loses control of $10,635.77, or $22,886.44 if the student has an individualized education program or Section 504 plan for special education services.

But the IEP doesn’t even have to be for special education. You can sometimes get an IEP for just needing a little more time on tests. So providing the services required by law in the IEP doesn’t even cost the charter school anything but, in some cases, does net the school a whole lot more money. And those dollars are then lost to the public schools taxpayers originally intended those funds to support.

That means, by definition, a student at Liberty High School, say, will see the quality of education he receives erode. At first, the erosion will only be a little, but after enough students leave, it will be noticeable. Programs will be cut, little by little, maybe starting with the band, then the girls’ basketball team, and continuing; curricula will be narrowed, maybe starting with ceramics classes, then AP offerings, then some of the more challenging classes. Eventually, students won’t derive any educational benefit, and they’ll start looking at the latest charter to send them a colorful, fear-inspiring postcard in the mail.

“What we have lost is a lot of the ‘equity actions’ that help students who need the most help,” Ms Burris quotes Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Roy as saying.

“If we weren’t spending so much on charters, we would have more academic and social supports for our students living in poverty. We would have more professional development focused on equity and literacy. We would have social workers. And, importantly, we would not have raised property taxes to the extent we have if not for the charter expenses. The local working-class people of BASD are shouldering the cost of charter schools due to the state’s lack of financial support and lack of desire to correct the problems.”

Beyond that, the kid who sees the quality of his education erode will have even more reason to look at Innovative Arts. If enough kids are in this situation, soon Liberty’s funding will drop below sustenance, and the state, if this voucher plan reaches total fulfillment, will fail to provide a system of public schools.

We have seen a similar degradation in the quality of services provided by nursing homes that have gone private; by for-profit colleges that have turned into diploma mills; and, according to a recent report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, by federal prisons, as their operations were turned over to private corporations.

Mr Trump has also thrown his support behind these privatization efforts, but they have largely led to an erosion of quality. “The private sector is good at cutting costs and finding ways to save money,” the New York Times quotes Oliver Hart, a professor of economics at Harvard, as saying. “Some are socially desirable; some are not.”

It’ll take a long time before the profit motive takes over and dots our landscape with public schools like Bethlehem’s is dotted with abandoned steel mills. In other words, we’re looking at a “slow death by charters,” Ms Burris said in an email to me.

Meanwhile, there’s money to be made by private firms that start a “school,” which won’t have to follow too many rules, won’t have to reveal its profit and loss statements, and won’t even have to use that money for educational purposes. By reducing overhead, corporations can make a huge profit in the charter school game, and that is a snapshot of what the voucher movement, espoused by both Mr Trump and Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos, is all about.

It’s about profit. Privatization has nothing to do with improving the educational programming students get at public, private, charter, religious, or cyber schools. Nothing.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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