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Blog: Second Thoughts on Charter Schools, A Response to Analise Dubner

Questioning the efficacy of charter schools and their impact upon the community.

A one-year-later response to the “Got School?” blog post by Analise Dubner and the subsequent discussion it inspired:

First of all, my hat's off to Analise for a thoughtful and well-written piece.  There's little that I can add to the discussion that hasn't been said in one way or another, but I do have some questions to pose. 

I walk a delicate balance and have mixed emotions regarding this issue for a number of reasons; primarily because the organization that I founded began as a pilot program at a charter school (Open Magnet, LA’s first charter school) over a decade ago. 

But as an advocate for progressive public education (and particularly in light of New York City Mayor Bloomberg's recent $1million dollar donation to support pro-charter LAUSD board candidates and the LA Times endorsement of same), I am dismayed that there has been no real substantive discussion locally of the efficacy of charter schools.

I like to believe that all parents are well intentioned and want what’s best for their children, although some appear to be misinformed or, at the very least, poorly informed.  Many parents seem to be under the sway of what education historian Diane Ravitch calls The Myth of Charter Schools (a term she used as the title for her review of Davis Guggenheim’s pro-charter film Waiting for "Superman” in the New York Times Review of Books).

Parents would do well to pick up her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” for a comprehensive look at the history and evolution of “school choice” and “charter schools” just to understand where this discussion falls in the history of US education.

But more importantly, all concerned about the quality of education should be closely reviewing the 2009 study from the Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) or the RAND study from the same year or the 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Education, all of which conducted multi-state examinations of charter school performance and all of which reached a similar conclusion: “a fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” (From the CREDO study.)

Given this information, the question then remains “Why?”

Given that in an apples-to-apples comparison, charter schools for the large part do no better (and often worse) than their traditional public counterparts, why put all the time, energy, resources and money required to start or support a charter school rather than dedicate those same resources to the support and improvement of the neighborhood public school?

The answers I have heard when I have personally posed that question seldom (never, really) include any informed opinion about educational philosophy or understanding of school performance measures, but rather mirror those among the responses to Analise’s blog, invoking “choice,” which as Ravitch points out in her book, in the face of such quantitative performance analysis take on a decidedly defensive “separatist” tone.  Or, to use the phrase already introduced in this discussion: segregationist.

Excuse me, but didn’t we already do away with the “separate but equal” canard?

I have watched for the last 15 years as the charter school movement has chipped away at the resources and students available to traditional public schools, and only on the rare occasion seen any real substantive difference in the quality of education.  If charter schools did what they were initially intended to do (serve as learning labs to develop best practices which would then be shared with traditional public schools), then I would have less of an issue with them, but the sad reality is that I know of only one charter school in the greater Los Angeles region that makes any real effort toward professional development for public school teachers. (The CHIME Institute is the one shining example of fulfilling that mission.)

But like Ms. Ravitch, I am troubled by the impact that I see charter schools having on the educational environment of my community.  The most engaged parents and children are fleeing traditional public schools for the perceived benefit of a charter school.  The social contract is broken.  We are obviously NOT all in this together.

I can’t begin to count the number of teachers I know that have been “riffed” because of declining enrollment due to a newly opened charter school in the neighborhood.  The resulting class-size increases, split-grade classes and (worst of all) co-location with charter schools on their campus all serve to undermine the morale of the teachers and, in the case of the latter, establish an “us and them” mentality among the students.

And often the charter schools that parents support turn around and bar their child’s participation.  Heaven help you if you have a student with special needs.  There are two separate families in my circle of friends whose child was “counseled out” of the charter school they attended in the last year alone, so I know those reported stories of such practice are all too real.

Given that California is “ground zero” for the explosive rate of charter school growth, it would serve us well to consider the long-range impacts that our society will endure from the creation of such a two-tiered, have-and-have-not, us-and-them education system.  Unfortunately, the major local news organizations have failed to take up the challenge of providing such a vital social service, leaving the responsibility to the individual (and the community at-large) to become properly informed.

Since public schools don’t have marketing budgets (as corporate-backed charter schools and organizations do) that means it’s up to you and me. 

Let’s get busy.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Analise Dubner February 15, 2013 at 10:32 PM
"The social contract is broken." Beautifully put, Mr Wilson. As I was just saying the other day to a parent, the problem in our sad battle is that the concept - the PROMISE - of the Charter is powerful. A good, inspired idea. But instead of helping the broken Public system, it's giving parents a way to simply walk around the problem. The myth of the Charter is so compelling - so safe - it is hard to fight. And when parents on both sides of the argument only have the best of intentions for their kids... it's difficult to simply point a finger and say "You're doing it wrong." Choice, as you point out, is the word you hear from every Charter supporter. But they fail, every time, to realize that what they are saying is "Choice for ME". The national dialogue needs to take a deep breath, step back, and realize we are all fighting for the same thing here. And that we can't bring an "us or them" mentality to the table. Blaming teachers is 'us vs. them'. Co-location is 'us vs. them'. A new Charter in a neighborhood that already has plenty of schools filled with hard-working parents and kids, is us vs. them. Splitting ourselves into factions and scrambling for resources is only going to fail ALL of us. Thank you, so much, for your post. -A
lulu wilson February 15, 2013 at 11:49 PM
Yes excellent article Dwain. Thank you. Also interesting and important for those who, perhaps, attend charters, but lack a comprehensive knowledge of their history: beginning as labratories for educational practices to be used in public schools, they (charters) were also fully unionized! Charter parents full of good intentions for their child, seem to be in denial of what potentially disaterous breaches in labor equality they are aiding and abetting. Parents need to think about what the impact is of their "choice" with the same determination and guilt they consider their carbon footprint or the ingredients in the foods they eat. As to the reason why... why people flocking to these mediocre charter schools when comprehensive studies have shown they are not, in fact, better? I have come to the conclusion that the answer is twofold: one, people like branding, and these schools provide a kind of brand name that appeal to many who are comforted by labels. These brands are then sold through savvy marketing campaigns. The other reason is deceptively simple: people are making money for themselves! Careers are being made in a matrix of loopholes basically comprised of public funds, non profit status, zero need of transparency, and forgiving laws and propositions pushed through by other savvy politician and billionaires.
Teacher John February 16, 2013 at 01:23 AM
I don't know where this fits into the dialogue, however, one reason I have chosen charter school in the past for my son was not because of high test scores but an alternative curriculum and innovative teaching style (dual immersion). I've since put my child back in public school with mixed results. I'm looking at charter again for him because he doesn't fit into a one size fits all model. LAUSD has one curriculum for all students regardless how they learn. I am a public school teacher. I am frustrated with my district's strict control over what and how I teach my students.
Brooke February 16, 2013 at 01:30 AM
Can you describe what's so different about the charter school you're choosing from, say Micheltorena or Braddock? We've heard a lot of parents who have no background in education say the same thing, but none of them can point to what they mean beyond this vague claim. We've heard parents with no background in education claim that the curriculum at Citizens of the World differs from our neighborhood public schools, but we read through the proposal for Citizens pretty carefully, and it really doesn't at all. In fact, Citizens of the World is a poor copy of our neighborhood public schools, offering less of what parents claim they want - even the ones that claim they want Citizens.
lulu wilson February 16, 2013 at 02:34 AM
Even, assuming you are utterly clear on what differentiates the charter from LAUSD, you are still disregarding ethical issues, the results of which effect the educational opportunity for all kids. I agree that LAUSD does not offer an ideal education for all students, but ideal and all are both extremes. Working together as a society is more important than perfection for one or a few. I sympathize with your frustraration but please consider all aspects to your choice. Also, look into other public school which permit in.
Elijah H February 16, 2013 at 07:27 PM
I wish people would just go ahead and name names when making statements like this: "There are two separate families in my circle of friends whose child was “counseled out” of the charter school they attended in the last year alone, so I know those reported stories of such practice are all too real" By being vague in your attempt not to point fingers, you impugn all charters - the good and the bad. As a parent with a child in a local charter, I'd certainly like to know if my school is involved.
Jorge aguayo February 18, 2013 at 12:41 AM
You founded Open School over a decade ago? Really? The school was founded in 1973 and was the first magnet school in LA. Open School was the first charter in LA...back in 1993! YOU did not found the school over a decade ago, it was a group of parents from the valley in 1973. I guess anyone can say anything nowadays and people take it as truth Gheesh!
Dwain Wilson February 18, 2013 at 02:25 AM
Jorge, if you go back and read the sentence a little more carefully, you will find that it says that the organization I founded (Wildwoods) began as a pilot program there at Open Charter, working with Dr. Barbara Moreno (in the "Purple Cluster") in October of 2000. I'm sorry if I phrased that in a confusing way. I never intended to claim to be a founder of the school itself.
Robert D. Skeels February 18, 2013 at 04:11 PM
Mr. Aguayo, you might save yourself a great deal of embarrassment by actually reading a piece before launching into anger fueled rants. Nowhere in the article does Mr. Wilson claim he founded the school.
Anthea Raymond (Editor) February 18, 2013 at 04:45 PM
@Robert-That may be my bad Robert. AR
El Cid February 18, 2013 at 06:15 PM
Charter Schools are wanna-be private schools. Charter Schools have a high employee turn over rate and private schools do not. All of my friends who work for Charter Schools are buying time to move over to the Public Schools. They are frustrated with Charter Schools pedagogy, professional development, and lack of teacher protections. Many have conceded Public Schools do a better job of providing services to all students with or without special needs or IEP's. Parents who select Charter Schools need to do their homework to investigate the school's API results. Parents may discover public schools are outperforming the Charter Schools. Charter Schools are the pet projects of politicians and billionaires who either want to line their pockets with $$$ or make a name for themselves at the expense of public education and California's children. VOTE NO for NYC politician supporting pro-charter LAUSD board candidates. VOTE NO FOR MONICA GARCIA!!!
Elijah H February 18, 2013 at 07:16 PM
Broad accusations with broad strokes, indiscriminately levied. Typical anti-charter pro-union extremism. At least Ms Dubner and Mr Wilson show some balance and genuine thought in their arguments. You're not helping your cause in the least.
Elijah H February 18, 2013 at 07:18 PM
Just the sort of tact and balance that I expect from Mr Skeels. Good luck with that campaign, you'll need it.
Elijah H February 18, 2013 at 07:20 PM
Still no details, I have to wonder at the validity...
Dwain Wilson February 18, 2013 at 08:17 PM
Elijah, I think you miss my larger point. It's not whether one school or another has a higher attrition rate, thus making it a "bad" school. It's that the practice in general is part of the "big picture" in which charter schools pose unfair challenges to traditional public schools by tipping the scales. And there's a long list of documented instances of this around the country. You can take a look at the references from this article on Learning Disabilities Online about this very topic (http://www.ldonline.org/article/43436/) or you can try Google to see the stories from Harlem to D.C. to New Orleans to Dallas to Minnesota. Unless charter schools serve the same population to the same standards as traditional public schools are held, then I question the ethics of funding charter schools with public funds. Simple as that. So, unless your school makes a specific effort to serve the special needs students of the community, then yes, they are "involved" in leaving those more challenging (read "lower performing") students to be served by traditional public schools. See, it's not just about "your school." It's about "your community." By the way, I asked my two friends if they cared if I mentioned their school specifically. One did and one didn't. So, you'll have to settle for one: Ocean Charter.
Robert D. Skeels February 21, 2013 at 05:49 PM
There are thousands of anecdotes of the charter industry pushing out undesirable students that cut into their bottom line. However, since many here are shills for power and privilege, here's a well know example published in a mainstream magazine that isn't known for any ideological slant. http://www.gq.com/news-politics/mens-lives/201101/kicked-out-of-kindergarten I figure an example like the above will prevent anonymous folk using old testament monikers from crying foul, or making specious statements about "validity." Once more: when one individual's choice takes away choices from others, that's oppression, not choice.

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