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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 04/24/2010

Straight talk about charter schools

By Valerie Strauss

A hearing held in New York City this week about charter schools sounded more like a brawl than the information-gathering session it was intended to be.

State Sen. Bill Perkins, whose Harlem district includes about one in five of the city’s charter schools, has been calling for more regulation and transparency about charter school finances. He’s been bashed mercilessly by some in the New York press for that position.

You can get the tone of the discourse through the first line of one recent story in the New York Post:

Why does Bill Perkins hate kids?”

I won’t go into the back and forth at the hearing, but here is testimony given at the hearing about the history and record of charter schools by education historian Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and author of the best-selling “Death and Life of the Great American School System.”

Her pretty straightforward testimony--which calls for fiscal transparency in public charter schools--was received by charter advocates as heresy. Read the testimony. What do you think?

Ravitch's testimony:

Mr. Perkins, you must be a very dangerous and powerful man. Yesterday the tabloids were filled with editorials and articles denouncing you for holding hearings about charter schools; today, there are even more.

If charters are public schools and receive public money, why should they object to oversight hearings by a legally constituted body of the New York State Senate?

I am a historian of education, so allow me to provide a brief overview of the origin of charter schools.

Charter schools were first envisioned in 1988 by two men who didn’t know one another. Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, had the idea, as did Professor Ray Budde of the University of Massachusetts.

Both of them thought that public school teachers could get permission from local authorities to open a small experimental school and then focus on the neediest students. The school would recruit students who had dropped out and who were likely to drop out. It would seek new ways to motivate the most challenging students and bring whatever lessons they learned back to public schools, to make them better able to educate these youngsters.

The original vision of charter schools was that they would help strengthen public schools, not compete with them.

By 1993, Shanker turned against his own idea. He concluded that charter schools had turned into a form of privatization that was not materially different from vouchers. From then until his death in 1996, he lumped vouchers and charters together as a threat to public education and a distraction from real school reform.

Today, there are 5,000 charter schools with 1.5 million students. This is 3% of the nation’s public school enrollment of 50 million. In New York City, charters enroll 30,000 students, or about 3% of the city’s enrollment of 1.1 million.

Charters vary widely in quality.

Last year a national evaluation by Margaret Raymond of Stanford University (including data from 2,403 charters and 70 percent of all charter students) found that only 17% outperformed regular public schools; that 46% had learning gains no different from regular public schools; and that 37% had gains that were worse than regular public schools.

Raymond concluded, “This study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their TPS [traditional public school] counterparts. Further, tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools face.”

She went on to say that “If this study shows anything, it shows that we’ve got a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters.”

When Raymond studied New York City charters last year, she found a better record, but it was still a mixed record. She compared charters to regular public schools and concluded that 51% of charters got significant gains in math, while only 29% outperformed regular public schools in reading.

Conversely, 49% of New York City’s charter schools did not outperform regular public schools in math, and 71% produced no significant gains in reading. She also reported that students who were either special education or English language learners made no significant gains in New York City charter schools, nor did students who had previously been held back a grade.

She did not point out in her study that New York City’s charters have a smaller proportion of students in special education and students with limited English proficiency than the neighborhood public schools.

New York City has 50,000 homeless students, but only about 100 are enrolled in a charter school. If a proportionate number were in charters, there would be 1,500, not 100. In East New York, where there are nine homeless shelters, there is a successful charter that enrolls not a single homeless student.

We have to abandon the naïve belief that charters are a panacea for education; they are not. Since 2003, charter schools have been compared to regular public schools by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the federal testing program.

In 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009, NAEP found no significant difference between students in charter schools and students in regular public schools. No significant difference for black students, Hispanic students, low-income students, or students in urban districts. Like Margaret Raymond’s study, NAEP shows that charters, in the aggregate, do not outperform regular public schools.

Some charters are as idealistic as the original vision, but many others now see themselves as competition for public schools. They want to take over public school space and replace public schools. They revel in stories about beating public schools, not helping them.

As the number of charters grows, public authorities must ensure that charter operators are responsible. We have seen stories in the press, especially the New York Daily News, about charters that produce astonishing profits for entrepreneurs and investors, while storing children in trailers with meager facilities. This is not right.

Just last month, on March 9, the New York Times described how public schools in Harlem now must market themselves to compete with charter schools for new students.

The regular public schools have less than $500 each to create brochures and fliers; the charter firm with which they compete has a marketing budget of $325,000. That’s not fair. We have seen stories about non-profit entrepreneurs who are paid $400,000 a year or more to run charters for 1,000 children.

That’s more than the Chancellor of the New York City schools is paid, and more than the U.S. Secretary of Education. That’s not right.

The New York Daily News reports today that charter schools, unlike other public schools, are not subject to public audits or to rules prohibiting nepotism and conflicts of interest by their board members or staff. That’s not right.

The Legislature must insist that charters act like public institutions and that they are fiscally transparent and accountable.

Charters now enroll 3% of our students. Who champions the other 97%? I hope the day comes when charters return to the original vision of what they started out to be, when they were expected to help address the education of the neediest children.

I hope the day comes when charters join with public schools as partners, collaborators, and allies in the shared mission of educating all of our city’s public school students.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 24, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools  | Tags:  Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch, Ravitch and book, bill perkins and charters, charter schools, charter schools and hearing, new york city charter schools  
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Not only do I believe there should be more financial transparency and regulation in regard to charter schools, but I am appalled that there is not. What is going on here?

I wrote to my state department of education a few months ago to ask if the "managers" of these charters could award themselves huge salaries and the answer was Yes!!!

Valerie, thank you again for being the voice of reason in education.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 24, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

In Baltimore, there was an uproar when teachers at a KIPP school wanted to be paid their regular salary for the additional hours they are required to work (longer day and six days a week). They finally settled on a fraction of what they really earn. Why is it okay to do this and why is the union vilified for trying to make sure its members are compensated fairly? After reading about the KIPP schools in New Orleans, it appears that there is a high turnover rate for staff. One official there was quoted as saying "I don't know where I'm going to find enough people who want to work an 80 hour week." I believe that many of those who run charters, try to pay staff less while awarding investors more. This is so wrong. I have no problem with a charter whose mission is to help educate those who are not successful in the public schools through an alternative program. I have a big problem with a school taking public funds so it can compete with public schools.

Posted by: musiclady | April 24, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Having worked in a "pre-charter" school that would now be defined as such, I would like to attest to the very real dangers of
the financial mishandlings that can occur and say yes, that financial transparency is a must - it doesn't always protect the school, however. Ex: Our school was "taken over" at one point by a shady businessman who made a huge salary......and the STATE approved it. ????? Possibly because we took students that were not making it elsewhere.?Complicity?

That being said, I would like to point out some very real advantages our school had and incredible work that many people did that actually saved lives:

Almost every student stayed and graduated
barring extraordinary circumstances.
Most of these students would not have
made it to graduation in a regular

We had classes of 6 - 8 students: the
staff knew their students' gifts and
foibles in a way that a teacher with
24 - 30+ students cannot. Being able to
really know and care about our students
meant that we could nurture strengths
and find alternatives for their futures
that almost assuredly would not happen
in a large school.

I always felt that we were a necessary
alternative - we were on the periphery
of education, but the students in our
school could not handle the 2,000-4,000
city factories that many of our current
high schools have become.

Oh, and the teachers were not there for
large salaries; unlike the one "CEO" that
took over for several years (thankfully
he was finally fired), we made smaller
salaries, had fewer benefits and much
less secure retirement options than our
public counterparts.

There is a place for all kinds of schools,
and it need not diminish the importance nor
support for our public schools. US citizens have few things in common with each other any more, and our public education may be one of the last places where diverse people may come together.
I was once a public school student.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | April 24, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Wonderful testimony because straightforward and succinct.

My review of/extension on Diane's points raised in her latest book may be found in my column today at Las Cruces Sun-New / opinion / Michael Hays: Giving Public Education the Business. It also appears on Diane's website / reviews.

Posted by: MichaelLHays | April 24, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

State Sen. Bill Perkins' charter school hearing was anything BUT straight talk on charter schools. The facts reported calling into question charter school finances were found by the charter school authorizers themselves and not any great revelation. When the SUNY authorizer came in with a huge binder of details on all the financial transactions, the discussion in the room never drilled down to that detail. Instead, it was all rhetoric. The room was packed with charter school detractors instead of being truly open to the public. Instead of seeking information, State Sen. Bill Perkins' clearly went into the hearings with an agenda against charter schools, including great charter schools.

"I hope the day comes when charters join with public schools as partners, collaborators, and allies in the shared mission of educating all of our city’s public school students." So do charter schools, so do charter schools, but the obstructionists are those un-reform minded members of the entrenched bureaucracy, not the great majority of dedicated charter school staff, parents, teachers, and children.

Posted by: debryc | April 24, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

All school who receive federal and state funds should be required to post their financial reports for the public.

Charter schools have a place in education. The ones that are successful should be studied to see what might work in the public school setting. The ones who show no gains or negative gains should have their charter revoked.

Posted by: flteacher05 | April 25, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: itkonlyyou29 | April 26, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Human development is pretty straight forward. Mothers gestating babies have to eat well and eschew no nos like drugs, salt, sugar, and fats to give birth to a child that lives up to their genetic potential. Next the child's brain, which neuro-biologists and sociologists agree is a ganglia that develops or atrophies depending on whether it is appropriately stimulated by language and other forms of human interaction in a timely manner. The longer students are allowed to move through school without timely foundational educational skills being developed, the more likely irreparable damage is being done. Because this permissive waste of our youths' intellectual potential predominantly effects poor minority inner city youth, one is loathe to state the obvious that at a certain point no model of public education can turn around years of tolerated damage to this country's greatest asset. In the discussion about public education reform, the meaningless debate about whether charters are good or bad avoids the real issue, which is why we treat long failed public school districts as "too big to fail" or be reform while we continue to propose non sequitur reforms that would not be necessary if we addressed the underlying school district problem. At we deal with the reality of what is wrong in public education and how to fix it. At we deal with the reality of public education reform and what changes and accountability will finally make these politically connected public school district with huge budgets finally responsive.

Posted by: lenny25 | April 26, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Ravitch's testimony is anything but straightforward, especially given her use of it to promote her new book. Charter critics love to cite the national Credo study, but neglect to mention that it only looked at charter schools in 15 states and DC, and most notably did not include New York. Moreover, no one seems to note the finding that "Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average
experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and
the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second and third years in charter
schools see a significant reversal to positive gains." Many charter schools in this country are new schools and roll out a new grade each year.

As for the charter management organizations and companies, the obsession with how much they get paid ignores the fact that these schools get less per pupil than their district counterparts and yet often obtain better results. I don't care how they spend their money as long as they raise student achievement, which seems to have gotten lost in this debate. The whole point of charter schools is to give them the freedom to use their funding as they see fit and then hold them accountable for results. Don't blame them for all the regulations and contracts tying the hands of district-run schools.

Posted by: gideon4ed | April 27, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

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