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Posted at 12:02 PM ET, 10/13/2010

Ravitch: Charters are a lead bullet

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch on her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website.

Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” an important critique of the flaws in the modern school reform movement.

Dear Deborah,
Davis Guggenheim’s "Waiting for ’Superman’" has dominated the air waves for the past few weeks with its message that public education is a failed enterprise and that privately managed charters are the answer to our nation’s education problems.

The film doesn’t include a single successful public school teacher or public school. It is a one-sided, propagandistic attack on public education which echoes the prescriptions of those who have devoutly wished for the privatization of education. I imagine the shade of Milton Friedman chortling as his ideas about school choice become the rallying cry for the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and various big-city superintendents allied with allegedly liberal forces.

Before we hop aboard the charter train, which is now driven by Race to the Top and other federal funding, we should pay attention to warning signs. There are new ones every day. In the past few days, I have learned of the following issues.

* The ICEF charter chain in California, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, was just bailed out by the Broad Foundation and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. The founder of the chain, which enrolls 4,500 students, has resigned. No wonder there is more pressure by foundations and wealthy philanthropists to get more government funding for charters. Many charters and charter chains are not financially sustainable; they have discovered no secrets about economizing and their financial backers can’t always be there to save them.

* The principal of a charter school in Los Angeles was accused of embezzling more than $1 million of school funds; auditors said more than $2 million was missing and that some of it spent for vendors with fraudulent addresses.

* In New York state, the state charter association sued to block any public audits, saying that their charter freed them from such intrusive public oversight. The steady accumulation of financial scandals in these deregulated schools is proof that, where public funds go, public audits must follow, as night follows day.

* Inquiring minds should visit "charterschoolscandals," a site maintained by Sharon R. Higgins, a diligent, energetic public school parent in Oakland, Calif.

* Newsweek ran a story about the maltreatment of students with special needs in the New Orleans school districts. Astonishing numbers of children with disabilities are being mistreated, suspended, and failing to make progress in numbers far different from what happens to similar students in comparable districts. Charter schools are taking less than their fair share of students with disabilities. The article asks pointedly:
"...does the much-touted academic progress of New Orleans’s post-Katrina charters come in part because special-needs students are being weeded out?"

* One of New York City’s most-publicized charter schools, the Ross Global Academy, is in a heap of trouble. Founded by Courtney Sale Ross, the fabulously wealthy widow of media mogul Steve Ross, the school was a favorite of the New York City Department of Education. Chancellor Joel Klein tried to give it space in the building of a very successful school for gifted children (NEST+M), but the parents fiercely battled against the "co-location" in their building, so Klein opened Ross in the palatial ground floor of the DOE’s Tweed headquarters. As it grew, it moved to a larger space, but its problems grew, too. Despite favorable publicity, the school has gone through six principals in five years, has high teacher turnover, high student attrition rates, and poor test scores. The New York Daily News says it is now the lowest-rated elementary or middle school in the city. See here and here and here.

* I received an email from Dr. DeWayne Davis, the principal of Audubon Middle School in Los Angeles, which was sent to several public officials. Dr. Davis said that local charter schools were sending their low-performing students to his school in the middle of the year. He wrote:

"Since school began, we enrolled 159 new students (grades 7 and 8). Of the 159 new students, 147 of them are far below basic (FBB)!!! Of the 147 students who are FBB, 142 are from charter schools. It is ridiculous that they can pick and choose kids and pretend that they are raising scores when, in fact, they are purging nonperforming students at an alarming rate—that is how they are raising their scores, not by improving the performance of students. Such a large number of FBB students will handicap the growth that the Audubon staff initiated this year, and further, will negatively impact the school’s overall scores as we continue to receive a recurring tide of low-performing students."

Deborah, in all these stories, I see a theme: Our political leaders are pushing an agenda that is wrong. The research is clear that charter schools vary dramatically in their quality.

Some are excellent, some are awful, some are run by terrific leaders, some are run by incompetents, some use their resources wisely, some are wasteful and/or greedy.

Those promoting the privatization of American public education are blinded by free-market ideology. They refuse to pay attention to evidence, whether it be research or the accumulating anecdotal evidence of misbehavior, incompetence, fraud, greed, and chicanery that the free market facilitates.

Let us celebrate the few charter schools that get, as Davis Guggenheim puts it, "amazing results," but let us recognize that they are not 17 percent of charters (the number in the CREDO study that outperformed traditional public schools). Doing better than an under-resourced neighborhood school is not the same as getting "amazing results." Very few charters do. Probably less than 5 percent.

Charters are not a silver bullet. They are a lead bullet. Their target is American public education.

Diane

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 13, 2010; 12:02 PM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Diane Ravitch, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  CREDO, broad roundation, charter schools, diane ravitch, icef, richard riordan, ross global, ross global academy  
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Comments

Time for Ravitch to sing a tune that resonates with stakeholders like parents, public officials, and the children, rather than the teachers unions, the academic mafia which is engorged with fat salaries and grants, and other special interests. Collectively, the crowd she is playing to resists meaningful change, if not in its ideas, in the "forever" delay it means. Waiting for Superman would take less time than waiting for the abstruse analyses and "solutions" full of academic claptrap.

Posted by: axolotl | October 13, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Ravitch consistently advocates for parents having a voice in educational policy; the majority of parents do not support privatizing public education, closing neighborhood schools, and imposing a high-stakes testing regime on schools, teachers, and kids. Parents want change too -- but they want positive changes that will strengthen rather than undermine our schools, like smaller classes, a well-rounded curriculum, including art and science, and parent input at the school and district level. Meanwhile, it is the billionaire's boys club who do not have kids in public schools and who condescend to parents who are imposing draconian policies -- and those unbacked by research -- on our kids' schools. Enough!

Posted by: leonie1 | October 13, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Compare Ravitch's comments to those of KIPP, Lynn's PR response to my question about its SLANT behavior modification program on Jay Mathews' page. Note the difference between reserach-based education and "dat-driven."

Posted by: mcstowy | October 13, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

It is disturbing that charter schools are not held to the same laws as public schools and they are allowed to send poorly performing students "back" to public schools.
However, there are some good charter schools.
I do not see charter schools as the enemy of public schools. But if public schools are being judged so harshly and have to accept everyone, charters should also have to and they will have to follow all the same laws as public schools. Otherwise change the laws.

Special education laws were passed to help special education students. But, do school districts recieve adequate funding for the special needs that these children require?

Charter schools should have to accept all students.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 13, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Does this blog have anything better to do than reprint all of Ravitch's belligerent and hysterical screeds?

Posted by: educationobserver | October 13, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Dear "educationobserver,"

Please "observe" more closely.

Although I do not agree with Ravitch all of the time, I can tell when someone is hysterical and belligerent in her writing. And sorry, "educationobserver," Ravitch's writing is neither hysterical nor belligerent.

Notice how she gives her reasons and supports them. She even directly quotes from outside sources to prove her points. Nothing in her argument supports the idea that her writing is war-like or irrational. I would appreciate it if you could be more precise in your own comment so that I might make a better "observation" of this educational discussion.

Oh, and by the way--I almost forgot--a screed is usually long in nature, taking an extended period of time to read. It took me about five minutes to read the text. I wouldn't call that so long, but perhaps it took you a bit longer to read.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 13, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Most of Ravitch's post is about supposed scandals at a handful of charter schools. Well guess what, with 4,700 charter schools nationwide, you're going to find a few instances of misbehavior, just as you'd find many more scandals at other public schools. People are fallible, whatever school they work in.

Then look at the last two sentences. The sheer level of stupid demagoguery on display there blows away any pretense that Ravitch is even trying to be objective. Charter schools ARE public education, just not as susceptible to being milked for money by Ravitch's new union pals.

Posted by: educationobserver | October 13, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

One enormous scandal has involved Michelle Rhee's fiance Kevin Johnson, founder of St. Hope charter in Sacramento, and now mayor of same city, where he was accused of child sexual abuse and payoffs to victims arranged by Rhee and others, all meticulously investigated by Inspector General Gerald Walpin before he was conveniently fired by the Obama administration.

Posted by: bbbbmer1 | October 13, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse

educationobserver-
Charter schools are far more likely to be milked for money than regular public schools, and in fact they are. They receive public funding, and are often supplemented by private donations. But they are not held financially accountable in the same way, which leaves them far more likely to be susceptible to fraud.

Try looking at the link that Ravitch provides, unless it would upset your ignorant apple cart too much to do so.

http://charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com/

Posted by: aed3 | October 13, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

"Charter schools are far more likely to be milked for money than regular public schools, and in fact they are."

Far more likely? And your statistics come from where? Oh right, out of your a**.

Public education is a $600 billion a year industry. You think charters are the main segment where people are finding a way to profit? Give me a break.

Look at the entire public school system: teacher pensions are underfunded by hundreds of billions of dollars. That's money that is going to come out of our pockets to pay for teachers to have a nice 30-year retirement. Nothing that charter schools do can even remotely compare to the pension issue alone.

Posted by: educationobserver | October 13, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

I love Diane Ravitch and all she is doing to help us save our public schools from these leeches. This is a great post, with very helpful research/links. I love what she says and how hard she is fighting to get out the word, against a tsunami of propaganda unleashed within a tightly controlled media market, the likes of which is just breathtaking...

The 4-Legged Stool...

There are 4 legs to this wretched reform "stool." ("Stool" as used in the medical sense might also be an appropriate metaphor!)

The 3 legs that are most often identified are: politicians, private sector and mainstream media. The 4th leg is rarely identified or even noticed, it seems, yet it is part of what greases the path for these neoliberal reforms. The 4th leg is UNION COMPLICITY.

Randi Weingarten, in her high profile capacity as head of the second largest union in the US, is running around the country aiding and abetting this onslaught of neoliberal reforms.

She talks out of both sides of her mouth (which is why she makes such a mealy mouthed, platitudinous case for unions and teachers.) She plays both sides of the street (which is why she has to talk out of both sides of her mouth). But she increasingly has come to deliver only for the reform side, rather than those who she is supposed to help.

I think it is time folks start calling out ALL the players in this horrendous game, including union players, starting with Randi Weingarten.

RANDI WEINGARTEN is part of The Problem!

Posted by: NYCee | October 13, 2010 10:11 PM | Report abuse

educationobserver: All you have to offer is poor logic, crazy rage, and cursing. It would take more time than it's worth to address the inconsistencies in your comments. The links to the information you claim does not exist are already in the article. Look it up for yourself.

Yes, teacher pensions are underfunded, as are many other state employee retirement funds. In most cases, this is because states have "borrowed" from retirement funds to balance budgets. But that's beside the point. People have a right to the retirement they have earned.

Posted by: aed3 | October 13, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

educationobserver wrote: teacher pensions are underfunded by hundreds of billions of dollars. That's money that is going to come out of our pockets to pay for teachers to have a nice 30-year retirement.
___________________________
So you're saying that teachers are at fault for the states underfunding the employer part of the pension? I know in MD teachers pay 5% of their income into their pension plan for a pension that will enable us to barely get by. After 40 years on the job, I will retire at age 62 on about 38% of my salary. That's not the huge pension that I keep reading about. The state underfunded the pension. The state still needs to keep their part of the agreement.

Posted by: musiclady | October 13, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

Any yahoo can open up a charter school. It is pretty hard to have your charter denied if you are a con artist and talk up a good game. Then, you and your cohorts will have access to the public trough without anyone looking over your shoulder. I guess the unenlightened public doesn't mind having just anyone get their hands on their hard earned tax dollars. Too bad our general population is so easily fooled.

Posted by: chicogal | October 13, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

" In most cases, this is because states have "borrowed" from retirement funds to balance budgets. But that's beside the point. People have a right to the retirement they have earned."

Wrong. Most states haven't borrowed from pensions. The reason for underfunding is: 1) Teachers haven't paid enough into the pensions; 2) States made extravagant promises that they couldn't afford, in an attempt to buy off the unions in their unending demands for more money.

Even if every single charter school in the country was in financial scandal, it couldn't possibly approach the hundreds of billions of dollars that taxpayers (most of whom lack pensions themselves) are going to have to pony up to pay for teacher unions' expensive demands.

Posted by: educationobserver | October 14, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

"The links to the information you claim does not exist are already in the article. Look it up for yourself."

I didn't deny that there are a few anecdotes of charter school scandals. I said that there isn't statistical evidence of how common such scandals are compared to other public schools. And there isn't.

Posted by: educationobserver | October 14, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

Entire city-wide charter school systems closing because of financial mismanagement or outright fraud and poor education results is a bit more than a "few anecdotes."

Posted by: aed3 | October 14, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Publicly funded yet privately managed – Charter School fraud is an easy concept. Charters can be succesful it depends on the “agenda” of the the managing company. Accountability has not caught up to the growth of the Charter movement. In the USA we have an Islamic Imam – Fethullah Gulen (Gulen Movement) that manages over 130 US Charter schools they have taken over $1 billion in Educational monies in the last 10 years and are growing like rapid fire.
The Gulen schools have a network of foundations and instutitions layered over the schools and much of our educational money is going to non-educational expenses such as: Turkish Olympiads, trips to Turkey for the students and local politicians, H1-b Visas of over 2,000 uncredentialed teachers from Turkey (while American teachers are handed pink slips) this money is to fuel the grand ambition of Fethullah Gulen who lives in exile (for a reason) in the Poconos, PA area with his $25 billion in wealth from inflitration in: education, media, police, poltics and military. Seems the same model works very nicely in the USA. Do your research!!!
http://www.charterschoolwatchdog.com
http://www.charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com

Posted by: SalesA1 | October 17, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse

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