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Charters: Some Good, Mostly Bad

October 28, 2012

Over the past several weeks I’ve collected scores of article on charter schools from Diane Ravitch’s blog, Naked Capitalism blog, and the ASCD blog… and they tend to focus on the bad side of the charter movement.

The bad side of the charter movement is the fact that it is too often linked with privatization and. therefore. too often succumbs to the excesses of corporate America. The Orlando Sentinel reported recently on a golden parachute that paid a failed principal $500,000— chump change compared to what the failed CEOs of banks received, but more than most Superintendents earn in 2-3 years. But State laws in Florida enable this kind of behavior:

The district was unaware of the principal’s pay because the school is not required to report it under Florida’s charter school law. Earlier audits by an outside firm hired by NorthStar had noted the school had contracts that would require payouts to several employees, but no dollar figure was calculated.

The law is very clear that school boards cannot put limits or control how a charter school spends their money, including payouts like this” or salaries, said Sublette. He called the payment “immoral and unethical” and noted that it could have paid the salary of five district principals for a year.

Because charter schools do not have to report their principals’ salaries in Florida, it is unclear how many might have contracts or salaries similar to Young’s.

So PRIVATE schools are under no regulation to report salaries paid using public funds any more than a bank or private enterprise on Main Street is required to disclose salaries. This kind of deregulation leads to findings like those reported in California where the lax oversight of charter school resulted in them being chastised by the USDOE. How much money was streaming through charter schools in three states? Oh, “...nearly $1 billion in federal money awarded to states for charter schools between 2007 and 2011″. Again, $1,000,000,000 is chump change for Jamie Dimon… but unlike the USDOE he didn’t divert federal dollars that could have been used to fully fund special education.

Some charters, though, hew to the ideal of creating viable alternatives. The Hechinger Report published by Columbia University reported on Carpe Diem, an Arizona charter school that uses a blended learning approach to educate students who are a demographic match for the general population but who do as well or better than public schools for a lower cost. The criticisms of the program are hard to refute: the students who remain in the program are described as self-motivated learners; and the school does well because it “teaches to the test”. But here’s the rub: the school IS playing by the rules and is delivering on a promise to lift all willing students to success using the measures the public finds acceptable. The article doesn’t suggest it screens students in advance of acceptance: students self-select and drop-out if they lack the self-discipline to continue in the self-paced environment. The school doesn’t question the validity of standardized tests administered to age-based cohorts; it takes those as a given and acknowledges that it needs to provide some kind of metric that gets at critical thinking skills. Based on the article, which may be engaging in some puffery, Carpe Diem appears to be committed to finding ways to increase the ability of holding on to students (i.e. increase the number of “willing” students) and to expanding the scope of its curriculum beyond the skills and content measured by standardized tests. As close readers of this blog realize, the Carpe Diem model is superior to the factory model… and from my perspective tinkering with the “Carpe Diem” approach is superior to tinkering with our current set up.

But here’s the real dilemma: profiteers have expropriated the term “charter” and linking it with “for-profit” instead of having it be synonymous with “experimental”… and so many progressive educators are rejecting all charters, even those that are trying out new models that might show promise.


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