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Charter Logic Exposed

December 16, 2014

Diane Ravitch provided a link to David Katz’ blog post that was an extended reaction to a NYTimes Room For Debate” feature posing the question “Are Charter Schools Cherry Picking Students?” One of the respondents, Mike Petrilli, the Executive Director of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, concluded his brief essay on this topic with this insight into the thinking of charter advocates:

Because these are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.

This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.

It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.

As one who believes that the existing discipline codes are too constraining for the majority of students because they are based on the false assumption that all students mature at the same rates and come from “Leave it to Beaver” households, the notion that MORE structure is the answer to the problem of classroom disruption is preposterous. In Petrilli’s world and the world of “no excuses” charter advocates, students who want to “escape” the schools where the “cancer” of disruption is in place must be subjected to discipline codes like those imposed in Catholic Schools or military academies.

Katz provides a wealth of information rebutting many of the assertions Petrilli and lays bare many the amoral basis of this kind of thinking. But he misses one key point: the reason this form of discipline is a feature and not a bug is that in order to operate a charter school cheaply (and therefore increase the profit) it cannot be troubled with the root causes of discipline problems and it must treat students with discipline problems the way an automobile factory deals with defective raw materials. In the “old days” factory schools would push out students who did not adapt to the rows of chairs and worksheet regimen of school…. but in the old days those who quit school or were expelled found their way into the workforce as unskilled laborers and, thanks to unions, could earn a middle class wage. The deep flaw in the deregulated for profit world is its clinging to the 1930s factory model and to the notion that students who cannot adapt need to be eliminated like defective raw materials because the bottom line will decrease if the costs of refining raw materials goes up…. and in for-profit charters the bottom line is everything!

  1. December 16, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Excellent points, Dr. Gersen! Thank you for focusing on that question — it is indeed an important consideration, and the unwillingness of many of these “no excuses” schools to work with even Kindergarten children who do not “fit the mold” immediately is proof of how absurd it is as a practice to do anything educationally defensible.

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