Friday, 17 December 2010 00:00
Starting during the summer, a group called Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee sent a series of mailers to voters, pumping Senator Craig Johnson for “fighting for the education our kids deserve,” and “fighting for our kids’ education.” Most voters probably assumed that this was about support for public school districts. Actually, this group is an advocacy committee for charter schools. Made me wonder why this group had to be so evasive if their cause was so just. By October, the group’s mailings thanked Senator Johnson for rooting out government waste, investing in green technologies and other activities that don’t seem directly related to education.
If anyone finds a public accounting of how much charter groups invested in state legislative races, please let me know, because I can’t find it. Charter school political committees seem to have spent over $200,000 in direct and indirect support of Senator Johnson’s re-election. None of this is illegal.
There are no charter schools in Senator Johnson’s district, a fact that has not escaped critics of his ferocious pursuit of charter school interests in the legislature.
Many Long Islanders are still not familiar with the charter school concept, or why raising the statewide limit on charters was so controversial this year. There are only three charter schools in Nassau County (two in the Village of Hempstead and one in Roosevelt) and two in Suffolk. Most Long Island school districts are competitive enough in test scores and public opinion that there is little demand for alternatives in most communities. Now.
Briefly, a charter school is a public school operated under a performance contract. They are given a free hand in setting up curriculum, hiring staff and labor matters. Most expenses, except for building facilities, are paid by the local public school district, which in turn is partially reimbursed by the state.
Charter school theory originated with public school teachers in the late 1980s. Charter schools would be incubators for innovation and experimentation in the classroom. The best and brightest teachers, set free, would create new practices and methods, and then share them with local schools and colleagues in order to “raise all boats.”
I’m sure that some charter schools are still like that, still idealistic, still concerned with improving outcomes and raising boats. Some aren’t. A bunch are run by for-profit operations very much concerned with investor returns and, in some cases, a larger anti-union political agenda. Since charters are exempt from most local oversight and have taken legal action to prevent state audits of their use of public funds, we don’t really have the whole picture. We do know that some charter schools are draining public school resources.
Eleven out of the 27 public schools in the City of Albany are charter schools. In 2009-2010, the city paid charter schools $21 million, and got $6 million back from the state (“transitional aid”). Albany taxpayers invested about a quarter of locally-generated tax revenues, $15 million, without voter oversight or control. Most of Albany’s charter schools are run by one company.
In Harlem, where annual lotteries for charter school admission have gotten a lot of media attention the last few years, public schools there must compete for students. The charter company has a marketing budget of $325,000. The regular public schools have marketing budgets of less than $500. Charter schools are pushing regular school programs out of school buildings.
A growing number of education theorists and advocates believe that it is the ultimate goal of some charter companies to eventually privatize all schools. It’s happening in New Orleans.
Some media outlets have misrepresented the growing controversy over charter schools as a fight between “education reformers” wearing white hats and “the teachers unions” wearing black hats. Wrong. Two New York City charters are sponsored by the teachers union. Some charter schools seem to be moving public money into profits and executive salaries without results in student achievement.
I’m okay with the concept of charter schools, as first conceived. But we need accountability, transparency and oversight in ways we don’t have. Education is the greatest equalizing force in our society. It is too important to be treated as a commodity or as just another profit center.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org