Using “civil rights” to sell charter schools

April 30, 2009

Corporate forces are driving the "school reform" agenda under the guise of pressing for racial justice.

WHO'S BEHIND the charter school movement? Increasingly, the answer is: big money. The owners of Wal-Mart, the Walton family, are the single biggest contributors. Bill Gates follows close behind. Not exactly the types known for their staunch commitment to economic equality or civil rights.

Yet New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzales revealed that Rev. Al Sharpton's organization, the National Action Network, received half a million dollars from a hedge fund to lend its name and energies to the Education Equality Project (EEP). The EEP boasts supporters such as billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and--wait a minute, what's he doing there?--Newt Gingrich.

Yes, this is the new civil rights "movement"--a movement of the powerful, deep-pocketed, private-jet types, assembled to roll up their tailored silk sleeves to fight for equality in education.

Their Web site cries out against the inequality of our current education system--displaying statistics about the education gap, and notably, makes a point of speaking plainly about the racial disparities in the statistics about graduation rates, reading levels, and rates of incarceration.

Before we answer the obvious question--what's their angle?--we need to acknowledge that the "civil rights/social justice" message has worked brilliantly for the charter school movement. Charter schools are making converts of students and parents all over Harlem, where I am a teacher in a traditional public school.

Charter schools, where they haven't erected gleaming new buildings, have infiltrated existing school buildings and are slowly taking over, floor by floor. They are no longer a drop in the bucket--they are a serious threat to public education. There are 70 traditional public schools in Harlem, and as of this year, there are 24 charter schools (and counting). Where they aren't directly competing with public schools for space, they're draining Harlem's public schools of the most active parents and their children.

Those of us who think that charter schools are not the answer have our work cut out for us.

WHAT'S REALLY winning over parents and students to charter schools? At a recent charter school rally in Harlem (yes, charter schools mobilize parents for rallies), one parent testified that it was the small class sizes and extra attention her child received that made a big difference.

A parent at a recent charter school fair in Harlem was quoted in the New York Times as favoring charter schools because of the wide range of enrichment programs they offer: "You've got to have baseball, chess, cheerleading, drama, debate, poetry and music--oh God, music--like cello and violin... I like charter schools because they don't just have children bubbling in tests; they give them time to unwind."

Smaller class sizes? Arts and sports? Less test prep and more time to unwind? Why can't we have those things in the public schools? Why can't all children experience that kind of education?

On April 23, 5,000 parents waited in line to enter their children in the lottery for only 475 available seats at four Harlem Success Academy Charter schools. Is this the future we want? Education by lottery?

Nicole Lloyd-Abdou, a Harlem public school parent was in that line, but eventually walked away in frustration. "The whole idea of a lottery was a little disturbing to me," she told me. "They said it was going to be about choice, now it's going in a different direction--it's not about choices, it's about competition."

Yes, say the privatizers. They believe that schools benefit from market competition. Well, if ever there were a moment that called for hesitation before handing our children over to the "invisible hand" of the free market, the post-subprime mortgage meltdown we're currently living through would be one.

But the banks aren't the only example. Think about what's happened to health care. In order to have the "best health care in the world," we've erected a market that rewards those who provide the least amount of care for the highest price. Do we want the same profit motive logic applied to education?

Sure, money is flowing to a few charter schools now. Someone is paying for the glossy brochures in every parent's mailbox, and the violins, and the new buildings. But this money is part of a short-term strategy to win supporters. As the saying goes, you've got to spend money to make money. Make no mistake, the long-term goal is not to spend more per pupil, but less.

Harlem Success Academy admits as much on its Web site. Under the section oriented to donors, they write:

You can tell a lot about an organization's priorities by how they spend their money. We could spend $30,000 per child and run a fantastic school. We could raise millions and build a gorgeous new facility with all of the bells and whistles.

At Harlem Success, we take a different approach. In order to meet our ambitious expansion goals, we hold ourselves to strict spending guidelines. We believe our schools can do more--for less. We aim to provide an excellent education for the same or lower per-pupil rate than the New York City public schools. Part of it involves thinking smarter.

If you think about who is able to donate large sums to charter schools, and the fact that their children mostly go to private schools or better-funded suburban schools, this statement about spending is really stomach-turning. You could read the Web site message as reassurance to potential donors that the kids in Harlem won't get as much in per-pupil funding as their kids do.

As of 2005, per-pupil spending in the New York City suburbs was as much as twice what it was in the city. Wealthier kids need all the "bells and whistles" (and less "thinking smarter"), apparently. But kids in Harlem don't.

And it seems their "strict" spending guidelines include a healthy advertising budget. In addition to receiving glossy brochures by mail, Ms. Lloyd-Abdou was robo-called. "I got two phone calls every other day for about two weeks," she told me. "It was a recorded message. I don't give anyone my number."

Once, a live young man got her on the phone and pestered, "We've been trying to reach you. Are you coming to the lottery? Couldn't your husband or another family member attend? Are you sure you couldn't get anyone to come? Is that a yes?" Smarter thinking indeed.

There's more. According to the big money behind the charter school movement, the teacher's unions are protecting bad teachers and are standing in the way of reform. Never mind that for years, teachers have been advocating for smaller classes, arts and enrichment, and less test preparation.

But there is a grain of truth here: teacher's unions do stand in the way--of privatization. Education is one of the last of the giant public programs in America that is heavily unionized. That's why you won't see the notoriously anti-union Walton family writing checks for public schools as they do now for charter schools.

SHOULD PARENTS care if their kids' teachers are unionized? Well, yes, if they want their kid to have an experienced teacher.

A recent study found that teachers in charter schools are 230 percent more likely to leave the profession than their public school counterparts. A 2004 U.S. Department of Education study found that charter schools are less likely to have teachers that meet the state certification standards. I suppose relying on a revolving staff of younger (read "cheaper") teachers is what they mean by "smarter thinking."

I just pulled Jonathan Kozol's excellent book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America off the shelf. It reminds me of another thing that sticks in my craw about the charter school "movement"--the race question. Everything--from the charter school Web sites, to the rallies, to the glossy brochures--cry out against racial inequality and evoke the civil rights movement.

But the whole project is based on a rejection of one of the key goals of the civil rights movement: desegregating the schools. For all their talk of the race gap, why is there no discussion about mixing the predominantly kids of color from the city with the predominantly white kids in the suburbs? What about Brown v. Board of Education?

In his introduction to Shame of the Nation, Kozol writes of Black public school administrators who are pained by the fact that their schools are still so segregated, and by the fact that they are put in a position that requires them "to set aside the promises of Brown.

Perhaps--while never stating it or even thinking of it clearly--these administrators are being forced to settle for the promise made more than a century ago in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in which "separate but equal" was accepted as a tolerable rationale for the perpetuation of a dual racial system in American society."

In this context, there's something a little more than sinister about billionaires using the iconography of the civil rights movement to set up "separate but equal" schools in the inner cities, masking the goal of privatization behind a call for racial justice.

As if it weren't enough to have deep pockets on their side, the charter schools also have Barack Obama as their leading advocate. As I ride to and from work on Harlem's crosstown busses, large buttons pinned to the lapels of school children are a constant reminder that Obama "hearts" charter schools.

This is a serious blow to those of us who are trying to defend the idea of public education. "I'm disappointed in Obama," Regina Gutierrez, a Harlem public school teacher told me. "I voted for him assuming that he fully supported public education, not private or semi-private education. He said he was not in favor of privatizing the schools, but now all he's doing is supporting charter schools."

Obama sends his children to the Sidwell Friends School, which charges $28,442 a year for each of his two daughters to attend its Lower School (Pre-K through 4th grade).

That money buys a "relaxed and informal" environment "with a balance between freedom and discipline," according to the school's Web site. It buys a teacher-student ratio of one to 10 in the lower grades, and one to 16 in the fourth grade. By the end of the second grade, kids are expected to have mastered the basics of digital photography and Adobe Photoshop, and begin writing computer programs. By the end of fourth grade they've learned to edit video using iMovie. This May alone, Sidwell students will put on a choral concert, a play and a dance ensemble performance.

Obama doesn't have to go through a lottery to get his kids that kind of education. He's already won life's lottery, so he has the money to buy it outright. We need a grassroots movement of parents and teachers to tell Obama that we "heart" the same kind of programs his kids are getting, and that we need public education (not a private, competitive system) that makes them available to all kids.

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