Friday, April 23, 2010

Unchartered Water

With all of the heat that the charter school hearing generated yesterday, what was glaringly absent was any real light-like what has been the charter school record as opposed to the achievements of the public schools. There was, however, at list one person who did testify on this baseline question-school historian Diane Ravitch. But surprisingly, not a single news outlet reported on what she said.

What Ravitch told the Perkins committee was that charter school hoo ha falls far short of the reality: "Charters vary widely in quality. Last year a national evaluation by Margaret Raymond of Stanford University (including data from 2,403 charters and 70 percent of all charter students) found that only 17% outperformed regular public schools; that 46% had learning gains no different from regular public schools; and that 37% had gains that were worse than regular public schools. Raymond concluded, “This study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their TPS [traditional public school] counterparts."

Hold on a moment. Does this mean that the clamor for charters is based more on sizzle than steak? Well, consider this: "Just last month, on March 9, the New York Times described how public schools in Harlem now must market themselves to compete with charter schools for new students. The regular public schools have less than $500 each to create brochures and fliers; the charter firm with which they compete has a marketing budget of $325,000. That’s not fair."

So, perhaps the demand is-at least to some extent-based on irrational exuberance. And then there's the issue of accountability, the main thrust of Senator Perkins' concerns. Ravitch agrees: "We have seen stories about non-profit entrepreneurs who are paid $400,000 a year or more to run charters for 1,000 children. That’s more than the Chancellor of the New York City schools is paid, and more than the U.S. Secretary of Education. That’s not right. The New York Daily News reports today that charter schools, unlike other public schools, are not subject to public audits or to rules prohibiting nepotism and conflicts of interest by their board members or staff. That’s not right.The Legislature must insist that charters act like public institutions and that they are fiscally transparent and accountable."

But, as we have pointed out on a number of occasions, the bottom line issue in all of this controversy is what it says about the state of the public school system. As one parent testified yesterday: "We need parent choice. Our district schools couldn't get any worse. What we're trying to do is open up more opportunities," said Sabrina Williams, 52, whose daughter attends fourth grade at Harlem Success Academy."

So there is obviously a perception of failure at the grass roots level. Whether this is a reality or not-and studies indicate that the charter exploits are exaggerated in the aggregate-doesn't matter. And the clamoring for, "choice," is an indictment of the current system that the media did so much to tout when it was all about mayoral control.

There is, in our view, a need for more choice, but that choice shouldn't be a Hobson's choice. Charters need to become a more integrated part of the public education system-and their successes need to be utilized in ways that will help advance achievement in their public school counterparts; that was the original vision when the charter concept was first forwarded by Al Shanker. We need to transcend the current zero/sum game.

We'll give Ravitch the last word on this-in the hopes that the charter chatter becomes more insightful and less spiteful: "I hope the day comes when charters join with public schools as partners, collaborators, and allies in the shared mission of educating all of our city’s public school students."