Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Charter schools: Because WNJ reporters don't write their own headlines . . .

. . . because this one--the subtitle--is a fascinating piece of work:

More charter school growth coming, applications show 
Public schools are OK with the competition
So what's wrong with that?  Well, possibly just the fact that very little in  Matthew Albright's story even addresses the question of whether "public schools" are "OK with the competition."

In point of fact, only Brandywine School District Superintendent Mark Holodick addresses the issue at all:
“I think charter schools, like private and parochial schools, give us healthy competition. If they make us think differently about what we are doing and offer better services, that’s a good thing,” said Brandywine School District Superintendent Mark Holodick. “This is not something that I’m worrying about or focused on.”
Possibly that's because, for a variety of reasons, Brandywine has been able to insulate itself from the charter school movement.  Part of that has been intentional (as Pandora would tell you) in the placement of BSD's IB program and the district's carefully calculated flouting of the Neighborhood Schools Act to keep its elementary schools from becoming de facto segregated institutions.  An equal part of that (Pandora and I go round and round on this one) is that BSD has a significantly stronger tax base than its neighbors and is able to spend about $3,000 more per student per year, and contains a distinctly smaller subsection of the poorer areas of Wilmington than Red Clay or Christina.  And a small part of Holodick's willingness to see charters as "healthy competition" is that BSD has traditionally (regardless of the Superintendent in office) never quite seen itself as a part of the Delaware public school system.  Just ask people, and you'll hear the answer, "Yeah, but that's Brandywine . . ."

My point is neither to bury nor praise BSD, but to point out that the opinion of the State's northernmost school district should not be read as a general comment that public school districts are "OK with the competition" from charters.  They might be, they might not be--nothing in this article tells us.

On the other hand, the remarks of others indicate that there IS considerable concern, but that concern is carefully constructed as subtle shots at traditional school districts.  Try these paragraphs, wherein there is a lot to parse:

Still, Holodick and others say it would be wise for the state to think about plans for long-term growth. Jennifer Nagourney, the new head of the state charter school office, would not say the state needs to rein in the number of applications, but did say some school districts that haven’t planned well have suffered consequences. 
“We are very interested in having conversations about what the long-term plan for our charter schools are,” Nagourney said. “We need to talk about what is sustainable and, most importantly, what provides the best situation for our students.” 
Charter school advocates say there’s no reason to apply brakes now. 
“We’re not trying to break down the system, we’re trying to provide as many high-quality options for kids as we can,” said Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network. “Until every student has a great educational opportunity, there will not be too many charter schools.”
Let's try this in sequence:

1.  Reason to think about long-term growth plans, says Jennifer Nagourney of the DOE Charter School Office, while blandly blaming any problems on traditional school districts:  "some school districts that haven't planned well have suffered consequences."  This is fascinating language from a person whose pedigree is not, per se, the regulation of charter schools but the advocate for their untrammeled expansion.  As for school districts that "haven't planned well," perhaps Ms. Nagourney could explain exactly how districts plan to cope with new charters authorized in the middle of their areas via a state process that districts have neither say in nor control over.  It is a clever piece of rhetoric to have the State Official responsible for supervising charter schools subtly (or not so subtly) change the conversation by blaming traditional school districts for any problems that might emerge.

2.  You can follow that through in Nagourney's consistently shaded comments in the second paragraph:  "the long-term plans for our charter schools" and "what provides the best situation for our students."  One could be excused for wondering if the OUR in the first clause and the OUR in the second both concern only charter schools.  If--as the grammarian in me suspects--Ms. Nagourney means exactly what she appears to say, then again I should make the point that what DE DOE has done is hire a bureaucrat to cheerlead for rather than manage charter schools in Delaware--and again that is what her background would lead one to suspect.

3.  "We're not trying to break down the system," says Kendall Massett of the Charter Schools Network in what must win the prize for most mock-disingenuous comment of the week.  Of course they are attempting to break down the system--in the honest early days of the Delaware charter school movement, that's exactly what advocates claimed would happen.  It was their mantra--the existing system was already broken, and only by taking resources out of it an handing those resources over to them would an entirely new system develop.  But extreme charter school advocates have, within the past year to eighteen months, suddenly realized that there is pushback, and so have begun modifying their rhetoric if not (yet) their tactics.  Ms. Massett and Ms. Nagourney must publicly claim that their efforts are on behalf of all students, that inadvertent setbacks for students not in their ranks yet are solely attributable to failures in the original system, and that the long-term future of public education in Delaware is for us to become (they think it, but don't say it) the first all-Charter School state.

4.  The foregoing all apply to Mr. Albright's sources--he is hardly to blame for what they choose to tell him.  But I will (at least mildly) call him to account for not asking an important journalistic question:  controlling for income and ethnicity, how well have Delaware charter schools performed for their students?  The answer, if one is honest and consults the data, is about the same--sometimes a little better, sometimes worse.  This is a critical (and usually absent) piece of data from charter school discussions, the fact that when comparable student populations are compared, there is no strong evidence that Delaware charter schools do any better at educating children than traditional public schools.  In cases like Reach Academy, wherein the parents are fighting to keep the school open despite consistently poor academic results, one gets a glimpse of the fact that it is preference, emotion, and perceived exclusivity that really drives loyalty to charter schools rather than performance.  One day it would be good to see the WNJ actually take on this aspect of the conversation, but I'm not holding my breath.

The irony here is that I feel a lot like what Ronald Reagan used to say about the Democrats:  "I didn't leave them, they left me."

I've been a long-term believer in charter schools--my twins attend Charter School of Wilmington.  I've defended CSW's entrance standards and "placement exams."  I've supported candidates who supported charter schools and school choice.

But there is a point at which people of integrity need to exam facts and data rather than hype or self-interested rhetoric.  Nearly two decades into the charter/choice era in Delaware it is time to face the fact that the benefits (and there have been many) from those policies have also been accompanied by negatives for a good many school children in the First State.  Charters and choice have--intentionally or not (I'm not kilroy)--played into a dynamic that has led the de facto segregation of Wilmington's inner-city schools at the same time that a wide variety of resources were being slowly sucked out of the traditional school districts.

Nobody is calling for an end to Delaware's experiment with charter schools, but it is equally clear that we need to have a difficult, honest discussion about their role, their structure, and their impact, before we find ourselves using everyone's tax dollars to subsidize a parallel system that is, in actuality, only open to a lucky few.


Arthur said...

Steve, you're right on BSD on several topics. One of Holodicks statements is a little baffeling and in my opinion it is a segregation issue. He said the student population has grwon the last 6 years. Why then did they close schools and reallocate students from some of the poorest locations - Darley Rd, Mt. Pleasant Elem?

Hube said...

Don't forget BSD's gifted program, too, and its middle school location.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece, all the way around. The workable solution would be to fund charter schools as vocational schools without using any district funding.

When a student choices out into a charter, the state picks up the tab. When the state's finances get overextended, it cuts back on the new charters it approves.

If district schools do not have to pay money out to charters, they have no more reason to become anti charter. If the Charters find a magic bullet that helps teach, the state is in a good position to steal that nugget and apply it to public schools. Thus preserving the Charter's innovative reason for being...

In fact, if the district no longer has to pay out because students leave for charters, period, then it receives more money per student (same money/less students) which should help it achieve its goals...

If a charter is going to open, it should be placed in the General Assembly budget how much state funds will be used to support that charter...

We've done it with vocational schools for years. If the General Assembly can't come up with the funds, we really then don't need the indulgence of another charter school...

Arthur said...

Charter schools should follow the funding model similar to their 'educational model' - semi-private. They need to charge a nominal tuition $300-$700 per year.

pandora said...

I love when you mention me in a post!

I've discussed this issue to the point of exhaustion. I think we'll have to ride this charter train to its destructive end - which is to destroy teacher unions. What? Did someone think charters priorities were about educating children? Bwhahaha!

Excellent post, btw.

And Hube's correct about BSD's gifted program at P.S. duPont - a city school that suburban parents fight to get into. Imagine that.

Eve Buckley said...

Wilm. districts should have very serious concerns about the proposed Freire Charter's desire to choose which students it wants to retain. See the school's Supplemental Application to DE DOE, p. 38, describing their "no second chances" policy which permits expulsion for any act of physical or verbal violence, or harassment, committed on or off-campus:

Also the school's own website (it is in Philly; Wilm. would be a new branch):

Concerned district advocates should let the state Board of Ed. know that this discrepancy, between district schools subject to civil rights law and charters free to circumvent it, is unacceptable.

Hube said...

Is that school named for Paulo Freire? If so, their rules sound quite contrary to his [radical] philosophy.

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