Sunday, October 3, 2010

Charter Schools and the Reason Foundation

by Kristin King

Charter schools are on the rise nationally, despite no evidence of success and evidence of real harm to students. Seattle has voted down charter schools time after time, but 2010 might be the year they establish a firm foothold in our most vulnerable neighborhoods. Charter school companies like KIPP and GreenDot are coming to town to give public and private lectures, probably in an effort to pass state legislation allowing charter schools. Meanwhile, the school superintendent seems to be pushing to close schools that have failed under No Child Left Behind.

What’s behind this huge push?

A previous blog post talked about the influence of billionaires Fordham, Gates, and Broad in the recent anti-union efforts of the organization NCTQ. These billionaires have charter school plans as well, which I’ll discuss in another post.

But another key player is the Reason Foundation, a major libertarian organization partly funded by billionaire David H. Koch. (The Koch brothers fund the Tea Party, and their father, Fred Koch, was a founding member of the John Birch society.) Through this foundation, Koch has been gaining greater and greater power over public policy. This power is leading to changes in our laws that the vast majority of Americans probably do not want.

The mission statement of the Reason Foundation says:
“We use journalism and public policy research to influence the frameworks and actions of policymakers, journalists and opinion leaders. Reason Foundation’s nonpartisan public policy research promotes choice, competition, and a dynamic market economy as the foundation for human dignity and progress.”

This agenda of “choice, competition, and a dynamic market economy” is especially dangerous for our public schools. But that’s the direction our nation’s schools are taking, and it’s because of the behind-the-scenes power of billionaires and organizations like the Reason Foundation and the Fordham Institute.

The Reason Foundation policy paper “Fix the City Schools: Moving All Schools to Charter-Like Autonomy” by Lisa Snell, proposes that schools perpetually compete with one another based on the results of standardized tests, and perpetually close when they fail to meet standards that have been imposed by the top.

Snell writes: “The bottom line is that the district seeks continuous improvement by assessing performance of all schools, closing the lowest performing schools and creating alternate opportunities for students in the least productive schools.” In other words, “the essence of this policy brief” is to “close failing schools, open new schools, replicate great schools, repeat.”

What makes this technique so damaging to students is that charter schools, on the whole, don’t provide a better education. One-third of charter schools do worse than public schools – while only one-sixth do better, and one-half do about the same. This means that approximately one third of students in these closed schools will move on to an even worse education. And every time a school closes, all the students face severe disruptions.

These are not just theoretical outcomes, but represent the actual, lived experience of millions of students in districts where charter schools have taken hold, as in cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. (David H. Koch, by the way, is the richest and most powerful resident of New York City.) It has been devastating for the most marginalized children – poor children, children of color, special education children, and English language learners.

But the actual suffering of children does nothing to deter the Reason Foundation or school district leaders in cities targeted for charter schools. Snell interviewed Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek and described his vision for public schools:

“There was an article written the other day called ‘Try, Try Again,’ and I think it epitomizes our strategy. We’ll give it to a charter operator. We’ll let them work it. If they fail, we’ll bring in another charter operator and if they fail, we’ll bring in another charter operator until they get it right.”

Our struggling kids can’t wait while policymakers and state superintendents try out this charter experiment. They need real change now. They need an end to the punitive measures in No Child Left Behind.They need librarians, counselors, social services, and tutoring. They need equal access to excellent education, regardless of income, race, ability, or language. They need qualified, experienced teachers with union protections. They need small class sizes.

Because there are no quick fixes.

Because education isn’t about “high performing” or “productive” schools.
It’s about the kids.

x-posted from Kristin King's Blog


Josh said...

Fish rots from the head: Obama, Duncan, and Race to the Top are as culpable as the Koches.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Josh, I fundamentally disagree with you. I think we have all underestimated how much the Koches and others like them (Rupert Murdoch comes to mind) have helped push the political center so far to the right that even modest progressive reform is derided as socialist or -- even more absurdly -- fascist.

Education in this country is in serious trouble, but I don't think federal programs are the cause, but rather a half-hearted attempt to solve the problem without doing anything fundamental enough to give the right wing nutbase another issue. So yeah, we get lame programs and "teach to the test," but those are reactions, not the cause.

Which -- assuming the accuracy of your fish metaphor -- implies the top is not where we like to think it is.

Kristin said...

I'd kinda say Josh and Nancy are both right. Race To the Top is actually quite horrific - it's NCLB with more restricted options for failing schools. As I understand it, they have to fire the principal, or fire the principal plus half the staff, or fire everybody, or close the school entirely and possibly replace it with a charter school. Plus incentives for charter schools and for assembly-line teachers. But where did Obama's RTT come from? That's where I agree with Nancy.

Josh said...

Nancy, although I overstated things, I believe we do disagree. I see Obama and much of his administration not as weak opponents of the dominant order but as its agents: I'm mostly on board with Paul Street's two books about Obama, which (because Street has observed Chicago politics for a long time) have a lot to say about Duncan and the way he ran Chicago schools. Central Falls, RI, didn't fire all its teachers (and counselors and principals) because Sean Hannity required it to but because D of E policy required it to: Obama and Duncan congratulated the superintendent for making that bold move.

But I concede that the POTUS is not "the head" in Our Neoliberal World.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Kristin, I agree with you, too. I haven't paid much attention to Race to the Top, being more concerned here in Texas about the state school board's efforts to use the schools to promote a right wing fundamentalist Christian agenda. But the fact that it's based on competition annoys me. We overvalue competition in our society, and we write off losers. That is not what we need in education.

And I am more upset about the home schooling trend than I am about charter schools. I see home schooling as another anti-feminist campaign: "Mom, your most important job is to raise your kids, so quit that job and stay home and use your education to teach them. After all, they're more important than you are." Plus home schooling, like putting kids in private schools, is something people with resources can do instead of working to improve their local schools. If parents upset with their schools got together and formed a charter school instead of home schooling, I think that would be an improvement. But I know many of the charters are for profit businesses (and how they make a profit without shortchanging either teachers or students or both, I have no idea), and others are started by idealogues with no idea of how to run a school.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Josh: We probably do have some fundamental disagreements here, but maybe only about pragmatism when it comes to US politics. While I have some dreams about how society ought to be, when it comes to the current situation in the US, I definitely go with the lesser evil theory. Obama has his flaws, but he's the best president we've had since Lyndon Johnson when it comes to dealing with the needs of the average person. (He may also end up emulating Lyndon on foreign policy, but I hope I'm wrong there.)

While I certainly don't harbor the illusion that anyone who can get elected President in this country is not tied to the established power structure in some way, I do think there are some large differences between different groups of the powerful. The extreme right wing -- which appears to have hijacked the Republican Party -- has an agenda that, among other things, would make the federal government so weak that it could not do anything about corporate power. We saw this during the Reagan years, and really saw it when Bush came to office.

And yet you hear criticism from the right that Bush was too "moderate." If those years were moderate, then I shudder to think what might happen if we give control of the federal government over to the Republican Party as it's now constituted.

The health care reform law may be overcomplicated – of course single payer would be better -- but if it goes forward, there are going to be some clear benefits. At the very least, people won't die because they can't afford to get treatment and people won't lose their homes because of their medical bills. That's better than the current situation.

Obama's EPA is using every tool at its disposal to address pollution problems, even trying to deal with climate change despite arguments that the Clean Air Act does not allow it to regulate greenhouse gases. Some of these fights will be handled in courts dominated by judges appointed by Republicans, so EPA may not be successful, but they are certainly working to do something constructive.

The consumer regulatory agency really will address some of the problems facing ordinary people in dealing with banks and other financial institutions. I can read mortgage documents, and I have sense enough to avoid fancy financing, but then, I have a law degree and practiced real estate law on behalf of low income people for many years, so I know a lot about it. Most people -- most educated people -- will just take the bank's word for things. When they do ask questions, they usually ask the wrong ones. This stuff is complicated on purpose.

The stimulus didn't go far enough. Financial reform isn't going far enough. We're not getting any action on climate change. But with Republicans, we'll end up going in reverse.

I recall back in 1968 there were many young radicals who supported Nixon because "we'll get the revolution faster that way." Unless you see Nixon's resignation as "the revolution," it didn't happen.

My point boils down to this: We are in real danger from the extreme right in this country. We've already seen how their money and resources can mangle the issues and shift the center to the right. We will never get anything like the changes we'd like to see in society unless those people are reined in.

Nancy Jane Moore said...
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Nancy Jane Moore said...
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Nancy Jane Moore said...

Note: the two "deleted comments" above are due to weirdness by blogger, which kept posting my comments while telling me they were too large. They were just variations on my comment to Josh. Argh.

Josh said...

Nancy, here's another issue on which Democrats are taking action.

Did radicals really play the "Nach Hitler, uns" game with Nixon? You'd think they'd know better.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Thanks, Josh. The link is interesting.

Yeah, there were some radicals who took that attitude (if the German means what I think it means) in 1968. In their defense, I point you to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. I think they were wrong, but it was hard to believe in the Democrats after Chicago. Me, I wasn't old enough to vote back then -- they lowered the voting age to 18 after I was over 21. But I would have voted for Hubert Humphrey because I knew about Nixon's red-baiting and other dirty tricks from way back.