Accountability Charter Schools Corporate Reformers Education Industry Privatization

A Personal Letter to a Persistent Charter Advocate

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This is a letter to a reader who frequently sends comments defending the privatization of public schools in Massachusetts. On some days, he sends 3-5 comments, filled with references to studies that support charters, insisting that charters will not take money away from public schools, even though as a practical matter, charter schools everywhere have led to budget cuts for public schools that enroll the vast majority of children. His comments are repetitive and he has taken up a lot of space on a blog that opposes privatization and opposes school choice because of the damage it does to a universal, democratically controlled system of public education. Unless you believe that scores on standardized tests are the purpose of public education and the best measure of educational quality, these “studies” are meaningless and lacking in any understanding of democracy, civic responsibility, and the common good.

For these reasons, this letter is directed to this reader.

I will not post any more of your comments about Question 2 in Massachusetts and the glories of charter schools until you answer my questions.

Why do you have so much time on your hands to defend privatization?

What is your day job?

Is anyone paying you for your constant rebuttals?

What are your credentials and your expertise?

I told you mine: 50 years a scholar of education; a Ph.D. in history of American education from Columbia University; numerous books and honorary degrees; Assistant Secretary of Education for Research in the George H.W. Bush administration; a founding member of two conservative think tanks–the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution, as well as a Senior Fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and a Senior Fellow at the centrist Brookings Institution. I was an avid proponent of charter schools for almost 15 years. Several years ago, I realized that the charter industry is now led by people who want to privatize and profit from money intended for our public schools. I saw the light. I know the arguments for charters better than you do. I used to believe them.

I have determined to devote my strength and energy, so long as I have it, to the preservation and transformation of public schools so that they offer equal opportunity for all children. Charter schools are a diversion that weaken public education. I will not allow my blog to be used as a forum for those who fight to destroy public education by diverting public funds to private schools and to those who mask their goal of privatization by stealing the language of the civil rights movement. I don’t believe that anyone should put words in the mouths of those who are not living, yet I feel certain that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would never have locked arms with the Waltons, the Koch brothers, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, ALEC, hedge fund managers, Wall Street titans, and demanded privatization and defunding of public schools. Dr. King was a great supporter of the labor movement. He was murdered in Memphis fighting for the rights of sanitation workers to organize a union. He would certainly oppose the charter industry, which prides itself on being anti-union. 93% of charters are non-union and aggressively oppose efforts by teachers to form a union.

Did you notice that the World Economic Forum just named Finland the best educational school system in the world? It has no charters, no vouchers. It has a strong union that all educators belong to. It has no standardized tests until the end of high school. It focuses on creativity, the arts, physiical activity, play, and critical thinking. It has a rich curriculum taught by well-prepared teachers. No charters, no Teach for Finland. No disruption. No teacher churn. The joy of learning is paramount. Children don’t begin academic studies until the age of 7. There is a recess after every class. There is free medical care, and low poverty.

We, by contrast, ignore poverty as a given and assume that school must be harder, tests must be harder, recess must be sacrificed to rigor and grit. Joy of learning? Play? The arts? No time for that. Gets in the way of testing.

The public is waking up. No matter how many millions your friends pour into the charter industry, an aware public will not sell or give away their community public schools. The public built them with their taxes. The public wants experienced career teachers, not temps who come and go with regularity.

You can cite all the studies you want about test scores. Readers of this blog know how those scores were obtained. They know that charter schools choose the students they want and kick out the ones they don’t want. They know charters with high scores engage in intensive test prep for months. Test scores will not convince an informed public to hand over their schools to corporations and non-educators. The Waltons have wiped out large swaths of small-town America, killing mom-and-pop stores, then hiring mom and pop as low-wage greeters. The motto of the charter industry is disrupt, destroy, privatize. Disruption harms children and communities. Tell your billionaire funders: Disrupt your family and community, but don’t impose your rootlessness on others.

No thanks. We don’t want to see the Walmartization of American public schools. They are a basic democratic institution. They belong to the public, not corporations and Wall Street. Not “Families for Excellent Schools” whose own children go to such excellent schools as Exeter, Phillips Andover, Deerfield Academy, and other elite schools where tuition runs about $50,000 a year. Too bad they don’t want similar excellent schools for other people’s children. Instead, they favor “no excuses” boot camps that impose harsh discipline and focus relentlessly on test scores in math and reading, the tested subjects. I acknowledge that there are outliers, that there are charter schools that seek to improve the education of poor kids. But unfortunately, the charter industry is now led and driven by indiduals and groups that want to destroy public education. They dress their children in identical T-shirts and bus them to legislative hearings and political rallies to demand more charters, more money. Their greedy, self-serving charter leaders use the children (their “scholars”) as pawns in their quest for political power.

When charters become a potent political force, democracy suffers. Communities are divided. Legislators become consumed by charter issues, even though the charters enroll less than 10% of students. Big campaign contributions guarantee political allies, even Democrats, despite the fact that school choice has always been a beloved Republican policy, despite the fact that it promotes segregation, despite the fact that it was the rallying cry of southern segregationists after the Brown decision.

And so, dear reader, we reject your repetitive defense of school choice. We will oppose your efforts to cripple a cornerstone of our democracy. We will oppose a dual system of publicly funded schools, one open to all, the other open to a few and privately controlled.

We will fight for great public schools, democratically controlled, accountable and transparent.

We mean to keep them and make them better than ever.

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