Accountability Charter Schools Civil Rights Corruption Funding School Choice Vouchers

Eve Ewing Is Wrong About Charter Schools

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Eve Ewing is a writer and scholar whose work I very much admire. When her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side was published in 2018, I called it the best book of the year. Today, however, she published an article in the New York Times about charter schools that completely misses the point about the damage that charter schools do to public schools.

Basically, she says we should be happy whenever any school–whether public or charter–provides a good education. That is what I believed when I was an advocate for charter schools from the late 1980s until about 2007. It was then that I realized that charter schools were not producing better outcomes than public schools and were diverting money and the students they wanted from public schools. The more I learned about charter operators, their billionaire benefactors, their drive for money and power, and the corruption associated with their lack of accountability, the more I realized that this nation needs a strongly resourced, equitable, and excellent public school system. After thirty years of directing funding to charter schools, we have seen no systemic change of the kind that both Eve and I want.

The overwhelming majority of children in the United States attend public schools (only 6% attend charter schools). Public schools in many states are underfunded and have been since at least 2008–and some for even longer. When states authorize charter schools, they do not increase education funding. The funding pie does not grow. It is divided.

Some districts are in danger of being obliterated by charter operators: think New Orleans, which no longer has any public schools. New Orleans is supposedly the North Star of the charter lobby, but New Orleans today is as segregated and stratified as it was before Hurricane Katrina, and its academic performance is below the state average in one of the nation’s lowest performing states on NAEP.

Eve’s is the first article I have ever seen that celebrated the CREDO finding that only 19% of charter schools get higher test scores than public schools. She says, “Good for the 19%!” But what about the 81% of charter schools receiving public funds that are worse or no better than public schools? Those children and their parents were lured by false promises.

Her article does not acknowledge that many of the most “successful” charter schools are notorious for their disproportionately low numbers of students who are English language learners or have special needs. Nor does it note the high attrition rates or entry standards that winnow out the hardest-to-educate students, like the BASIS schools in Arizona and Texas, which regularly top lists of “best high schools” in the nation. BASIS requires its students to pass multiple AP exams in order to graduate and has high numbers of white and Asian-American students in a state with large numbers of Hispanic and Native American students. When Carol Burris reviewed the BASIS charters in Arizona in 2017, she found that the students at its 18 schools were 83% white and Asian in a state where those groups were 42% of the students in the state.

Eve completely ignores the recent explosion of voucher legislation in Red states. In the 2020 election, Republicans strengthened their control of state legislatures, which have now prioritized creating or expanding vouchers to pay for private and religious schools, for-profit schools, homeschooling, and whatever else parents want to spend public money on. Charters encourage consumerism, making schools a consumer choice rather than a civic good that we are all responsible to fund equitably. Charters pave the way for school choice, including vouchers.

Vouchers in Florida are subsidizing religious schools to the tune of $1 billion a year; voucher schools are completely unaccountable and they are allowed to discriminate against gay students and families and any other group they don’t like. Their textbooks teach creationism, racism, and religious dogma.

The photograph that accompanies her article–for which she is not responsible–features a KIPP school and says that KIPP runs more than 250 schools. Do we really want our public schools to be run by private corporations? Should parents who are unhappy with their school be satisfied to be told “leave and choose a different school”?

As I said at the outset, Eve today is expressing the same views I held 20-30 years ago, so I understand where she is coming from. She wants every school to be a great school. So do I.

She writes that parents:

want their kid to learn a language, study the arts, have a clean building, and books in the library.

What would it look like if we built an education policy agenda dedicated to ensuring those resources for all students? Not just the students who win a lottery, but the students who lose, or who never get to enter because they’re homeless or their families are dealing with substance abuse, and the adults in their lives don’t have the information or resources to participate in a school choice “market?” What if our system was built not to reward innovation for the few, but rights for the many?

What if we insisted that all our schools, for all our children, should be safe and encouraging places? What if our new secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, focused on a plan as audacious as the New Deal, as well-funded as the war on drugs, dedicated to an all-hands-on-deck effort to guarantee every child an effective learning environment? What if we as a society pursued the dream of great schools not through punishment (as in No Child Left Behind), and not through competition (as with Race to the Top) but through the provision of essential resources?

Are we likely to reach those goals if states are funding charter schools, voucher schools, home schooling, for-profit corporations, virtual charter schools, and education entrepreneurs? That in fact is where the current drive for more choice is heading. Multiple state legislatures are solely focused on school choice, not funding. Red states in particular start with charters, then move on to some form of public subsidy for religious and private schools. The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to approve the public funding of religious schools and to obliterate the “wall of separation between church and state.” Will the states increase their funding to account for the funding of all students now attending non-public schools?

Eve Ewing has a powerful voice. I wish she would rethink her message and acknowledge that the only way to achieve her vision is by funding and improving the only schools that admit all children and that are subject to civil rights laws and public accountability: Our democratically governed public schools.

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