Strong public charters need
real accountability

Published on Friday, January 04, 2013

Strong public charters need real accountabilityWhen New Jersey created public charter schools nearly two decades ago, the law was very explicit: charter schools were public schools, and they must be not-for-profit entities with real public accountability in exchange for public funding.  In the coming months, New Jersey legislators are expected to review the state’s charter school law.  Their charge is to preserve meaningful accountability for charter schools while making sure that they do not become de facto private schools, operated for a profit and shielded from public accountability.

Elsewhere in the country, charter schools are not as carefully monitored or regulated.  Two recent blog posts by respected education writer Diane Ravitch underscore the current and potential long-term impact of these schools, and the picture isn’t pretty.

Despite claims by private charter operators that they don’t “skim” students or discriminate in admissions, Ravitch points to a Detroit Free Press story showing that the proportion of students with special needs in Detroit – where more children attend charters than attend public schools – is soaring. 

In 2004-5, before Detroit public schools began closing – and charters began to boom – about 14 percent of the city’s students were special needs students.  That figure is now 18 percent, and climbing.

With students leaving in droves, Detroit’s overall enrollment of 49,000 is now only a third of what it was a decade ago. But charter schools “are also a factor,” the story notes.  “They have attracted about 50,000 Detroit students, but generally do not serve as many special-needs children.  In a U.S. Government Accountability Office report this year, charter schools cited limited resources and limited facility space as reasons.”

Those reasons, of course, are not acceptable excuses for public schools, which must accommodate all special needs students or provide out-of-district placement at extremely high costs.  Talk about an uneven playing field.

And then there’s Los Angeles. 

In another post, Ravitch focuses on the upcoming school board race, in which incumbent board member Steve Zimmer, a veteran teacher and outspoken critic of test score-driven accountability and runaway charter expansion, is opposed by Kate Anderson, who has major endorsements and funding from the state’s powerful charter lobby.

Zimmer incurred the wrath of that lobby when he offered a board resolution calling for greater charter school accountability “and a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools until the new accountability measures are created.”

This election is critical, Ravitch says, because Los Angeles now has more than 100,000 children – about 15 percent of total enrollment – in charter schools.  Zimmer points out that charters suffer from “uneven performance,” and an article on his website shows that the city’s public schools actually out-perform charters.

But the corporate charter movement has never let facts get in the way of its headlong rush to unlimited expansion.

That’s why they want Zimmer out, and Anderson in.  Davis Guggenheim, who directed the anti-public school, pro-charter propaganda film “Waiting for Superman,” is holding a fundraiser for Anderson.

It’s time to expose the impact of the corporate charter movement on urban schools.  Whether it’s “skimming” regular students in Detroit and driving up the proportion of special ed students left in the public schools, or politically steamrolling its way to unlimited expansion in Los Angeles, this movement must be checked and held accountable.

In New Jersey, we must continue to demand that charter schools are operated for the benefit of all students in their communities, not just for a select few, and certainly not for the benefit of for-profit operators looking to fatten their bottom lines.

If not, as Ravitch notes, the future of urban public education – and, ultimately, all of public education – is at risk.

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