Friday, May 28, 2010

Can You Say Divide & Conquer?

I knew that you could.

A facebook friend posted a link to this article, and that led to the following discussion. The names have been changed to protect privacy.

V: I'm so disappointed in Obama and his support of charters. I'd love to see this issue vetted locally.

T: I love our charter school. I have one kid in public school and one kid in home/online charter school. The charter curriculum is FAR superior.

V: i guess that's not really the point. It's that ALL kids should have access to the superior schooling, not just those who can afford to drive their kids to school, or who have kids without disabilities, etc.

And that charter schools suck money away from the public schools, so there's less money to spend on those harder-to-educate kids (low income and special needs) who tend to be left behind in the public schools. I'm speaking specifically of the charters here locally.

Also, as this article points out, there are no studies showing that charters are better than the public schools. Some are good, some are not.
It's not a good system...

L: I am with you, V! Put the money into the public schools and raise up ALL kids with it and make the public schools better.

M: I'm with you V. One size does not fit all, so while the concept works in many places, it's still at the expense of the sending school district. Northampton spends $5k to send a student to a neighboring elementary school, but $9800-$10,200 to send a student to an area charter. That's a big financial hit and does seem to siphon off the students whose families can drive them to charters, have the means to put in the requisite volunteer time, and those students who don't have special needs of any mid-to-high level. That leaves a much higher concentration of low income and SPED students for the sending districts to finance and teach.

J: The writer's wish list for improving public education is the same one that was being trumpeted when I was a kid. It'll be the same one talked about when my kids have kids ... unless the focus of the debate somehow shifts from politics to education. What truly is the obstacle for improved public schools? It ain't charters.

We don't have a kid in a charter school, but we will soon, and I'm happy about that. In visiting the school, we saw motivated and engaged teachers, students and parents. It was inspiring, and I will accept nothing less for my kids.

S: I am in total agreement with the public school is where the money should go. And we tried the charter school lotteries (although I wouldn't have done so when my kids were younger) & got terrible #'s so I guess that's a relief (it hasn't exactly been, as you know)--still, even if we were heading to a charter school i'd feel wrong/bad about it.

Locally, the war $$ being spent could make our schools ROCK & I believe we have to get the KIDS involved in making these connections, if not for themselves immediately, for the revolution to take place for their kids...

P: When I worked with mostly homeless or inadequately housed women and children in Philly many of them wanted to send their kids to charter schools. Obviously I felt that $$$ should be put into the public school system. However, they reasoned that the schools were so bad that their kids were going to get nothing out of them and that there was an optimistic moment with a new charter school. It was very hard to argue with their reasoning. They were products of the public school system, from families with very few material or emotional resources. And they wanted something better for their kids.

M: The GOOD thing is that we all share the desire to give our children the best we can. The problem, sadly, is the economic reality facing our cities, states, fed govt., and wallets. We all make choices and set priorities, and hope we're not totally messing up.

V: J, you're lucky you CAN accept nothing less for your kids. Lots of people have no choice. And that's not right. In the 14 years my kids have been in school I've seen the public system decimated. Budgets have gone DOWN every year. Charters? Nope -- they get their money no matter what.

Charter schools are not the only reason that the public schools have lost money, but they're a big one.

The charter schools have the luxury of choice -- they decide their class size and accept no more kids than that. Kids with special needs get "counseled back" to their sending district. Charters don't pay for transportation, they don't provide meals.

It's not an even playing field.

It's a private school at public expense -- and what's really galling is that I, as a taxpayer, have no say how that money is spent -- there is no public oversight of those schools.

When I wanted a better situation for our son (when his high school classes were over 30 kids) we dug deep and paid for him to go to a private school.
I know that we are really lucky to be able to do that -- but at least the public school isn't taking a hit in the process.

B: thanks for posting this s. great discussion, too.

i do/have not seen charter schools or school choice as a real alternative for the good of the community. for us my child's education isn't simply about my child, but rather our community as a whole. so the argument seems quite simple to me, don't take from a community as a whole to give to a special group. rather keep the money, energies, brain power in the community. and if there's something you want/don't see in your child's school for the "best of your child" then work to change it. entering a lottery, getting in and then driving your child to and from each day is a drain on our community. and i would add quite self serving.

J: V, I accept nothing less for my kids not because of what I can or cannot afford but because of where I set my priorities. When we put my son in the charter school lottery and got a crappy number, we swallowed hard and sent him to a private school that we could barely afford even with the school's generous financial aid. We put our limited resources toward this instead of saving for college, going on family trips, eating out, or buying stuff that'd be cool to have. Our priority was our kid's education, period.

I would love to see the public schools get some of the cash that's being bombed on Afghanistan, although better funding would be just a good first step in reforming the one-size-has-to-fit-all public education system. I like the arts-focused approach to education that Hilltown promises my lottery-lucky daughter, I love that the school is able to stretch its funding by relying on the volunteer work of engaged parents, and I am absolutely thrilled that the local school district has no oversight authority (i.e. can't screw things up).

To blame the demise of public education on charter schools is getting it backward. The rise of charters is a result of people's dissatisfaction with the public school system, for all sorts of reasons, most of them boiling down to education not being priority number one. I mean, I had to shake my head when I read that "they [charter schools] decide their class size and accept no more kids than that" as if that were a bad thing. A school that sets up kids to succeed -- by limiting class size, among other things -- is the school where I want my children to be.

V: J, my point is that MANY MANY parents have those same priorities, but not all can send their kids to the charter schools or to private schools. So we need to leave that out of the equation (because it makes it sound like you're saying you're a better parent and I don't think that's what you mean).

Why do you shake your head on my comment about charters limiting their enrollment -- is it a bad thing? YES -- they are not accepting ALL kids!

Northampton would LOVE to turn kids away when they have a nice class size, but they have no choice. If ten new families move into the Leeds district tomorrow, Leeds school has to educate those kids, whether there are 16 kids in the class or 26.
That's exactly what's unfair about this.

And I do think it's wrong that MY tax dollars are being spent in this way, without oversight (we have a city council looking out for our money, and a school committee, but somehow the charters are above that) -- that doesn't sit right with me).

S: To me the part that's hard to swallow (i think unfair is the word here) is that it does feel like many charters are private within a public system; because there isn't a bus, because it's not necessarily accessible to all. & yet it's publicly funded.

& I felt terrible putting our name in the hat. At the same time, like J describes, I wanted my kid to feel happy in school & to be with his friends (which mattered to him). What I hope happens at JFK for him is 1) he ends up on an engaged "good" team & 2) he not only likes the school but comes to see that public school represents his value system (which I think it does).

It's really hard sometimes (many times, all the times) to balance the larger & the personal & how the larger is personal. I just see that again & again (to quote another update I did today, duh).

S: V, spot on spot on spot on.

J: I can't speak to where all other parents' priorities lie, although I am comfortable in saying that I know many whose priorities are different from mine. I know parents who were devastated when their kid didn't win the charter school lottery, and have had to go to Plan B. I know parents who didn't enter the lottery and sent their kids to public school not as a sociopolitical statement but because they're fine with what's offered there. It doesn't make them better or worse parents. The money we've spent on our son's private education could have gone to travel or some other cool things that in the long run would be more memorable, beneficial and even educational for him. But our priority was primary education, so we did what we had to do.

Talking about making private education a priority is sort of beside the point if we're discussing charter schools, but not totally. To me a charter school represents the best public education option available to us, once our daughter lucked out and got a spot at Hilltown. And that spot was won by the luck of the draw, in a lottery available to families across the economic spectrum. It's true that traveling to Haydenville is an obstacle, but I know kids who take the PVTA bus to school every morning. It's not the most convenient way to spend your morning, but if it's your priority, you do it.

As for limiting class size vs. accepting all kids, come on. The way to serve more students is not to water down the experience for all; instead, join with like-minded parents and help create spots for more kids by founding a school that educates in a way you believe in.

J: Oh, and someone's comment above about putting your kids in charter school being "self-serving" irked me. I'm serving my kids. The idea of, as that person wrote, getting the best for your child by working to change the public schools is a nice idea. I wish I thought of it 10 years ago, before I had kids. With a decade to work at it, I might have been able to make a difference and perhaps could have laid a good foundation for my kids when they were ready to go to school. But I wasn't thinking about education back then. I am now. And my kids are ready for school now. I am not going to give them anything less than what I think is the best available education.

L: I don't think anyone here is 'blaming the demise of public education on charter schools' - the point is not that charter schools caused the problems with public schools or that they are somehow the only problem - the point is that they exacerbate the problem and help some kids at the expense of others, all at public expense. That's not right. I don't fault anyone for wanting to send their kid to a charter school given the state of public schools. I do think the root of problems with public schools and lack of funding for them should be addressed and that charter schools only make public schools worse so to me they are not the answer to the problem and in fact, only make the problem worse, even if a small number of children do benefit from them. We need to elevate all kids and not just a few and charter schools can't do that.

J: There are a million things in public education (and public life in general) that "help some kids at the expense of others, all at public expense." High school sports teams, for example. And those are a meritocracy, rather than random selection (like the charter school lottery), because if you can't shoot a jumper or hit a fastball, you don't get to play the game. And that's OK. Competitive sports teach lessons. So does theater -- but you'd better be willing and able to remember your lines if you want time on stage. And while teams and theater groups do fund-raising at some schools, there is public money allocated for these activities. And it's well spent.

My point is that the answer is not to take away options from kids but to create more. And I think charter schools -- which distinguish themselves from public schools not necessarily by being better but by adhering to an educational mission/approach different from what's offered in public schools -- are a great option. If you want to address "the root of problems with public schools," focus on the things that can poison a kid's experience in school -- apathy, bullying, disruptiveness, etc. -- rather than on something that enhances some kids' experience.

S: J, the rub is without $$ it's impossible to address anything & the drain is one contributing factor, not the only one.

I have had many friends who were hugely ambivalent about their actions send their kids to charter schools. And had that been our path next year, I'd have been ambivalent the whole way for this very reason. There are many things I do I feel similarly ambivalent about. Privilege is that way, & getting in is being handed an advantage that others don't get, the nature of all sorts of lotteries. That's always uncomfortable.

V: J -- athletes have to PAY to play! And they pay quite a bit, actually (speaking as a parent who had to fork over quite a bit for my kid to play at NHS). There's no money to pay for sports, hell they can barely afford teachers!
Show me the proof that charters are better than public schools?

Also - -the class size thing. You're not getting it. The public schools don't have a choice to say, "stop, no more kids". They take all comers. And those that come might have a disability, might be poor, might not have parents at all.
You won't find those kids at the charter school.

J: S, I understand your ambivalence, but I don't share it. I don't see getting into a charter school as an example of privilege, at least not in the way we use that word when talking about the haves and have-nots. Sending our son to private school is a matter of privilege, because while we're certainly not rich we manage to scrape together enough cash to do so, and not everyone has the means to do that. But the charter school if different. Anyone can enter the lottery, and our daughter "winning" had nothing to do with how rich or poor she is.

V, C'mon, don't pretend you don't get my point. Yes, athletes do pay a fee these days, but public money does go toward their sport. As it does toward theater and other school-related activities. Funding for all of these things has shrunk and families have been asked to kick in, but that's a different discussion for a different day. What I'm saying is that charter schools are not the only place where public money goes to some but not all.

And as for the makeup of charter school classes, I know of nothing other than a lottery that determines who gets to go there. And rich families don't get 10 lottery numbers to just one for poor families. If you win, you're in.

S: But richer--in terms of education, class, not just cash on hand--drive to the mandatory open house because the buses don't necessarily run then, & get names onto lotteries. Ask anyone in NYC about the public school game; it takes a lot of effort to get into the "right" free school & that's true here too. Hilltown is very white (something I was intent to notice b/c my daughter isn't) & they can't change who wins the lottery but they don't try to change who tries. What if Hilltown parents organized & offered carpools from Hampshire Heights? They aren't & I'm not saying they should but there is privilege to these choices even the free ones. And then of course luck!

V: J -- you're completely ignoring my points! That this is a private school at public cost; that there is no proof that there is anything "better" about it (except the obvious things that make it an elite school); that they do not educate the hard-to-educate; that they suck money from the public schools who ARE educating (or trying to) the hard-to-educate; that people who are poor are not part of the solution, that kids with disabilities aren't getting educated there; that they're draining resources -- both $$ and people from the public school, leaving behind a struggling system (filled with kids whose parents care a whole hell of a lot about them).

If you look at Northampton's mcas scores, the only two groups that consistently do badly are low-income and special education students.
Guess which two groups the charters don't teach? Coincidence? I don't think so.
But the mcas among northampton kids are comparable to charter kids, so i honestly don't see what they're offering that's so different (except, again, the closed door)..
It is an example of privilege, there's no question about it. And to make it worse, those privileged kids are doing it on the backs of the less-privileged.

S: This is hard to dispute, because it's true. At the heart, there's a system that needs more $$ & more options, but siphoning from it can't really sustain itself (& every single charter school I know has some major $$ issues/sustainability issues). Because schools are expensive propositions.

L: I don't see how comparing extracurricular activities to core education makes any kind of point at all about charter schools vs. public schools. It's a simple matter of economics. The more money charter schools siphon off, the less there is for already strapped public schools. Again, I don't fault anyone who sends their kid to a charter school. Had my kid gotten into one we probably would have sent him as well, though they might not have taken him for the reasons V pointed out. We all want the best for our kids given the current system. But I also think the current system is broken and charters only make the problem worse. Lottery is not the only thing that gets kids in - parents have to be able to drive to/from school and mandatory meetings and that's just not possible for everyone, especially single parent families. So I see charters as a short term help for a few kids that contributes to making public schools worse for everyone else.

J: If you're going to use MCAS as a gauge of school success, V, then we have no discussion. Probably the biggest reason we stretched ourselves to send our son to private school was so that he wouldn't have to be educated in a system that teaches to the test. That's not an indictment of public school teachers; I'm sure they'd all prefer to be more creative, but the one-size-fits-all system doesn't allow much room for that. Gotta pump up those scores...

As to your other points, and S's, I do get that all things are not equal. I recognize that it's easier for me to drive to Haydenville, for example, than it is for a car-less family to take the bus there. But I know families who walk a half mile to the bus, then spend 20 minutes on the bus, then a 20-minute bus ride and half-mile walk back home, every day. That takes commitment. But they say it's worth the effort.

We can argue eternally about equality, but at heart this is a question of education. And I say that when looking for solutions to underfunded public schools, don't point fingers at an alternative form of schooling that seems to work. There are a lot of places where public money is needlessly sucked away from children's education -- war, corporate bailouts, tax rebates, etc. etc. I would like to see more money allocated to public education AND more, not fewer, out-of-the-mainstream alternatives available for kids who can benefit from arts-based or something-else-based schooling.

V: This will be my last post on this, but just a few things. I mention MCAS because that's the only thing we have in this that is apples and apples. And that's completely legit.
I'm not a fan of the tests either (except that it has forced schools to teach ALL kids, not just the easy ones)...
You say: "don't point fingers at an alternative form of schooling that seems to work."
What the hell is alternative about it?? What is "out-of-the mainstream" about it?

And why does it work (and I guess that 'work' means it doesn't have money problems)? Because it is completely sheltered from the vagaries of the state and federal money flow!!! When Northampton schools take huge cuts because tax dollars aren't coming in, the charter schools still get their money!!

And really, what do you mean "it works"? What's your measure of that?
The kids are happy? Educated? Learning about the world? Making friends? Building community?
All that's happening at the public school, believe me.

ok, over and out...i don't think either of us are going to change our minds.

J: I'll stop here too, with cordial recognition of our ability to have a civil discussion and ultimately agree agree to disagree.

You ask what I mean by "alternative." I mean that charter schools -- at least the ones I have encountered -- operate within a specific mission or educational philosophy that veers far afield from traditional public schooling. At Hilltown, the education is heavily arts-based. At the Chinese immersion school the innovation is bilingual learning. At the performing arts high school, the focus is on creative thinking. Public schools, at their best, may offer arts and language and foster creative thinking, but that's not their core mission. That's why I say charters are out of the mainstream.

Why do I say "it works"? I guess I should leave that assessment until after my girl has been there for a few years, but during our few visits to the school I felt I was in the midst of a good learning environment. And even more important to me than the educational aspect, I experienced a stronger sense of community -- among kids, teachers, and parents -- than I do at my son's private school. That's something money can't buy.

M: J, I admire your willingness to return the volley and keep this discussion going.

For me, if the state wants to increase all things charter, which they did in the recent Ed Reform Bill passed in Jan., following the charge from Washington, they really need to update the funding formula so it's not at the expense of sending cities and towns. Let charters have their own line item in the state budget instead of coming out of sending school budgets.

Right now, if Aid to Cities & Towns is cut, as has been the trend, Northampton has less to cover all of its services. So the school budget is cut - this year there's a $500k hole. Meantime, the charter schools still get a predetermined amount per student from Northampton ($9800-$10,200). Those funding levels don't change, no matter what happens to the Northampton budget.

J: Thanks, M. I would address your well-stated point, but I promised that I was going to shut up. And one thing I learned in school -- Catholic school, but that's another story -- was to do what you say you're going to do...and tuck in the white dress shirt.

M: I guess we'll have to compare Catholic school stories some day. At least it helped get me to Round 2 in the Spelling Bee!

K: Loved the article, and the attendant FB chatter.My only argument with the author is her disdain for the word, if not the concept of, accountability. Accountability means that we don't abdicate our responsibility to interact with the educational process, to make sure it's working for all kids. There is no one perfect system or a process that will ... See Moreguarantee this happens in all places and in all ways, but the concept should not be thrown out. We should always be seeking education that is focused on success. And when it doesn't achieve that goal, we should identify and address the reason. That's accountability.

I will never support charter schools, as they suck the resources out of the public schools, where lower income and less advantaged kids are forced to remain. If they had done this where I grew up, I would have been forced to remain behind at the public school because we had only one car, one wage-earner, and six kids. It's not because my parents didn't care or that they didn't appreciate what a choice could mean. It's that they wouldn't have been able to afford to send (or drive) me to the "better" school. Luckily, it never came to that. I benefited from a school system in which a sufficient number of privileged (and educated) parents had a stake.

Update: I couldn't resist. I added a comment.

I: Thank you for this thoughtful discussion. I see charter schools as the 'divide and conquer' path to drowning public education in the bathtub (I hope that's not too mixed a metaphor).

Reading all of this, though, I think I've found a solution that would at least make me happy: the charter schools should be required to take all the mid-to-high level special needs kids up to half the class total for each grade, with the remaining slots available for the school's open lottery. Such a caring, supportive atmosphere is exactly what these kids need. I've seen this year in both my 1st grader's and my 4th grader's classrooms, no one's needs are being adequately met when there aren't the resources to give the special needs kids appropriate attention and aid.

While it doesn't solve the significant exclusion of economically disadvantaged families from the charter school experience, it would bring some balance to the concept of public education, while not violating the specific mission of the charter school.

(Okay, I need to proofread this, but my girls are letting me know quite vociferously that they ready to go to the beach, so I'll leave it as is).


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