fresh voices from the front lines of change







One of the more disturbing aspects of the push to create more charter schools was on full display during a Congressional hearing this week when charter proponents stacked the agenda with biased testimony and completely ignored the lone witness who could attest firsthand to the real impact these schools have on communities of color.

The lone dissenting voice in the battery of speakers lined up to give glowing praise to these privately operated but publicly funded schools was Jonathon Phillip Clark, an Iraq War veteran and Black Detroit parent with seven children in the public-school system.

Clark is also an assistant director at Mission City, a nonprofit organization in Detroit that provides mentoring and tutoring throughout the school year and an arts camp during the summer, and he serves on the board of an organization called 482 Forward, a group of parents and students that advocates for a high-quality, equitable education for Detroit children.

An Education Desert

Unlike most of the participants in this hearing – members of the House Education and Workforce Committee, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Nina Rees, CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers President Greg Richmond, and Harvard Professor Martin West – only Clark spoke from the actual experience of having children educated in charter schools and a neighborhood affected by free-market "school choice" competition posed by these schools.

Yet his remarks were mostly ignored.

Specifically, Clark described his community as an "education desert" ravaged by Michigan's policy of school choice, where charter schools open and close seemingly at random, and public schools are shuttered because of the uncertainties created by charter school competition.

A charter school his daughter attended made promises of academic courses and school programs it later dropped. The school, Yes Academy, had five principals in three years. An audit of the school reveled it could not account for $300,000 of Title I funds – money from the federal government for educating low-income students. To evade accountability, the school switched to a different management firm run by the same person. The second firm eventually closed the school a week before classes were to start, leaving students and families in the lurch.

The charter's board ignored parents when they complained, and the authorizer, located in Lansing, 350 miles away, had no personal experiences with the families attending the school and cared little about their complaints. When parents looked for other school "options" for their children, they realized changing schools would mean massively altering their lives and their children's education and circle of friends.

Clark explained that his story is not an isolated example. Two of his other daughters have had similar experiences with charters and so have many other families he knows in Detroit.

Not Just in Detroit

Indeed, numerous press reports and research studies have shown Michigan's system of charter schools and free-market education competition has had a devastating effect on the state's academic standing, and in communities of color, high-quality schools have become even more scarce and racial inequality has worsened.

Beyond Michigan, charter schools and school choice competition have had similarly negative effects – spreading education malfeasance in nearly every state, committing financial fraud and waste, and exacerbating inequality, while they extract millions of taxpayer dollars from the public school system.

Clark urged the members of the House in attendance to be "vigilant" in their scrutiny of the charter school sector. "I would not wish Michigan charter policies on the nation," he concluded.

Yet, what transpired during the rest of the committee hearing was less than vigilant scrutiny.

A Sell-Job

The hearing, given the grandiose title "The Power of Charter Schools: Promoting Opportunity for America’s Students,” was a sell-job for charters from the beginning. The official press release from the committee did not even mention Clark's name nor that anyone at the hearing would balance this examination of the "value of charter schools."

The remaining witnesses – Rees, Richmond, and West – repeated familiar industry talking points about the schools being "public… open to all… and accountable." Cherry picking primarily from studies published by one source – the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), whose reports of positive charter effects on student achievement are frequently exaggerated – the pro-charter trio spoke glowingly of how charter schools' are closing achievement gaps, spreading innovation, and satisfying parents, while public schools are "stagnating."

Regarding federal governance and oversight of charters, the general consensus was the was little needed because most matters regarding how charters are conceived and operated are "up to the states" and should remain that way. That's not to say there weren't requests to the committee members for more federal money, particularly for building new charter facilities.

Exemplars that Aren't Exemplary

As proof of the wonderful things charters are doing, Rees spotlighted Dream Charter School in New York City's Harlem as an exemplary program typical of charters, but it's not at all clear this school is in any way like most charters.

The school is a "one-off," independent charter that's benefitted from large grants and donations, including a $32 million grant from the city and start-up money from the Walton Family Foundation of the Walmart family. The abnormally high teacher turnover rate – more than double of the city's schools – would seem to be something that would invite more scrutiny than praise.

Richmond's praise for Indiana's system for overseeing charter school authorizers seemed odd given the recent controversy over the state's sub-par online charter and the fact nearly half of Indiana's charters are failing or doing poorly. The top charter authorizer in the state, Ball State University, oversees mostly "D" and "F" rated schools, based on Indiana's school rating system, that have had years of declining performance.

As evidence that charter authorizers are accountable to the public, Richmond repeated the statistic that 90 percent of authorizers are public school districts, which could be a very misleading statistic if there are lots of districts with authorizing status but actually have no or very few operational charter schools.

Snubbing the Witness

The Republicans on the House Committee virtually snubbed Clark, directing their questions to the pro-charter witnesses, often to field softball questions or confirm their windy pronouncements about the superiority of charter schools.

The one Republican exception was Tim Walberg of Michigan who told Clark he had "visited" the charter school Clark described and had "concerns." But then Walberg pivoted to a positive description of a Michigan charter he had also visited. The school he mentioned, Island City Academy, is located in a small town, and it enrolls students who are mostly white (89 percent) and low percent with learning disabilities – nothing like Clark's situation at all.

Committee members from the Democratic side were much more willing to engage with what Clark told them and to ask follow-up questions, but none openly questioned their own party's role in expanding charters.

This is not to say that weren't tough questions and critical comments about charter schools from Democrats. Representative Bobby Scott from Virginia, the ranking committee member was particularly sharp edged in calling out the role charter schools have had in increasing racial segregation in schools, a well-researched outcome the pro-charter witnesses deflected by pointing to statistics that charters enroll much higher percentages of black and brown students.

Rees claimed that many charters are making racial diversity a feature of their programs, yet a recent study that went searching for charters that are "diverse by design" found a grand total of 2.19 percent of all charters.

Policy without People

In her bizarre concluding remarks, Rep Virginia Foxx (NC) used her background as a child who overcame the challenges of growing up in an impoverished community in rural North Carolina by having access to a high-quality public school to praise charter schools – which did not even exist during her childhood.

Dismissing, as mere anecdote, the firsthand experience that Clark brought to this hearing has become routine in education policy circles in Washington, D.C., where think tanks and officials often operate at the 30,000-foot level to determine how our system of education should run.

This is not to say there aren't exceptionally good charter schools doing great things for their students. After all, there are lots of public schools doing great things too.

But public-policy makers need to listen to their constituents rather than the well-oiled machinery of wealthy industries and factions. Until they do, we won't get charter school policy, or charter schools, our students and communities deserve.

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