Alumnae Bulletin
November 2010

Speaking out

Ruth Zweifler '51

Charter schools bleed the public system

Igrow ever more distraught by what I am convinced is an assault on public education. All my professional life, I have advocated on behalf of individual children who fail to thrive in their public schools. I fervently believe that the most urgent challenge for our communities and nation is a vibrant public school system that serves all children well.

That an educated citizenry is essential for a true democracy underpinning civic, political and economic well being is affirmed by liberals and conservatives alike. Ever since the establishment of the Dame Schools in colonial times, there has been a steady effort to extend education to all—culminating in 1954 with the Supreme Court Brown v Board of Education decision followed in the 1970s by legislation assuring children with special needs receive appropriate education. But we are not delivering effective, quality education to all. Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991) documented the deplorable neglect of urban children and their opportunities for education. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) posited the lofty goal of assuring quality education to all. Districts were expected to do this without resources. Failure meant draconian repercussions; rewards came only after achievement, thus increasing the incentive to remove those children who were not already successful.

Added to this chronic neglect we now add the deceptively attractive charter school movement. Charters simply bleed students— and their accompanying dollars—from the public, universal system

As Diane Ravitch, historian of education and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pointed out to me: “Charters are privately managed. Although they are called ‘public,’ they are actually a form of privatization. It is in their self interest to call themselves ‘public schools,’ but the only thing public about them is funding. They are not obliged to accept all who apply; they oftentimes are exempt from public audit or laws governing conflicts of interest and nepotism. They often skim, taking fewer English language learners, few homeless and only kids with the mildest disabilities. To the extent they do this, regular public schools have disproportionate number of high needs students. High stakes testing incentivizes charters to avoid challenging kids.”

The idea that essential social goals can be achieved by free market practices is a delusion. Dependence upon private initiatives to accomplish such a hard won, vital public role serves those who would undermine public responsibility in the name of unfettered personal freedom. There is an alternative: stop hiding behind ‘local control’—the false excuse for inaction— and provide serious state and federal oversight. Local districts respond to state and federal mandates with, for example, draconian zero tolerance laws, NCLB requirements, state graduation standards, but both state and federal entities demur when it comes to substantive oversight and monitoring of student outcomes. For instance, the persistent disproportionate suspension and expulsion of poor children and those of color is rarely examined and challenged by an independent agency. It is left to non-profit groups to make the damning connection known as the school-to-prison pipeline. The federal government needs to support reformers in confronting unions, measuring teacher performance, closing failing schools and encouraging local officials to raise educational standards.

Provide adequate resources—including new taxes! In a country where the number of heretofore unimaginable personal fortunes is soaring, it is obscene to claim inadequate monies to support our public schools and those who work in them. Certainly teachers, administrators and ancillary staff must be held to the highest professional standards. In return they should be given sufficient funding to do the job. President Obama spoke recently at the high school graduation ceremony in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Several years ago, anonymous donors announced “The Kalamazoo Promise” assuring tuition to any state school of higher education to any student who stayed in school through graduation. This district with a diverse population, 50 percent minority, mix of high and low income, has undergone a sea change in attitude and achievement. It is now cool to be smart. Graduation rates are climbing as hope becomes reality. Indeed, money matters!

Respond to students’ dreams. So much of public policy is shaped by what teachers, parents and communities want. It is time to shift to what helps students. As an 8-year-old student explained the situation to me: “When you ask, ‘may I be in a different reading group?’ they say, ‘you be happier where you are.’ ”

Communities have to confront the complex challenge of providing education to all. Simply allocating 4 billion dollars to encourage charter schools is no fix. It’s a dodge. We—the tax payers—must take responsibility for improving public schools and making real the promise of educating well our most cherished resource, our children.

Ruth Zweifler, a social worker, co-founded in 1975 the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan (SAC) and served as its unpaid director. SAC works to ensure that all children, especially minority, under privileged, and those at-risk, receive equal access to college preparatory classes, needed special education opportunities, and are treated fairly in regard to discipline and served as its unpaid director.

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