Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Charter Schools and Ignoring Inequality

Are American public schools really failing? Are charter schools swooping in to save the day with innovative methods that engage students like never before? The history of allegations of "failing" public schools is a long one, and often motivated by something other than academic success.
I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist family. For grades 1-2 and 6-12, I attended fundamentalist Baptist church schools. (The only reason I didn't attend 3-5 was because that was a period of time my family could not afford the tuition.) I'd like to dispel the notion up front that fundamentalist and conservative evangelical church schools are private schools. Indeed they are private schools in their constitution, but absolutely cannot be compared to private schools in their rigor or academic offerings. In their effect on the academic growth of the student, such schools are no better than glorified collective homeschools. We are talking about schools with teachers with no credentialing, no regionally accredited college degrees, using religious based curriculum that makes no effort to adhere to the latest guidelines of any state. In my time in such schools, two religion-based curricula were used: A-Beka, a product of the regionally unaccredited Pensacola Christian College in Pensacola, FL; and ACE/School of Tomorrow, based out of Hendersonville, TN.
It was in the ACE curriculum that I ran across a lesson that discussed political cartoons. The example given of a political cartoon was a ship, representing public education, sinking. Now keep in mind this was the early 1990s, and the material I was given was likely first published in the 1980s, long before the public charter movement really found its legs. The Christian school movement, put bluntly, was formed in the early 70s not because public schools were "failing" but because of the enforcement of racial integration in public schools through bussing. Many conservative white evangelicals and fundamentalists were having none of that and left the public school sphere entirely to found the Christian school movement. However, after the Civil Rights Movement, you could no longer participate in the public sphere in America being blatantly racist, and the trope of "failing public schools" was a convenient justification, along with Supreme Court decisions "taking God out of" schools.
Many criticisms of the charter school movement abound, but as I am wont to do, I took a data-focused approach in attempting to understand whether charters were filling in for public schools that are "failing" or not. In the San Diego area in which I live, as I pored over the data, several things stood out:

1. You don't find much charter school penetration in wealthier areas.
2. Free-and-reduced-lunch percentage (FRL%) was strongly correlated with academic performance.
3. Taken on the whole, charter schools have similar outcomes to public schools.
4. The test results that show American schools behind other countries? When adjusted for economic inequality, American kids actually come out ahead.

Number one really hit me. Basically, the well-to-do don't need charters, because the public schools in their neighborhood do just fine, year after year. This is in the same school district that has flailing schools in poorer neighborhoods. Of course, guess where the charters tend to be? The poorer neighborhoods. They chase after a potential market of parents that don't know what to do about their kids who are struggling in school.
Economic inequality has produced a sizable underclass of families with children who don't have enough support from home to make it in school. This support includes the basics like regular, decent meals, parental time for regular bonding and homework help, parental involvement at school, money for supplies and extra activities and supports outside of school, etc. and etc. Specifically, a FRL% over 69% usually indicates a poor performing school. In one case I knew of, the school couldn't get parent volunteers because most parents in the neighborhood had things on their record that prevented them from passing the basic background check required of volunteers. The school had begun to function as a black box, severely limiting parental involvement, as they had to, in the main, function independently of parental involvement.
In contrast, schools with a FRL% or 50% or less, performed well.
The data shows that public schools do fail with a lack of community and parental support, and no amount of money will fix that. Charters aren't a panacea for this; if they are specifically organized to provide extra assists to these at risk kids then there potentially could be improvements. Also the very act of a parent choosing a charter involves the parent in the education process where they might not have been involved before, thus potentially improving outcomes. It's just sad to see political ideologues blame public schools for failing when they don't have the community and parental support they need to succeed.
I happen to know of a quasi-charter school, a public school of choice. Parents can choose to send their kids here if the regular assigned school is not working out for them. What is happening is, yes, they are getting some gifted kids, but just a couple, and these kids, rather predictably, leave shortly. The reason is this: most of the kids who do not succeed in typical public schools are at least slightly below average. They are only marginally college bound. The school has tailored its instruction to this reality, and the truly gifted kids get frustrated and leave. I dare say this is the same with any charter. (School FRL% is over 50%)
The point is this: all alternative education, including public charter education, is remedial to some degree. Instead of America solving its inequality problem, we are exacerbating that problem by segregating kids whose education has been strangled by inequality. And yet even in this scenario we are not reliably correcting the educational deficiency.
The solution for the whole problem is to provide Americans with a decent living so they can have the time and money to invest in their local schools. You see this all the time in wealthier neighborhoods: active PTAs, lots of volunteers, fundraisers. The confirmation of this solution lies in the elementary school my children go to. FRL% is over 60% but they do well because it has all those things: active PTA and lots of parent volunteers and involvement. But you aren't going to get that in neighborhoods where the parents work multiple jobs just not to be able to cover bills at the end of the month and are too tired and stressed to pay attention to what's going on at school unless Junior gets in serious trouble-at which point you yell at Junior...who isn't making it anyway.
As with many societal problems in America, this one does not exist on its own. It's just tragic because it has filled America with people who are either stupid and/or apathetic. I suppose the 1% have multiple passports and can go somewhere else when America tanks.

No comments: