Over this MLK holiday weekend the San Antonio Express-News published a timely and eloquent article on charter schools by Shelley Potter, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, Texas AFT’s affiliate in San Antonio ISD. The piece is fact-filled, impassioned, and well worth your time. Here is the full text:
“It’s fitting to discuss charter schools as we’re celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Dr. King would surely disapprove of corporate charter chains, such as BASIS and Great Hearts, using taxpayer money to create enclaves for privileged students that look and act very much like elite private schools, all the while calling themselves ‘public’ schools.
“What a distortion of the original idea of charters, which was that groups of teachers and parents, within a public school, would propose doing something different to reach students most in need.
“While there are a few community-based charters that have stayed true to this original mission, many, many more charters have simply figured out a way to siphon off public money for their own purposes. Corporate charter proponents set themselves up as competitors to public schools and set out to discredit public schools through a three-step agenda: starve public schools, criticize them, then privatize them.
“Charters have cloaked themselves in the veil of ‘choice,’ including ‘choice’ for minority students. Some supporters have even proclaimed charters to be the civil rights movement of our time. Let’s remember, Dr. King said, ‘In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans. …’
“It’s the charters who choose the child, not the other way around. While charters describe themselves as ‘open enrollment’ and ‘non-selective,’ there is much evidence that some charter chains are quite adept at creating barriers to students they do not want.
“Frequent criticism has been leveled at charter chains for ‘creaming’ — pulling in only the highest-achieving and/or most dedicated students. Marketing tactics and application policies can be set up to favor certain parents. Not offering transportation and charging fees for textbooks, field trips, athletics, band and other activities can discourage low-income parents.
“A lack of services/resources for special needs children steers those families away.
“And high-needs students can be pushed out in a variety of ways. UT professor Julian Vasquez Heilig testified before the Texas Senate Education Committee that ‘on average, African-American leavers (attrition and dropout) are double and sometimes triple in charter schools compared to traditional urban public schools.’
“The results of all this are reflected in the student makeup of many charter chains—fewer minority students, fewer English language learners, fewer economically disadvantaged students, fewer special education students—all of which looks very much like a return to separate and unequal.
“In spite of their ability to exclude students they don’t want, official state data shows that charters, overall, have weaker academic results, less-qualified teachers, and higher student and teacher turnover than public schools with similar students.
“Because these schools are labeled ‘public,’ we’re all footing the bill. Public schools must be accountable for the use of public tax dollars. Yet charters don’t have locally elected school boards that voters have the power to change if they don’t like how their tax money is spent.
“Studies show that charters spend more per student on administration and less per student on instruction than neighborhood public schools. A recent report noted that middle school charters in Texas spend $495 more per pupil per year on administration than traditional public schools. For a middle school of 1,000 students, that’s $495,000 a year. For five such middle schools, that would amount to almost $2.5 million per year.
“Questions have also surfaced regarding business practices and conflicts of interest. A September Forbes article noted, ‘Charter schools are frequently a way for politicians to reward their cronies.’
“The Arizona Republic found that some charter chains ‘bought a variety of goods and services from the companies of board members or administrators, including textbooks, air conditioning repairs and transportation services.’
“Yet venture philanthropists have contributed millions of dollars to bring corporate charter chains to San Antonio, and some local businesspeople and politicians seem poised, perhaps unwittingly, to sell out our neighborhood schools to those who see education as simply a huge, untapped market—a profit venture. The move toward charters, if left unchecked, will slowly starve the great public school system this nation has created to serve all students regardless of race, class, religion or ability.
“Our real public schools in San Antonio help to build strong neighborhoods and a sense of community. Our public school districts offer real choice—magnet schools and technical and career-oriented programs. They have highly qualified, experienced teachers, active/engaged learning, a range of extracurricular activities that help kids build confidence and character, and a diverse student body that prepares kids for the real world.
“Dr. King said: ‘Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.’
“Striving for quality and diversity is as important today as ever. As a mother, quality and the richness and beauty of diversity are what I want not only for my child but for all children.
“It can best be accomplished through supporting and strengthening our neighborhood public schools.”