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Another perspective - March 29, 2014

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Horace Mann is recognized as the “Father of American Public Education.” He was the first Secretary of Education in Massachusetts and his education reforms were enacted across the United States. He espoused six principles of education:

1. Citizens cannot maintain both ignorance and freedom.

2. This education should be paid for, controlled and maintained by the public.

3. This education should be provided in schools that embrace children from varying backgrounds.

4. This education must be nonsectarian.

5. This education must be taught using tenets of a free society.

6. This education must be provided by well trained professional teachers.

Public education is now under assault from a powerful corporate and political coalition wanting to privatize education. They seek to implement voucher laws that would pay private schools with public money and establish a charter school system that is publicly financed but privately operated. These charter schools are often very selective in the children they enroll and most do not serve children with severe disabilities. They are notorious for expelling problematic students whose performance might depress test scores.

Even though this diversion of public funds creates an obvious financial drain for existing public schools, it seems everyone is anxious to jump on the charter school bandwagon. Jeb Bush and Michael Bloomberg are among the many influential lobbyists for charter schools. Even President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation honoring charter schools: “I commend our Nation’s charter schools, teachers, and administrators, and I call on States and communities to support charter schools and the students they serve.”

For all the hype, charter schools have proven extremely unsuccessful at educating children. In 2009, Stanford University researchers at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes conducted a study on charter schools. Charter school students were matched to similar public school students based on grade level, baseline test scores, subsidized lunch status, and demographic characteristics. The study examined the effect of charter school attendance on annual student achievement growth in math and reading. The results were alarming:

46 percent of charter schools performed substantially the same as public school students.

17 percent of charter schools showed significant gains when compared to public school students.

37 percent of charter schools showed significantly lower gains than public school students.

Charter School students also lagged behind public school students in reading. Black and Hispanic students, the ones specifically targeted by the charter school movement, did significantly worse in both reading and math compared to public school students.

An update of this study was just completed in 2013 which showed some improvement by charter schools. In this study 29 percent of charter schools performed better than public school students while 31 percent performed worse. The report cautioned to not be overly optimistic about this improvement: “We do not see dramatic improvement among existing charter schools over time. In other words, the charter section is getting better on average, but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better, it is largely driven by the closure of bad schools.”

Ground zero in the war on public education is Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker built his reputation by busting public employee unions and taking away teachers’ bargaining rights. Coupled with a $900 million cut to school funding, Walker now plans to create a state-run system of charter schools. Instead of a local school board, these charters would be overseen by a nine-member board appointed by the Governor and leaders of the legislature. A rapid expansion of virtual charters is expected that would receive the same per-pupil funding as bricks-and-mortar schools. Another Walker proposal involves lifting the income cap for vouchers, so wealthy families could receive public funds to send their kids to private schools.

Fed up with the attacks on public education, moderate Republican State Senator, Dale Schultz announced that he is stepping down. He pointed out that his colleagues were diverting tax dollars into voucher and charter schools while slashing funds for public education. He declared that the Republicans were in effect setting up two parallel school systems. “How conservative is that?” he asked. “We are trying to duplicate something we already can’t afford.”

Schultz couldn’t understand how his Republican colleagues could be persuaded by lobbyists to vote against their constituents’ interests. “When some think tank comes up with the legislation and tells you not to fool with it, why are you even a legislator anymore? You just sit there and take votes, and you’re kind of a feudal serf for folks with a lot of money.”

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