The True Face of Charters

Scam artists have been with us since the beginning of time.  Probably the first one mentioned in literature was that pesky serpent in the Garden of Eden.  The scam artist can always size up an easy mark.  Usually, it is someone a little bit naive, looking for an easy solution to a difficult situation.  I was not expecting to find a bunch of sly and slick hustlers this summer when I worked on an IEP team for a Committee on Special Education in a large urban school district.  These hustlers often came in the guise of educational directors for some very well-known charters that have found fertile ground in one of America’s most diverse cities. 

For over three decades I have dealt with parents of disabled children at IEP meetings that often determine the classification and educational program of such students.  Often, these parents are traumatized by such meetings.  At such conferences, parents have to deal with the fact that their once normal child is replaced by a child who now has a “handicap.”  I have seen sophisticated parents freeze up at such meetings and lose the ability to ask rational questions or make appropriate decisions.  But when parents are not sophisticated, they become easy prey to being hoodwinked by the system  or by someone who often puts themselves up as an “expert” who has “the child’s best interest in mind.” 

The scenario often goes like this.  Little Johnny begins a neighborhood public school in a high needs community.  If the child did have any preschool, it was often an unstructured or informal day care situation so the parent can work to make ends meet.  But often, the entrance of the child into a neighborhood school is the student’s first educational experience.  Immediately, the child begins to have difficulty.  The school attempts to help the child through some interventions but finally a decision is made to refer the student to see if he or she is eligible for special educational services.  Usually, the parent is resource poor and has little knowledge about where to find the necessary help for the child.  On most occasions, I have found such parents first concerned and then desperate for help because their situation prevents them from having the ability, resources or the means to help the child themselves.  I remember one such family this past summer.  It consisted of a mom, dad and a young child of color who after a year of kindergarten could not recognize the letters of the alphabet and most sounds.   The father was working two jobs and the mother had a third job so they could have a roof over their heads.

Someone gave them a flyer about a charter school in the area and they talked to the educational director.  When they met this director, they brought along the child.  The director told them, obviously without formally assessing the student, that the problem was probably not with the child but with public school.  They were told that the charter had young,dedicated teachers who were “always” successful in getting “every one of their students to read.  They even told the parent that they even had special educational services.  They had a fabulous resource room teacher that has gotten every child he has worked with to read.   They applied and luck was with them.  The child was chosen to go to the school. 

The parents must have had high hopes that the child would finally succeed, but it became clear that by the time the school year was coming to an end that the child was not succeeding in first grade.  To be fair, the charter gave the child at risk resource room services and at risk speech services.  But when Spring came, the educational director told the parent they were referring the child to the Committee on Special Education for some formal services.  She told the parent that she always comes to these meetings to make sure the Academy’s children get what they need. 

When I reviewed the case with the team’s psychologist, general education teacher and parent member, it was obvious that this boy probably had significant problems for a long time.  The psychoeducational assessment showed that he had a borderline IQ, significant language delays and was working academically still on a preschool level.  Obviously, the child needed a small class.  When the parents, child, and educational director came into the meeting, the first meeting I ever had with a charter school, I was expecting the parents and educational director to disagree.  However, when the meeting began, the director begin to speak.  She said that they realized right away that the child had very special needs and that they did their best.  She went on to say that it was obvious that “The Academy” could no longer meet the needs of this child.  Immediately, I was able to read the body language of the parents.  They were not expecting that the charter would abandon their child.  They were in tears.  I naively asked if the charter had a collaborative program or a self-contained class.  I should have realized the obvious answer. 

As the summer progressed, I soon realized that with charters, it was the same play, but with different actors.  Here would come a young educational director to the meeting with the parents.  The child often needed more special educational services than the school provided.  The director was always there to help the parent make the “right” decision.  Obviously, the “right decision” cut the child loose from the school “in a nice way.”  The charter did not have to expel the student who did not fit in.  The parent, voluntarily, with a little coaxing from the educational director, chose to put the student in a special educational program that the school did not provide.  Thus, the pupil had to return to the public school. 

This is the true face of the charter movement.  They scam the parent into believing that their school can work miracles without really knowing the child.  When it does not work out, they cut the child loose.  Of course, it looks, on paper, like the parent made the decision, but in reality, it was a well-calculated manipulation.  Interesting, years ago, some high achieving public schools in this urban area, used to do the same thing.  These high achieving public schools, ten, twenty years ago, had few special educational services, and thus if a student needed more, the pupil was sent elsewhere and the building’s high reading scores were saved.  But eventually, being public schools, they were forced to create more services and these children would eventually remain to be served.

It is easy for a charter to say that all their kids perform well when they can easily skim off those children who cannot succeed in reaching grade level performance without a lot of help and intervention.  It is easy to say all your kids are college bound when you get rid of those who can never reach such a goal through no fault of their own.  To me, if you are a public school or if you accept public money as they do, then you must obey the law and serve all disabled children as traditional public schools have to do.  In the years I was a classroom special education teacher, I could not choose the kids I wanted.  I knew it was my job to serve all kids that came to me.  Charter schools have to do the same.  No charter school should get a penny of public money unless it is willing to serve “all” children.  A child may get into a charter through a lottery, but once there, the student must be served no matter what.  By the way, I have not yet seen a charter school devoted solely to special needs students!

For A New Political Movement

What did Thomas Jefferson once say?  He said something to the fact that if a government no longer protects your interests, it must be overthrown.  Well, we live in a democratic society and I do want to keep it that way.  Thus, to overthrow this present government, we have to defeat an entity called the Republicratic Party.  Sadly, I used to believe there was a real difference between the Democrats and Republicans.  The progressives that controlled the Democratic Party from the time of the New Deal until the 1960s had a view of government that was mainly positive.  Most really wanted to use the power of government to increase economic, social, and political equality and opportunity.  There was a social contract between average Americans, government, and even corporations that lead to ever increasing opportunity for many citizens.  However, I now believe that there is really only one political party that has two wings.  What used to be two entities are now controlled by a corporate elite controlled by old money and a new monied class that I label the Kiddy Billionaires.  This wealthy class gained their wealth by harvesting the Internet.  They are very smart when it comes to computer technology, but in terms of ethics, they are no better than the Robber Barons of the 19th century.  All you have to do is watch “The Social Network.”  As portrayed in the movie, the founder of Facebook, looks like someone suffering from Asberger’s and thus has no social conscious .

This old and new money elite are now setting the education policy for both political parties.  Unfortunately, their policy is simple:  The power of government should be used to further enrich themselves by impoverishing most Americans economically, politically and socially.  This is why they want to destroy teacher unions–one of the last strong unions left in this society, as well as public education.  Their goal is to create a two tier educational system.  One group will go to charter schools subsidized, but not regulated by what is left of the government.  Those who are chosen to go to those schools will have the privilege of getting a higher education as a ticket to enter the corporate world.  However, those who remain in defunded public schools will get an inferior education based upon passing watered-down ELA and math assessments.  They will not garner the skills to access a higher education and will become the drones who will be the minimum wage workers who must toil at two or three jobs just to survive.  And no one will want to educate the disabled or truly high needs student for fear of being fired because the poor unfortunate teacher who may want to work with such students will not be able to get them to grade level.   A shill who works for Chamber Street (Department of Education) once told me that there is no such thing as a disabled child, only disabled teachers.  This person said to me that a superior teacher can get a mentally retarded student to college.  Then I asked this person ,who works for Joel Klein, if a profoundly retarded child can get to college?  The answer this person gave was yes and then I was accused of limiting such children by having low expectations.

I read many blogs and I see mostly anger and despair among progressives and educators.  I feel that the time has come for us to turn this anger into action.  Two years ago, the Republicans created a fake Tea Party movement that has unfortunately gained legitimacy because the old media has lost its ability to truly investigate who is funding such organizations.  We must form a new political organization, a new political party.  It has to be made up of public educators, parents, and true progressives who want to use true data driven research to save public education as well as to create true economic and political reforms to benefit middle class, working class and impoverished Americans.  I believe there are many Americans who are waiting for such a movement.  They want an alternative to the Republicrats who are unable to get us out of this economic mess.  History tells us that most true reform movements in this country were started by educated middle class people.  We are teachers.  We are educated.  We are sophisticated.  We are not sheep.  We must now push back politically.  If a third party is formed and becomes a political force, American history also tells us that possibly one of the political parties may begin to incorporate the ideas of such a party.  And if they do not, it may be time for one or both of the present parties to go the way of the Federalists and Whigs.

A two prong approach will be necessary if we want to save public education.  A new political entity must go to the courts to litigate each and every aspect of this fake reform movement.  If laws are passed to remove tenure, then we have the 14th Amendment.  This is the denial of due process.    If disabled kids are not being educated by charter schools that accept public money, again, the 14th Amendment will help us.  Judicial precedent has stated that education is a property right and to deny a child the right to attend a school that takes public money is a denial of that property right.  And the second prong is to elect candidates under a different banner who will support public schools as well as other social reforms.

Charter schools should not be destroyed.  They have a place.  We have to go back to their original purpose as stated by Al Shanker.  They should be a place of experimentation so we as educators can come up with new ideas and new ways to educate those who are uneducable.  But to do this, charters have to be regulated.  If they accept public money, then their budget has to be open to public scrutiny.  If they have lotteries for limited spaces, then that lottery has to be a blind lottery.  They, as public schools must, educate all children.  Finally, those who work in such schools should have the right to unionize and due process.  Because those who presently fund and support charters oppose such reforms, it proves they are afraid of something.  If there is a charter in which teachers and administrators work collaboratively and pay these dedicated teachers handsomely for the extra time they put in to educate their children, there is nothing to worry about. There would be no need for a union.  However, we know that I did not describe the real world.

We have to take back our schools and our country.  Anyone who is interested in doing this, let me know.