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Monday, June 24, 2013

Charter Schools

The term "charter school" has an elite ring to it. Only important people rate getting a "charter" for whatever they do. I think of  the Mayflower colonists.

"Voucher" is a word often spoken in the same breath as "charter school." A voucher is the way people pay for children to attend a charter school. A voucher is a piece of paper that pays tuition for a child to attend any school except a public school. Catholic parents have often argued in favor of vouchers. If a parent had such a voucher, the state would pay the tuition for her child to attend a parochial school.

Public school advocates argue that every dollar directed to a voucher takes away a dollar from a public school. They further argue that, if a school is religiously sponsored, government support of that school violates the first amendment prohibition against state support of religion. Parochial school advocates argue that the dollar is spent mostly for a service identical to what the public school provides, and is therefore worthy of state support. This defense has problems--arguing for the similarity of public and parochial schools weakens the assumption that the mission of a parochial school is religious. Along with the departure of vowed religious as teachers in parish schools, an attempt to portray the school as fundamentally secular has to contribute to the loss of the sense of religious mission that many critics have bemoaned in recent years.

However, the issue of vouchers for parochial schools is separate from the issue of vouchers for charter schools. Most charter schools are not religious in nature. Many of them are "for profit," schools designed to fit the market model by which, according to free-market enthusiasts, everything goes better.

Here are some of the results of standardized tests comparing voucher schools in Milwaukee and Racine, Wisconsin, with public schools in those cities. (Milwaukee has been devoting public funds to vouchers longer than any other city in the country).

The term "opt out" means that a parent has the choice to remove a child from a standardized test. The report gives average scores for Milwaukee voucher schools calculated with opt-out pupils included and with opt-out pupils not included.

Comparison of Wisconsin Public and Voucher School Test Scores -- 2012-2013    

(Numbers are the per cent proficient or advanced)

Wisconsin--total state
Reading  - 36.2 % (proficient or advanced)
Math - 48.1

Milwaukee public schools                                  
Reading - 14.2                                             
Math - 19.4                                                 
Milwaukee voucher schools 
           (opt-outs not included; scores are about 1% lower if they are included)                         
Reading - 11.1
Math - 13.2
Racine public schools                                        
Reading - 21.6                                          
Math - 27.8                                        

Racine voucher schools      
             (data for these are from a small sample, and hence less reliable)   
Reading - 19.5                                                                                   
Math - 24.1  

Charter schools in Wisconsin get about the same amount of state support per pupil as do the public schools, but charter schools are often helped by the support of wealthy private donors.
The fact that charter schools are getting lower average test results than public schools in the same districts is reason to question the assumption that the name "charter" is a certificate of excellence.

Troubling Aspects of the situation

There are powerful national forces behind the voucher school movement. After Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was targeted for a 2012 recall election, he received $2.2 million from out-of-state supporters of vouchers.

Voucher schools are not limited by the credentialing requirements of public schools. There is an argument that people successful in other fields go into teaching with much better results than do traditionally educated teachers. An alternate story has poorly prepared (and less well-paid) people going into teaching in voucher schools. Since voucher schools are often for profit, there are pressures to cut costs, and one way to do that is to hire less qualified people.

Voucher schools "skim" the better prepared students from the public system, leaving the less well prepared children behind. The profit motive does not favor caring for children with special needs, children with physical or mental disabilities, and emotional or behavioral problems; such children are left to be cared for by the public system. For whatever reason, there are an increasing number of such children in schools today. Partly this is because in previous years, many such children were kept locked up at home, but are now, thankfully, invited to participate in peers of their age. It is therefore surprising that public school children as a whole would perform better on the standardized tests in Wisconsin.

The movement toward voucher funding for schools builds on a story line that demonizes unions, part of a (successful) national strategy to de-legitimize unions in general. The movement becomes part of a larger political strategy favored by more conservative sectors of the Republican Party.

In the 2012 Wisconsin situation, Governor Walker followed a page from the playbook of the conservative forces just mentioned, and moved to destroy teachers' unions by eliminating their right to collective bargaining. The teachers fought back, giving the Governor something of a black eye, but resulting in a recall election that he won. He is now touting this victory ("the only governor in history to have survived a recall election"), and seems ready to make a run for the 1916 Republican candidacy for president.

Leaving poorer children behind with less community support is penny wise and pound foolish. Poorly educated people are more likely to end up in prison, where they will cost the state far more than might be spent now for education. But more importantly, the policy reduces the life chances of the poorest among us, making their lives more stressful and problematic. We need to remind ourselves that all children are “our” children.

In my playbook, poverty contributes to the devastating prevalence of single-parent families in our society. Poverty leads to poor education, which leads to crime, which leads to prison, which leads to unemployability, which leads to labeling as a poor marriage partner, which leads to single parenting, which leads to poverty, which leads to poor education, and on and on.

The sacrifices that many parents make to send their children to parochial schools are worthy of praise. Some wish to shield their child from moral corruption, corruption which often accompanies poverty. They may even wish to shield their child from contact with less desirable ethnic groups,  a motive which is less praiseworthy from a Christian perspective. They may judge that the parochial school does indeed provide a superior education, but this is a secular, not a religious, motive.

Half of the Catholic school children in the country now attend public schools. Surely the parents of such children are not choosing to harm their children, nor are they always making that choice because of economic considerations.

I do not advocate that parents withdraw their children from a parochial school. Every parent surely has the right to judge what is best for a child. What I do advocate is that supporters of parochial schools not become participants in efforts to demonize public schools and their personnel. Concern for the weaker members of our society, especially children, has to be at the center of our Christian perspective.

We want to be a society of what an earlier Republican president called "compassionate conservatism." We do not want, in the name of a godless economic theory, to remove the term "compassion" from our vocabulary.