Marty Solomon: Kentucky wise to reject charter schools

June 2, 2014 

  • At issue: May 10 commentary by Mendell Grinter, "Time is now for charter schools; put students ahead of adults in education"

In 1955, the libertarian economist Milton Friedman proposed government vouchers to privatize K-12 education in America to provide families with money to enroll their children in private schools. His rationale was that competition would improve all schools.

Since then, free-market proponents have been trying desperately to dismantle public schools. First it was vouchers and now charter schools which are just another form of privatization. Neither vouchers nor charter schools are good for education or for our children.

In 1967, President Ronald Reagan came into office proposing vouchers. He even vowed to eliminate the Department of Education. But his efforts were not successful in either cause.

After Reagan's push for vouchers proved unpopular, the advocates in state governments came up with what seemed like a more palatable end run called charter schools. Although advocates like to call them public schools because they receive public funding, charters are really private schools, run by private individuals or corporations. They are completely outside the public school system as far as teacher requirements or acceptance of handicapped kids.

But they are funded by taking money from public schools. This idea was quite attractive to many state legislators who eschewed tax hikes to fund vouchers, but did not object to taking the money away from public schools.

In 2001, President George W. Bush proposed tuition vouchers for poor children to attend private schools. The Congress balked at the idea so his advisers developed Plan B which was designed to prove that public schools were inferior.

This plan would create an impossible goal where all children in public schools would need to score above-average on achievement tests. No, it wasn't presented in those words. Yet the plan, called No Child Left Behind, created several levels of student achievement: basic, apprentice, proficient and distinguished. It demanded that all public school children in the United States would be required to score proficient by 2014, where proficient is above average.

The plan was guaranteed to show that virtually every public school district in the country was failing and, so the theory went, the public would demand vouchers to rectify this seemingly horrible situation.

Today, charter schools enroll about three percent of our children in about 5,000 schools. They are created by state governments under many different sets of rules. But there are several significant problems.

Charters are appealing to free-marketers, but also to those wanting to make a profit by cutting corners, people making a job for themselves and those desiring a religious education.

In addition, charters can be operated by anyone without any educational or managerial experience which results in far too many being mismanaged. And they can hire teachers without any educational background or experience. While charters are typically required to accept any child whose parents apply, many can skirt this requirement by discouraging families from enrolling underserved children in order to boost test scores.

Advocates claim that charters will provide a better education than public schools, but those claims are seriously flawed and groundless. While a small percentage may well be excellent, the vast majority are not.

A 2009 Hoover Institute study of 15 states, which contained 70 percent of charter schools, revealed that 83 percent of public schools were equal to or better than charters and only 17 percent of charters were superior to publics.

The bipartisan Economic Policy Institute looked at 19 studies in 11 states and found that there is no evidence that, on average, charters outperform publics. A 2010 Department of Education study of Washington D.C. charters found the same.

And because charter school records are private, it becomes impossible to police them and just as difficult to close those found to be either seriously inadequate or fraudulent.

But test scores of children in charter schools should not be taken seriously because kids who perform poorly in charters are systematically encouraged to drop out so only the better students remain. Consequently, it is questionable whether comparing achievement test scores of charter and public school children is sensible.

Even disregarding all of these issues, the most distressing aspect, and the primary reason to reject charter schools, is that they syphon off scarce funds from public schools that already find themselves challenged.

Charter schools are not good for Kentucky. Our legislature is wise to continue to reject their creation and to refuse to weaken our public schools.

Marty Solomon, a retired University of Kentucky professor, can be reached at mbsolomon@aol.com.

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