Ban all charters. Now.

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MARCH27It’s time to change the narrative. Let’s begin tomorrow at noon in Trenton. Let’s begin telling the truth about charter schools.

Those who would exploit public education both to reap profits from its annual revenues of more than $500 billion annually and to advance  a low-tax agenda for the wealthy have already seized much of the high ground.  They are telling the story. Invoking the failure of urban education, they call for reform that promises to improve schooling by sweeping away outdated work rules, countering the alleged selfishness of union-represented teachers, and creating new sorts of schools freed of decades of bureaucratic controls. It is an alluring story that allows Trojan horse Democrats like Cory Booker to speak of how school choice is the “civil rights issue of our time.” But it is a false story and it must be countered at every possible opportunity—and, tomorrow in Trenton, is an important opportunity.

An opportunity to demand an end to charter schools.

Those who pay the least bit of attention to the link between poverty and educational achievement know the causes of school failure, yet even here the enemies of traditional public education—like Gov. Chris Christie and state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson—manipulate the narrative, saying we somehow “blame” children for the failure of the schools because they are poor.

No, we don’t blame the children for their own poverty. We blame poverty on politicians like Christie and others, both Republicans and Democrats, who enrich the already wealthy on the backs of the poor. Taxes, wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, are “what we pay for a civilized society.”

Money does make a difference, as Christie well knows. That’s why he sent his children to a private school  that charges nearly $36,000 a year in tuition. Money pays for salaries that will keep experienced and skilled teachers on the job. It also pays for clean, safe, technologically appropriate facilities. Money does, in fact, pay for good schooling.  Rich people pay high tuitions or they buy expensive homes in wealthy communities which offer a brand of public schooling only the wealthy can afford—sort of another form of private education.

It also does something else. Christie knows his children will go to schools that exclude.  Exclusivity comes with a price and the price is high tuition. Keeps the riff-raff out.  Keeps out “those people” because “those people” cannot afford private education and because private school leaders are empowered to select and to expel.  Public schools cannot do that—but charter schools can and they have. They are the private schools for the lucky and the politically connected and those willing to play by their rules and they have the added virtue of operating with public money.

Of course, not everyone can go to a privately operated charter school. They won’t take the most seriously needy students. And they expel them—as every public school teacher knows every October when the charters dump into conventional  classrooms the children they don’t want after keeping them long enough to obtain their tax-supported tuition payments.

Unlike many of those whom I will join tomorrow in Trenton to defend public education, I oppose charter schools on principle. They are inherently unfair and segregative. They provide for a few what should be provided for all children. They exploit their political connections and their access to hedge fund and other private money to create a system of private education that is paid for by taxpayers. Not only should there be a moratorium on all new charter schools, all charter schools should be given notice they will be closed or converted to tuition-based private schools within five to 10 years.

Politicians are afraid to call for a ban on charters because many of their parents are actively engaged. Unions won’t call for an end to charter schools because they want to organize their employees. Even the righteous fear dissolution.

I like Ras Baraka. I support teacher unions. But politicians like him and organizations like public employee unions need to face the truth and tell it:  Charter schools are toxic to public education. Period.

If the rich like private education so much, let them pay for it. Let them foot the tuition for all the poor children who want to go (and, of course, who are allowed into the Delbartons of this world because choice is a two-way street, don’t you know).  And let them pay that tuition without tax breaks. They’re not paying enough taxes in any event. Don’t force the public to pay for privately operated public schools.

A friend who is writing a book on the uses of a billionaire’s money in Newark told me the other day she was so impressed by a small charter school she visited.  It has all sorts of staff available for small class sizes and for counseling for the children. My question to her was: “Why and how is that fair?” The school is paid for with public funds and yet these children have what others do not.

I wouldn’t deny those children what they have but, if it is good enough for some, why isn’t it good enough for all? How in the world can charter schools be justified if, as they have in Newark, they have led to two separate but  unequal systems of taxpayer-supported education.

School choice is a lie.

Real choice would mean creating an economy, a tax structure, and a social support system that provides meaningful jobs and the opportunity for all people to live where they wish to live. That is the choice that will bring choice to public education. But the Koch brothers, the Gates spouses, the Broads, the Zuckerbergs, the Bradleys, the Waltons—none of them want real choice.

They want the destruction of unions because non-union labor  is cheaper.

They want cuts in public education spending so they don’t have to pay higher taxes.

They want to fuel the resentment of the middle- and working-class against unionized public employees because the elite has always divided a threatening underclass.

They want to exploit the idealism of the young who are told that, with five weeks of training and a bachelor’s degree, they can be good teachers—if only they will love the children enough.  And, if they put in their two years of replacing experienced, well-trained teachers, these Teach for America wonders can get their educational loans paid off and then head for Wall Street and real money.

They want to create market-driven education that will pump profits into chains of charter management organizations and other private, profit-making companies that will suck the life as well as the resources out of public education.

They want to create markets for companies like Amplify, run by former public school administrators who help create the market for their own goods.

They want to create an economy in which people are judged as interchangeable, quantitative economic units whose output can be easily measured.  Individual creativity and value are too expensive and can muck up an orderly system.  A school system based on high-stakes testing does the job nicely.

The odds against saving public education in the face of such threats are slim, but the time has come to face reality.  Schools already are different than they were just a decade ago. Ask those schools that prefer “data walls” to displaying creative work.  Ask teachers who spend so much time on SGOs and other mind-numbing, creativity-killed, data-driven exercises.

It’s time to change the narrative. Time to demonstrate that only a very small percentage of the wealthiest people in the state and the nation will benefit from creating a two-tiered educational system and from destroying a unionized work force. Time to point out that what is at stake is the future. Your future.

The time is tomorrow at noon in Trenton.

18 comments

  1. Chane

    Al Shanker is turning over in his grave. What he conceived of as a small scale R&D lab to test reforms and best practices and then share the results with the Ed community has turned into this.

  2. Rev. Tony Johnson

    Keep speaking the truth to power, Bob. Your work is real journalism, something I see less and less of. Historically, journalism has taken sides. I’m sure you’ve read your share of 19th and early 20th century newspaper to know that. Journalism still takes sides. But today it hides behind a false assertion of objectivity.

    It was telling that Crain’s reported that NYC Mayor Di Blasio baked away from a strong anti-charter position, under fire from a well-funded pro-charter movement. Who funds that movement? You and Diane Ravitch and other fearless journalists and scholars have been telling the story. But it is action in the streets that will change the narrative.

    Being out of state until the end of April, I cannot join you in Trenton tomorrow. But I will be there in spirit and I’ll be watching the news for the new narrative.

    Stay strong and the narrative will change!

  3. annie

    Bob,
    I am behind the end to charters one hundred percent. We can’t however sanctify the unions. A relative worked in the Newark School system for over 40 years and would never join the union, always the association, the union was always too political, and union leaders are very well remunerated. I think we must admit, there have been many appointments in the Newark schools given to political cronies over the decades. But to dismiss the role of the union teachers across the board is wrong. So here’s my question. Christie seems to have a negative view of unions overall, do you think this horrific takeover of Newark by charters might be linked in some way to union busting?

    Bob Braun: Of course it is.

  4. Newarkbluesman

    One thing that Newark has proven is that Charter Schools are a scam. The politically connected get them and then dole out the patronage,high priced administrators using the Teachers pension plan like a private piggy bank,upping their pensions,no supervision over testing,expelling kids faster then a speeding bullet.Superman had come,he is a charter school.Able to leap regulations and laws in a single bound,look up on the air it’s your tax dollars buying him a building with your money.You know the rest.

    • Anonymous

      Your opinions are neither qualified nor quantified. You are making EMPTY claims. What proof do you have? NONE. I haven’t heard of testing scandals in Newark charters. I haven’t heard of kids being expelled out of Newark charter schools faster than a speeding bullet. Nor have I heard of charter teachers’ pensions skyrocketing. Do you have HARD evidence? NO YOU DON’T. You base your unsubstantiated comments off of an angry old man who has made it his mission to take away high-quality education from Newark students. HOW ABOUT YOU REDIRECT YOUR ENERGY TO GET EVERY KID IN EVERY SCHOOL A GREAT EDUCATION?? Stop being jealous of charters and their results and let’s get every kid in every school in Newark results like those of its successful charters. How does that sound? To me, that sounds like PROGRESS. The disservice to students is not being done by excellent charter schools existing; rather, leaving most district schools where they are is the disservice to students. Why don’t you go spend time at some charter schools and then see whether you want to attack them with more blind claims? Or see whether you think it would be a good idea to implement some of the successful practices you see there in schools across the city?

      You can’t even write. No spaces between sentences and capitalization of random words in the middle of sentences?? Run on sentences??

      • Kate

        So can you provide proof of the “great job” being done by charters in Newark? All I’m hearing from you are unsubstantiated opinions based on what you HAVEN’T heard about. Please cite some sources for all this progress you’re attributing to charters in Newark. I’m in Newark, including in the charters, and I haven’t seen anything to warrant your opinion of charters as the answer to all our problems.
        Nobody is saying that Newark’s schools are all doing a great job. Of course there is room for improvement. However, killing off the public schools will not save our free system of public schools.
        And get off the Conan the Grammarian routine. Your commentary isn’t exactly grammatically perfect.
        Bob Braun: Thanks, Kate.

  5. Michael Fiorillo

    Thank you for all your fine reporting and for telling it like it is here.

    Too many supporters of public education have the mistaken belief that, if only some tweaks are made, public schools and charters can co-exist, but it’s an illusion: charters, whatever their initial intentions, are now a weapon intended to bleed the public schools dry and turn teaching into temp labor.

    There can be no co-existence, because charters are funded solely for the purpose of destroying the public schools.

    One of the many ironies here is that, in the eyes of the plutogarchs behind so-called education reform, charters themselves are just a way station in the move towards the techno/profit utopia of digital schools, whereby the kids are placed in front of devices, overseen by temps, feeding algorithms that spit work back at them and simultaneously mining and marketing every keystroke.

    Pity, fear for, and fight to save a Republic whose elites can only loot and extract wealth from its most basic institutions.

  6. Joey

    Where do you think those three principals would be without a union? FIRED, that’s where. Right Cami? Let us not forget, the Newark Teachers Union as with all unions keep teachers and workers from being fired cause they are not liked. Right Cami? Another excellent article Bob.

  7. P. Grunther

    Thank you Bob, as usual, right on target with everything you say. When I try to talk to anyone who has not been following these events, they take me for a conspiracy nut job. But once you immerse yourself in the big picture, it’s impossible to ignore the implications of what the education reform movement is doing throughout the entire country, sending Broad missiles out to destroy public education from within. Yes, anyone who still doubts it, this is about union-busting and about reaping profits for bloated rich people at the expense of urban children (for now, eventually any public school, non-elite school goer) and ultimately creating a dumbed-down workforce incapable of imagining that the world could be any different or organizing against it. I don’t like feeling pessimistic, but I have to confess that I’m happy that I won’t be around to see the end game on this.

  8. Bob Russo

    Bob if I didn’t have to take care of soon to be 95 year old mom….a Barringer Newark grad from 1930s….I would be there…..keep writing and speaking the truth….my mom says I got the best public education in Newark at Sussex then Webster Jr. High and Barringer…..then I taught at Roseville Ave. school….two strikes…still in AFTNJ leadership role on college level…..we must remember and keep up the fight for public education and union rights! Thanks for your efforts! Bob Russo, Montclair Deputy Mayor

  9. Anonymous

    Bob —

    Seems like you have a lot of hatred towards charter schools. Successful charters in Newark have some of the highest accolades in the state. Yet you make unsubstantiated claims (i.e., Teach For America does NOT pay off student loans for its corps members. Not one cent. You should look into it.) all over your article.

    What bothers me most is that you spend your time sitting at your computer, typing up these ridiculous thoughts. Or you spend your time marching in Trenton. How about you teach? Why don’t you do something and HELP? Critics and commentators who do nothing to help a situation but just write about it and criticize it are useless. You do nothing for the kids. Have you seen the inside of a Newark charter school? District school? Maybe you should pour your “passions” into teaching.

    Charter schools aren’t the problem. In fact, the successful ones are the antithesis to the problem. It’s the fact that district schools aren’t taking the best practices proven by charters and implementing those practices in their classrooms (or in lots of cases, being prevented from doing so for various reasons). That way, everyone could work towards seeing the same results, seeing every Newark child get a world-class education. Because isn’t that what you want?

    Your article makes it seem as if you want every child in Newark to be at a struggling district school. It appears that you don’t want to see changes in the education system there, changes that would lead to improvement in Newark students’ results. You want to keep the children across the city as educationally oppressed as can be rather than call for change in the district schools, where much of the oppression occurs.

    And before you attack me, I teach in Newark. I help the kids overcome the odds. I’d love to see all schools able to do that for their students. Wouldn’t you? Or do you want the stats to stay right where they are?

    Thanks!

    • Joe

      Bravo for being a teacher in Newark but you seem to have a built-in prejudice against the district schools which still educate the majority of the children in Newark. Why is it necessary to demean, bash and demonize the district schools to bolster your own argument?

    • Becca Field

      Anon – it is a huge help and doing something that no other reporter is doing these days in the shrinking world of free press that Mr. Braun reports on what is going on. Just like public education, a free press is a cornerstone of our democracy. We need both. And in the fight for public ed we are lucky to have Mr. Braun writing. There are many ways to help. Your view of charters is another issue altogether that is for another time. Do you teach at a charter?

  10. Mr. Outside

    I am as anxious as everyone about the course public education is taking in Newark and throughout the country. But we are fooling ourselves in the belief that rallies and protests will somehow change the narrative. It’s not. Where we gather in front of 2 Cedar Street, City Hall, Broad & Market, State Building and various other isolated locations waving homemade signs, the pro-charter machine is spending Koch money, Moskowitz money, Gates, Broad, Walton and Zuckerberg money on television, radio, billboard, transit and direct mail ads.

    Where we are taking it to the streets, they are taking it to the homes. People don’t live in the streets. This is market warfare. If we want to change the narrative, then we have to stop trying to tell a story where no one is around to listen. “Who’s On First” is hilarious. Try teaching it to students in an empty English class. It doesn’t go over as well.

    Link a video of it to a few students on Vine, Facebook, Google+, Vimeo and the like and all of a sudden you’ve got a meme. The same applies to grassroots in the second decade of the new millennium. It’s not going to be Kent State, the ’68 Democratic convention, or the Freedom Riders. I say all of that, because those of us young enough to remember what and why we were fighting then understood what was at stake. There was nothing to distract us from what the cause was truly all about.

    In this digital age, as Marshal MacLuhan put it, “The medium is the message.” We can not continue to mobilize in the street and compete for the attention of passersby distracted by content streaming freely on their mobile devices. Especially, when it’s content viewed on Facebook, using a Windows Phone purchased at Walmart.

    If there is anyone serious about mounting a challenge to the public education reform menace, I will respond immediately at nwktchr.ttd@gmail.com.

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