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 Invoking the failure of urban education, they call for reform that promises to improve schooling by sweeping away outdated work rules, countering the alleged selfishness of union-represented teachers, and creating new sorts of schools freed of decades of bureaucratic controls.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.