Photo by Henry de Saussure Copeland via Flickr Creative Commons

Vouchers, Charter Schools and Public Education

By: Ruth Gadebusch

Charter Schools are the latest panacea for the “failing public schools,” or so the self-anointed critics of public education would have us believe. Fresno Unified School District has created its own within the public system! Why this school, and how will it affect the other 70,000 plus students? Let’s look at the history of the public school and their mission.

Originally, religious groups provided education within the tenets of their faith; however, it became apparent that common ground was necessary for developing unity, particularly for a nation founded by those escaping religious persecution and advocating equality for all. Granted, “all” was not as inclusive as today but valid for the time.

In the ensuing years, the nation has grown ever more diverse demanding a melding of this diversity into a cohesive group. Private schools continue but it is public schools that are charged with the civic mission of preparing students to become thoughtful citizens, justifying tax money for education.

So long as public schools stayed with basic subjects, the old “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic,” satisfaction was broad. As the requirements of education expanded, various programs ballyhooed as the answer generated controversy; however, nothing compared to what was to come. To accommodate the 1950s Brown vs. Board of Education decision that the heretofore “separate but equal” doctrine was inherently unequal, schools became the agent for social change.

With neighborhood schools a bedrock premise and housing almost totally segregated (the affluent, overwhelmingly white, in one area and step by step down to African Americans, the poorest of all), it was impossible to eliminate segregated schools without disturbing the neighborhood school setup, resulting in great turmoil. To this day the issue remains unsettled with housing patterns little changed despite efforts to create mixed communities. The court ruling of Serrano requiring equal financing for all schools was not a solution. Nor have programs giving extra resources to schools serving the lower economic communities been able to overcome differences created by the affluent community’s head start in its ability to provide for its children.

It isn’t that some parents care more about their children. Some must put more time and energy into providing basic food and shelter while other’s resources extend beyond. School districts expected to bridge this disparity have made heroic efforts that the general society has been slow to embrace. Thus, various possibilities are created for serving selected groups.

In the seventies, the great push was for vouchers allowing families to choose a school. Of course, this idea did not consider or did not admit doing so, that these alternative schools were mostly segregated. Especially in communities attempting desegregation programs, private schools proliferated. Choice was the order of the day with little thought for accountability.

Although vouchers did not become generally accepted, many were willing to put their own money into sending their child to a private school with every reason one could dream up, except avoiding desegregation, given for this choice. In Fresno, most of the newly created schools were 7th and 8th grades, the focus of the system’s desegregation plan. Today, with desegregation not so much in the forefront, most of these schools do not exist. We can only hope that at least a modicum of recognition of desegregation’s value to the community is alive and well; although we cannot claim integration, as yet.

Vouchers having failed to gain a foothold, the critics of public schools turned to “Charter Schools” as offering perfection. In 1992 California authorized charter schools. Accountability replaces regulation. Flexibility is the mantra of the day. Studies, using standard test scores as “indicators of quality” as well as other methods, find the quality of charter schools as highly variable. Stanford University’s CREDO (Center for Research for Educational Outcome) states that, on the whole, charter schools do not perform significantly better than public schools.

UCLA’s Civil Rights Project’s “Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards” notes that charter schools are “more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area.” In keeping with a Boston study, this one also found fewer English learners and students with disabilities in charter schools. Is this the road back to segregated schools?

In a changing situation, the best available figures indicate that California has 276,000 students in 750 charter schools. A total of 1.5 million in 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico comprising about 2.5% are in 5000 schools nationally.

Diane Ravitch, long considered the guru of education, a Bush Secretary of Education, and an early strong proponent of charter schools, has completely reversed her advocacy following results of studies such as Stanford’s CREDO: 17% of charter schools had academic gains, 37% were worse than their traditional public school counterparts and 46% had no significant difference.

The Obama Administration with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – formerly of the Chicago Schools, where turning to “the private sector for ideas, funding and management” for its Daly Plan produced the same problems as other charter schools – continues to support charter schools. The federal government incentives are tilted to that concept resulting in many public schools emphasizing test scores possibly compromising other needs.

All charter schools have parent participation components in common. Public schools cannot exclude parents who are unwilling or unable to participate in this manner. This requirement seems to ignore children living in group and foster homes, or with relatives. The appeal of teachers being in control tends to bring largely younger, less experienced ones who are willing to work longer hours at less cost.

If deregulation is so good for charters why wouldn’t it be good for all schools? Why would a public school system charter its own charter school? What can the district do in that school that it cannot do in others? If this school is good for 350 students why wouldn’t it be good for all Fresno students? Is it anything more than a way to get around the teachers’ union?

Most need only read the first two introductory paragraphs of FUSD’s charter plan for Daily School to acknowledge that is what we want for all students. It appears to have a number of advantages not available to other district schools or charters. The school would receive the entire allowed state student funding without siphoning off administrative costs as happens within the district. It would contract with the district for many of the necessary services, presumably at a better price than otherwise available.

Contracting with the district makes Superintendent Hansen and the two FUSD board members both buyer and seller. Is that “having your cake and eating it too” or just a simple conflict of interest? As the impetus for this school the Board of Education appears to embrace the “competition inspires all” idea and the “use it or lose it” state law requiring empty facilities be made available to outside charters.

The Fresno Teachers Association, not a disinterested party, has serious reservations about abrogation of teacher rights. Likening it to points yielded for magnet schools, the FTA claims concessions could be negotiated allowing Daily to operate as a district school with charter freedom. The district counters that these yields have been difficult to achieve and inadequate.

Without doubt, problems exist in public schools but are charter schools the answer? Next month let’s explore the effect of charter schools on public schools, specifically what FUSD gains in chartering its own. Are more to come? Where do magnet schools fit? Are the problems in the finances or does the fault lie elsewhere? The story merits much more attention to how our tax dollars support the civic mission of educating our citizens and future voters.

*****

Ruth Gadebusch, a veteran and community activist, is a former member of the Fresno Unified School Board and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing as well as an Emeritus Member of the Board of the Center for Civic Education.

Ruth Gadebusch

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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