The News reported three weeks ago on plans to open new charter schools in New Haven (“State may get new charter schools,” Jan. 23). Over the past several years, charters have been expanding in the Elm City, as well as across the country. My hometown of Chicago has already opened 59 charter schools and has plans to open many more over the next few years. But these paradoxically publicly funded, yet privately operated, institutions need to be critically examined.
Charter schools, freed from the regulation of the public school system, were supposed to fix public education through innovation. Instead, lack of regulation has led to a variety of problems, including hiring inexperienced teachers, failing to serve difficult-to-educate students and using taxpayer dollars corruptly. What charters haven’t created, though, are better-educated students.
In Chicago, charter school operators claimed for years that their schools produced better performing students. In late 2011, however, state standardized achievement tests showed that only one of the nine charter school networks in the city had outperformed district averages. Six of the networks fell below average at all or a majority of their schools.
And just last week, Chicago’s United Neighborhood Organization Charter School Network was revealed to be using a $98 million state grant to dole out contracts to the close family and friends of UNO administrators. UNO claims to be a nonprofit community organization, but CEO Juan Rangel makes over $250,000 a year. And as a Sun-Times investigation showed, Rangel’s schools seem to be a nice place for his buddies to make easy cash. Public schools are required to contract only with whatever companies can perform jobs at the lowest cost, but privately operated charter schools, freed from regulation, can contract wherever they would like.
Moreover, Rangel is a political ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and served as co-chair of his 2011 campaign. The Sun-Times investigation revealed that profiteers from the UNO network donated large amounts of time and money last year to Silvana Tabares, a state representative candidate allied with Emanuel, who ran on a platform that would give more state dollars to the UNO network.
UNO is shady and possibly participating in illegal activities, but gets away with it because its charter school network status allows it to avoid following the same financial standards that public schools do.
Beyond the corruption, the advantages that charter schools claim to provide don’t appear to actually exist in many cases. Many charters across the country do not outperform public schools, and to the extent that they do, much of their success can be attributed to their selective admissions. Many charters avoid serving special education students and non-native English speakers — two groups that tend to score lower on standardized tests.
Other charters create the illusion of greater success by discouraging low-income students from enrolling. In Chicago, some charters charge students $5 for minor rule-breaking, including not tying their shoes properly.
Politicians like Emanuel and much of the mainstream press have done a good job of demonizing teachers unions. This rhetoric makes charter schools look comparatively better, as they rarely allow teachers to unionize. But teachers at charters rarely stay for more than a few years at a time, and are often overworked and underpaid, leading to inevitable lower student performance.
Were charter school teachers to unionize, they would work under better conditions, which would in turn allow them to do their jobs better. But charter schools remain strongly anti-union in most places. When teachers at Chicago’s Youth Connection Leadership Academy decided to unionize, the school fired every single teacher, even though many of them had been issued employment renewal letters.
A high correlation exists between family income level and success in school — many of the current problems with our public education system are a direction reflection of our country’s economic problems. We can’t blame teachers, or their unions, for the inevitable problems caused by this excessive wealth disparity. Given the current state of public education, our time and money would be much better spent on fixing that system instead of diverting resources to charter schools. If we want real progress for public education, we need to focus on eliminating the high concentration of wealth in this country.
Not only are charter schools not a solution; they are a problem themselves. New Haven ought to reconsider its charter school plans and instead look at putting the necessary resources into existing public schools while also making sure to support policies that reduce poverty.
Diana Rosen is a freshman in Pierson College. She is a staff blogger for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .