Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Scam by Any Other Name

For a long time, I tried to be open to charters. It's tough, though, since the overwhelming majority are not unionized. You read stories about charters that vilify and fire people simply because they tell their colleagues how much UFT teachers earn, and you ask yourself, "Are these the kind of jobs I want for my kids when they grow up?"

And they're not, really. Even those which claim to be unionized, like Green Dot, specifically preclude both tenure and seniority rights for their teachers. Even part-time UFT President Randi "Everything is on the table except vouchers" Weingarten seems OK with that, bringing Green Dot to New York. As far as I can determine, even after the UFT spend over half a million in dues on legal fees, NY Green Dot teachers still don't even have a contract.

When you read detailed stories like this one by teacher Sarah Knopp, though, you have to really question the motives behind charter schools. Even President Barack Obama thinks they're a good idea. I can understand their appeal to parents, as I work in a preposterously overcrowded school with class sizes of 34 or more. Sadly, we don't have Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walmart family dumping millions into our budget to allow us reasonable class sizes or decent facilities for our kids.

There is certainly a move toward privatization here. Otherwise, how would Eva Moskowitz be able to pay herself $371,000, well more than my principal, who's got a much tougher job than she does? There's plenty of money in education for entrepeneurs who are willing to open charters and take money from billionaires. It's the gold rush all over again.

And if you make sure you get the right kids, as Knapp points out, you can look a lot better than your alleged competion:
At KIPP schools, like many other charters, a condition of admission is that students’ parents have to spend a certain amount of volunteer time at the school. This automatically excludes children whose parents already spend the least time with them (due to working multiple jobs, lack of child care, or any number of difficult issues). While in some cases strictly competitive admissions cannot be used in charters receiving federal funds (although the rules are very flexible, as in New Orleans), these schools can select their students and transfer or expel students with less due process than they are afforded in regular schools.

So not only do you get a "better class" of student, you dump the undesirables into the public system, and thus lower their statistics. Your school must be better if you have higher test scores. Who cares if the kids in public schools don't speak Enlish, or are learning disabled, or dyslexic, or have indifferent parents, or whatever?

Or you can boast about how your teachers get a voice in planning. That's one of the calling cards of Green Dot, in which Steve Barr boasts teachers gladly give up tenure to work for him.
But teachers only get that voice until they don't:

It is understood and agreed that the Board retains all of its powers and authority to direct, manage and control to the full extent of the charter school law and the regulations of a 501.C3 California corporation. Input from the staff will be considered and decisions will be derived in a collaborative model; final decisions will rest with the Board. Included in, but not limited to, those duties are the right to: ...establish educational policies with regard to admitting students; ...determine the number of personnel and types of personnel needed; ...establish budget procedures and determine budgetary allocations; contract out work and take action on any matter in the event of an emergency.

Hmmm...is that what they gave up tenure for? They have the freedom to contribute and innovate--right up until the point when they don't.

Another oft-repeated fable about charters is that they pay people more. But if you're working more hours a week, more weeks a year, if you're on call nights with your charter-provided cell phone, and if you're doing half-days on Saturdays, well, couldn't you actually be earning less for your time than public school teachers? It's true that prominent figures like Mayor Bloomberg and part-time UFT President Randi Weingarten don't account for extra time when they describe "raises," but honestly, what's more valuable than your time?

It looks to me like charters are a short-term fix, and the fact that their results, even given their unfair advantages, are mixed, suggests they might not be the panacea their supporters suggest. More importantly, is it good for Americans to set up teaching as a temporary profession which only young, energetic people can keep up with? I mean, sure, it keeps salaries down when you use people for a few years until they inevitably burn out, but are those the jobs we want for our kids?

Randi Weingarten's been snookered:
New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein has openly declared his wish to make all New York public schools charter schools. Rather than oppose the idea outright, then-United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten chose to play ball on the chancellor’s field. In addition to inviting Steve Barr of Green Dot to New York to partner with the UFT in opening Green Dot schools, she also conceded that New York teachers would be willing to accept some form of merit pay. Merit pay hooks teacher bonuses (money that otherwise could be spent on salaries) to student test performance.

If this “appeasement” strategy was designed to convince Klein to stop blaming teachers for the problems in New York’s schools, it didn’t work. Shortly thereafter, Klein teamed up with civil rights figure Al Sharpton to launch the Education Equality Project, whose main goal is to remove the “block” that the teachers’ union supposedly creates to “reform.” Sharpton said, “But we cannot say that we’re going to close this achievement gap but protect ineffective teachers or principals or school chiefs or not challenge parents.”54 Perhaps if the teachers in New York had decided to build genuine alliances with New York parents—particularly in communities of color—to fight for access to more resources, against dictatorial mandates, and to define what “quality education” means from the ground up, then Sharpton wouldn’t have gotten any traction for blaming the teachers. A more convincing explanation for failure of Black students is gross underfunding and pervasive segregation.

But that doesn't mean you have to be. Just like when Ms. Weingarten endorsed the disastrous 2005 contract, she was thanked briefly and then stabbed in the back. It's regrettable that someone as bright as Ms. Weingarten either fails to have a long-term vision, or simply doesn't care what happens to unionized teachers, or unions themselves.

But there's a very dangerous precedent at work. When the patronage hacks come to your school, ask them why the UFT chose to partner up with a firm that offers neither tenure nor seniority rights to its teachers. Should they spout the nonsense about "just cause" provisions, ask them how many times it's been tested, and how many teacher positions it's saved.

I've repeatedly asked the ones who appear at my school, as well as Ms Weingarten's internet mouthpiece Leo Casey.

This is what they've told me. Expect to hear much of the same.

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