Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism

As a former (and humbled) recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English’s George Orwell Award, and devoted reader of Franz Kafka, I am prone to recognizing when a Twitter debate seems surreal — and yesterday’s pushed me to suspect I was a victim of a parody account (but I wasn’t).

Spurred by my posts confronting the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) embracing both takeovers of traditional public schools and “miracle” claims from a privatized charter chain, I foolishly waded into a charter debate with a self-professed “libertarian” edujournalist who writes for a publication that advocates for school choice and is a research fellow for The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice as well as the superintendent of South Carolina’s Charter School District (if charter schools are public schools why do we have a separate school district for them?).

My Orwellian/Kafkan moments included the edujournalist calling me an “ideologue” and the superintendent bristling at my questioning the value of one year of data on the “miracle” charter school* — seems there is no time for accountability for those knee-deep in the pet projects of the accountability movement.

But it became even more ridiculous (the feeling of a parody account even more intense) when the edujournalist began to Tweet horror stories about public schools, suggesting (“come on” was his refrain) that these cherry pickings somehow justified continuing to support the charter school mirage. (You see, the charter/school choice crowd cannot maintain multiple facts in mind at once — that we can challenge the very real failures of traditional public schools and recognize that the charter school alternative has been an equally negative failure.)

Because charter schools are without a single controversy — students of color walking out due to a lack of diversity and lack of racial sensitivity, children wetting their pants under the intense focus on testing.

Nope. Nothing to see here in the rosy land of the charter mirage.

The charter mirage is a scam, similar to the entire buffet of education policies embraced during the past thirty years of accountability.

This political scam can be traced to two facts: (1) politically and socially in the U.S. we refuse to identify and confront directly the race, class, and gender inequities that scar our nation and all our public and private institutions, and (2) education policy is driven by ideology and not attention to research, which makes even more disturbing that a superintendent would argue that we don’t have time to evaluate data about whether or not any school’s claim of success is real.

If we can address both of these, however, we can recognize the key elements in the charter mirage*:

  • Charter schools are reinforced by a non-critical media enamored by “miracle” school stories that are nearly universally discredited by careful consideration of the claims. Exceptional charter schools are either false claims or outliers that offer absolutely no evidence needed for how to reform all schools.
  • Charter schools are essentially indistinguishable from public or private schools. The evidence base reveals that school types remain insignificant when we consider populations of students. Some school practices have better and worse outcomes — but none of these are somehow linked to school type (what Matthew Di Carlo has labeled, for example, as “charterness”).
  • Charter schools share with traditional public schools a pattern of re-segregating students by race and social class.
  • Charter schools are prone to skimming (choosing preferred students), attrition (sometimes purposeful counseling out), and serving populations of students unlike those traditional public schools must serve (charter schools may include racial minorities and poor students, but ELL and special needs populations are underserved). All of these dynamics shade any effort to claim a charter school is more effective than a traditional public school.
  • Charter schools increase the problem of black/brown and poor students being taught by inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers — notably by the close association between charter schools and Teach For America.
  • Charter schools tend to embrace racially insensitive “no excuses” policies that exacerbate inequitable discipline policies also common in traditional public schools.
  • Charter schools may appear to serve better poor and minority students, but media and political praise for KIPP and KIPP-like charter schools often ignore that claims of greater “months of learning” attributed to the charter school (and somehow the “charterness”) is directly proportional to simply extending the school day and school year. In other words, if charter schools extend the day and year while not increasing “months of learning” that would be a news-worthy story.
  • Charter schools and all school choice create student, teacher, and funding churn that negatively impact the possibilities of needed and effective reform.

Advocacy for the charter mirage is almost always by people invested in charter schools or school choice regardless of the consequences. Charter mirage advocacy is also driven by the missionary zeal of progressive racism.

The “miracle” school mantra is directly linked to that missionary zeal that comes from thinking “I” know what is best for others and “I” can do what others cannot (because “I” am exceptional).

If New Orleans’s education debacle has taught us anything, we must admit both that the historical and political negligence of poor people of color — their children and their communities — is inexcusable and that disaster capitalism in the form of doing to that same community with charter schools and a TFA teacher force is equally inexcusable.

And this brings me back to the Orwellian nature of all this: the charter “miracle” is a charter mirage — a mirage propped up by those invested politically and personally in the mirage as well as by those edujournalists who are unable to step back and consider evidence over ideology.

To suggest that we have only two choices — the historically negligent traditional public school system or the charter mirage — is a nightmare from which we need to wake.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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