A Final Thought

Follow the Money

When I conceived and started this magazine, the publisher suggested that I reserve a place where I could comment on what was happening in public education. It was called “A Final Thought” and it has allowed me to comment, praise, suggest and otherwise act as an advocate for public education and for children for more than 20 years. This is its final chapter.

Unfortunately, the column ends just as public education faces its most serious challenge. The incoming president has nominated a dedicated opponent of public education to serve as our nation’s next Secretary of Education from which position, it appears, she plans to push for more and more transfer of public tax dollars into private hands by increasing charter schools.

Charter school origins

What’s wrong with charter schools? Well, nothing, if you go back to origins. Joe Nathan and others were pushing for charter schools way back in the 1960s. But the charter schools we were talking about were public schools that were given the opportunity to experiment with new approaches to education — approaches that were planned by teachers, administrators and professors who were involved with teaching children. In order to do that, sometimes they had to be allowed to break rules and regulations that other schools had to maintain. If their programs succeeded, the expectation was that they would become models for other public schools to follow.

That was the idea — charter schools were public schools that were introducing and trying out new ideas and techniques. When they were successful, they would demonstrate and spread the idea or program to other schools and teachers. The impetus was to find better ways in which to reach and serve all children within the public school system. There was no handing over of public funds to private operators.

Today’s charter schools are, more often than not, simply a vehicle to move public money into private hands. Few have claimed any significant educational ideas. Many say that they are providing parents with a choice, and that alone is a legitimate goal. Some use public money to push religious or political agendas. None have improved the way we educate children. Few have shown success, sustained or otherwise, even using their favored standardized tests. The one thing they have done is make their operators wealthy.

Problems of education

There are plenty of problems with public education. Underfunding is one. Overcrowding is another. Failure to provide early education, so that some children enter first grade already three years behind is a serious one. There are districts where union rules keep teachers from scheduling evening meetings making it impossible for working families to be involved in their children’s education. Lack of support for teachers makes them spend most of their time on a few students who need extra help is another. Poor leadership hurts. Stagnant curriculum is a problem. Some problems are the result of bad laws that make it difficult for good teachers to do their jobs. “Teaching to the Test” becomes more important than providing an education in many states.

The list can go on and on. But the key is that all of them are solvable within the public schools and while taxpayers may have to spend a little more to make their schools work better, that additional money goes into education, not the pockets of the charter school owners and advocates.

Ask yourself a question

What is it that charter school advocates really want? Have they suggested a revolutionary new approach to education that no one has previously considered? I certainly have not seen that.

I do hear about back to the past ideas, more testing, more hours, more sitting in a classroom, more expulsions if a child misbehaves. I see selection of the best and brightest students to ensure that test results are good. I see discrimination and separation of children with special needs, whether those needs are physical, mental or environmental.

Today’s charter schools are not a better way to provide education. Rather they are a quick way to move tax dollars into private hands. As many people have said, if you want to understand why who is for what, follow the money.

Twenty years ago, I was working in a school district that was mandated to provide $4 million to fund a new charter school backed by local politicians. The following year, when the accounting was done, $3 million had been spent on education — teachers, books, facilities and the like. The students did no better or worse than those from the same neighborhood who had remained in the public schools. The operators did $1 million better. Follow the money.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."

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