BRUNSWICK – The history of American education is littered with school reforms designed to achieve one set of goals but manipulated to attain others. To that troubled history we may now add charter schools.

Initially envisioned as “break-the-mold” schools that would serve as models of innovation in public education, charters were freed by state legislatures from many of the regulations that mainstream public schools were legally bound to follow.

With such freedom, charter advocates argued, new methods of effectively teaching students would be discovered. A thousand flowers would bloom and public education would undergo a renaissance.

It didn’t take long, however, before conservatives, stung by their failure to privatize “government schools” through voucher initiatives, saw charter schools as a way to “break the grip” of teachers’ unions on public education while simultaneously opening up public schooling to the free market.

Meanwhile, liberals had their own reasons for embracing charters. Increasingly skeptical of teachers’ unions’ bread-and-butter demands and seeking greater school choice for their own children, many liberals urged states to pass charter school laws.

As a result, what began as a reform intended to support mainstream public schools through “out-of-the-box” thinking had, by the beginning of the 21st century, begun to undermine the very schools it was designed to help.

As it turns out, this initially naive — and later problematic — effort to reform public schooling can now be judged a failure. Multiple studies have demonstrated that, on average, mainstream public schools outperform charter schools on a variety of indicators, academic and otherwise.

With hindsight, of course, this is not terribly surprising. Many states grant charters to people with little or no experience in education, so highly successful charters are remarkably rare (it seems that educating children is complex work that’s best to prepare to undertake).

In addition, because charters can be granted to for-profit “education service providers,” some charter schools have replaced public education’s traditional emphasis on student learning with an emphasis on the bottom line, resulting in few student achievement gains (and quite a few losses).

In some of the most egregious cases, “educational entrepreneurs” have simply taken the money and run. In one case in California, for instance, a charter school operator who had used $100 million in state funding to open 60 charter schools declared bankruptcy one month before the beginning of the school year, leaving 6,000 students without a school to attend.

Of course, this does not mean that there are no successful charter schools. Many of the schools documented in the film “Waiting for Superman,” for instance, have adopted novel approaches to teaching and learning.

Yet even in those cases, comparing charter school performance with that of mainstream public schools is tricky because most charters have enormous competitive advantages. Unlike with traditional public schools, for instance, most charter school administrators are legally empowered to permanently dismiss students whether because of academic failure or disciplinary problems.

A study of one KIPP charter school in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, found that 60 percent of the students enrolled in fifth grade did not complete eighth grade at the school. As most people are aware, state laws in California and elsewhere require that middle-school-aged students be educated in public schools.

So, when KIPP and other charter school operators dismiss students from their schools, where do the kids usually go? You got it — back to traditional public schools.

All of which leads to the question of why, after brilliantly resisting the charter school temptation for so long, Maine seems to have finally jumped on the bandwagon.

One obvious reason is that the federal government, through initiatives such as “Race to the Top,” has pushed states in that direction. Another is that even after the disaster that deregulation has proven itself to be, many Americans are still engaged in a mindless pursuit of free market competition and choice.

But whatever the reason, the fact that Maine’s charter school bill has passed the state Senate and is moving to the House suggests that many of our state’s legislators have not done their homework on charter school effectiveness.

This is unfortunate because as the reform we call “charter schools” has been manipulated over time, it has increasingly had the effect of weakening public education.

Considering the fiscal punishment that Maine’s public schools have suffered over the past few years, this is not the kind of reform we need.

– Special to the Press Herald


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