Being able to see behind the slick public relations curtain that is the charter school movement often means, “following the money,” when our senses are pounded by the charters drumbeat of offering “innovation” or “real education reform.”
Following the money might sound like a cliche, but the phrase resonates when the bullion is traced to its primary source — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Recently, intrepid CNN reporter Fareed Zakaria interviewed the billionaires on his Sunday morning magazine "GPS," eliciting Ms. Gates’ viewpoint on her favorite endowment — the American education system.
“When you look at education, one can't help but noticing that so much of your educational opportunities depends on what ZIP code you are in, because education is funded with local property taxes. And then you have this growing inequality."
"Is there anything to be done about it?” asked Zakaria.
“ It is why we focus on the U.S. education system, because to tackle inequality you've got to make sure all kids are educated. … In the U.S., I think there's some points of light ... one of the nice things about the charter school movement is taking public funding and using less dollars than are spent in the normal public school and educating kids … less expensive(ly) but getting a much higher quality of education. They are doing all kinds of innovations in the charter schools. And it gives us ideas and examples of what then can be taken to the public schools,” replied Melinda Gates.
In her response to Zacaria’s query about income inequality tied to an unfair formula for how public education is funded , Gates missed an opportunity to suggest real financial solutions — the Gates Foundations’ forte — to effect better achievement in children of poverty, English language learners and those with special needs. Instead, she took the scenic route through the miasma of charter schools talking points-as if she was reading a teleprompter.
The “charter school movement … (is about) educating kids … less expensively … getting (them) a much higher quality of education … (while) doing all kinds of innovations … (that) then can be taken to the public school.”
Plainly, the truth about charters is that their enrollment of students does not yield high school graduation rates that approach the rates of traditional public schools. Neither do the charter schools service minority, non- English speaking or special education students at the percentages that traditional public schools service these sub-groups.
Now a report in 2015 by Advocates for Children of New York Inc. reveals that discipline policies implemented by charters in that state suspend students summarily without a hearing or without differentiating among alleged offenses.
“One hundred seven of the charter school discipline policies … do not align infractions with specific disciplinary responses and allow for suspension or expulsion for any violation of the code of conduct,” reports this advocacy group.
“Such discipline policies … allow schools to impose the same punishment on a student who chews gum in class as on a student who uses a weapon to cause serious injury to a classmate ... allowing schools to impose vastly different punishments on two similarly situated students who engage in the same misconduct, increasing the likelihood of results that are biased and unfair, … which gave school staff unbridled discretion to impose suspensions of any length and even expulsion for infractions as minor as chewing gum, … and for infractions as vague as engaging in 'unacceptable behavior' and 'refusing accountability.'”
The hallmark of any school discipline code is its consistency and transparency, its ability to create a clearly defined hierarchy of offenses — from minor to major — with requisite consequences that, essentially, fit the nature of the crime. And any offense deemed by school administration to warrant a suspension requires a prior hearing, any student’s individual civil right.
Charters demonstrating a concept of discipline that ignores student civil rights gives further credence as to why charters do not represent innovation, progressive practices or education reform.
And just because Melinda Gates disagrees does not change that fact.