Baltimore City is a case study in the push for school choice. In November 2004, with the benefit of pro bono services from global lawyering giant DLA Piper, the founders of City Neighbors Public Charter School succeeded in an effort to eliminate the cap on the number of new charter schools that could open here. By 2005-06, there were 12; by 2007-08, 22. Now there are 34 of about 200. Next year, there will be more. With only 15 schools making Adequate Yearly Progress in 2011, no one can claim that the reforms of the past few years are doing much good. But right now, the school choice story isn’t about quality. It’s about quantity.
Whether or not Baltimore City will turn into another New Orleans, where 61 of 88 public schools were charters as of August 2010, the campaign for the exponential growth of charter schools in the name of “parental choice” is overwhelming. On July 17, the New York Times printed a story on conflicts over a boutique charter school in an affluent New Jersey suburb. This week, Maryland’s Montgomery County approved its first charter school.
In terms of national policy, under the leadership of Arne Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education is “incentivizing” an increase in the number of charter schools by states as a condition of winning Race to the Top funds. Corporate philanthropies are also pushing hard and fast for choice. In February 2011, the Progressive Policy Institute published a report coaching charter school supporters on how to take advantage of acquisition opportunities and eliminate barriers to expansion titled “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best.” The paper was written by three education policy consultants at Public Impact with support from the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Walmart. As of this week, the Walton Family Foundation is also the single largest private donor to Teach for America.
Back in Baltimore, another backer of Teach for America, the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), is making big ripples in the political pond. DFER is raising funds for local and state-level candidates who are on board with their board‘s agenda, which includes mayoral control of city school systems, opening more public charter schools, and closing failing schools the way an investor might dump poorly performing stocks. Bill Ferguson, a Teach for America alumnus who bested a 27-year incumbent for the 46th district’s seat in the Maryland state senate (and who has commented on this blog), recognized DFER as one of the earliest supporters of his campaign. DFER board member and hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson used his education blog last month to rally donors to the aid of Baltimore City mayoral candidate Otis Rolley. (Rolley’s education platform would be right up DFER’s alley, if not for the voucher part.)
Despite a 2009 report by BCPSS stating that the only significant area of superiority in the performance of charters versus traditional public schools is school climate, the school board’s push for choice in the form of charters continues. Given the resounding drumbeat, the number of “schools of choice” in Baltimore could double in the next five years. It’s reasonable to expect that it could more than double.
Astroturf Activism: Who Is Behind Students for Education Reform?
George Joseph and Extra Credit, The Nation, January 11, 2013