If the School Fits: Who’s Pounding the Drum?

This is what rapid growth looks like, in the world of stock images.

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.

What then?

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9 Responses to “If the School Fits: Who’s Pounding the Drum?”

  1. I don’t see anything in this blog that limits the discussion about specific charters in Baltimore. There’s an important conversation our city needs to have about the future of our public schools. I have friends in Charles Village whose children are in a couple of the city’s charter schools and thriving, and I don’t see anywhere in this blog a refutation of that. I attended a great arts magnet school in another city, and I hope would its Baltimore counterpart would provide the same quality of education for my kid that I got, if it was the right fit for her.

    But that said, I think we are at a pretty important crossroad in our city. Is Baltimore going to put all of its eggs in the charter basket? Have Baltimore charters (thanks to this blog I have learned that there are now 34 of them) proven to be the conduits to educational success? If in fact they’re not all meeting AYP standards (not that I view that as the most valid metric in grading a school), then why the heck are we as citizens agreeing to the push?

    As a parent I believe it is overwhelming enough to try to ensure that my kid is in a school where she will thrive. In the immediate term I will state for the record that if for any reason I find my daughter’s public school is not a good fit I will most certainly look for another option. I don’t see anyone on this blog, least of all Edit, proposing that parents make decisions for their children that are purely ideologically based.

    But I am also a citizen of the city, and I can’t have blinders to the national forces – and yes, I believe there are national forces – that are using their money to impact the foundation of education in my city. As a Baltimore city-tax payer, I want to have a say in the stewardship of my tax dollars. If “outsiders” are selling some goods – say that a new charter school in my neighborhood would have better infrastructure, working air-conditioning and a music class – I want to know why the local school can’t provide those “immenities.” Personally, I appreciate this blog’s attempt to “follow the money.”

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  2. I suppose the “what then” will be returning failing charter schools back over to public control? Or is that too much to hope for….as for “a parent,” you may have to constantly link to the readily available research showing how poorly most charters are doing in order to reach her/him…informative post, thank you for sharing!

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  3. The conversation in Baltimore does not have to rely on the simplistic “sides” and numerous assumptions heard in the national debate. The convo should be local and reasoned. Ironic, that a few national choice and charter advocates focus only on what they see as weaknesses in Baltimore; and a few who criticize those they term corporate edreformers ignore strengths and progress in Baltimore. Even in that sentance, I cringe at assuming too much about anyone’s point of view. It seems that both “sides” are arguing without as much awarenss of local context as they should have. It’s discouraging.

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    • Raising awareness of the local flavor of education reform in Baltimore is the primary goal of this blog. Baltimore is unique. But I have found it impossible to understand what’s happening here without widening the lens. (I’ve tried.) Please use your wealth of knowledge and resources to inform readers of this blog and your own of local context. I know I’d find it encouraging. Thanks. -Edit

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  4. So, seems like you pretty well know all the answers by reading books, and ignoring any of the real life experience that has been posted in your comments. A thoughtful discussion about the pluses and minuses of charters? Yeah, not really. I guess the point is preaching to the choir and hearing uniform agreement. Have fun – see ya, bye.

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