A poisonous prescription

A poisonous prescription

- in Weekly Briefing


More unregulated charter schools are among the last things our public education system needs

In one of the more darkly amusing TV comedy skits from the early career of veteran comedian Steve Martin, the funnyman portrayed a “medieval barber” named “Theodoric of York.”  The gag in the sketch was that Martin’s character was an early and bumbling practitioner of “medicine” who would prescribe “a good bleeding” for every illness or injury that he encountered. Naturally, the results were disastrous.

Of course, the underlying premise of the sketch was not so farfetched; there actually was a time in the not-so-distant past in which many humans actually thought that the application of leeches to drain blood was a useful cure-all. Happily, those days are mostly a thing of the past in the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, when it comes to political and social policy, bloodletting as a supposed cure-all for weak and wounded public structures and systems is making a significant and disturbing comeback.

Consider, for example, our public education system. Here in North Carolina, state leaders have prescribed a series of what amount to “good bleedings” in recent years as “just what the doctor ordered” to improve student and teacher performance.

This is not an exaggeration. Even under Governor McCrory’s recently proposed budget (which some have praised as not being as radically bad as had been feared) state spending on public schools will fall 1.8% below what it would take to maintain current service levels and 6% below what was being spent in the state prior to the Great Recession. As a consequence, North Carolina teacher salaries (which have now fallen to 46th in the country) and overall K-12 spending (which has fallen to 48th) are apparently destined fall even further.

Yet another hemorrhage

As bad as these funding cuts have been, they are far from the only efforts to drain resources from the public schools. Like a medieval blood-letter, lawmakers are preparing to tap multiple education veins simultaneously. This morning, for instance, the Senate Education Committee will take up a bill that would remove essentially all meaningful state oversight of charter schools.

The proposal would replace the state’s already inadequate and overworked charter school regulators with an independent and separate group to be called the “Public Charter Schools Board” that is clearly designed for (and dedicated to) giving charters and the people who run them (or seek to run them) a virtual carte blanche to do as they please.

As a practical matter, what this means is that North Carolina’s already rapidly expanding population of barely regulated charter schools (a group that already includes multiple frauds and failures like the basketball factory described by reporter Sarah Ovaska in this special investigation) would explode. Within a very short time, the state’s traditional public schools would be defunded, depopulated and just generally undermined as the state rapidly established a bifurcated and increasingly privatized and corporatized school system.

Replacing review bodies with cheerleaders

If this strikes you as alarmist, consider the analysis of the proposal prepared by attorneys Christopher Hill and Matthew Ellinwood of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project which finds that the proposed legislation makes charter schools even less accountable than they already are.

As Hill and Ellinwood point out, the new Public Charter Schools Board contemplated in the proposal would replace two existing groups (the current Charter School Advisory Committee and the State Board of Education’s Public Charter School Advisory Council) that have at least tried to maintain a balanced and objective membership and perspective.

Under current law, the Council reviews applications and the State Board of Education serves as a gatekeeper that double-checks its recommendations in order to help make sure flawed schools are not granted charters. Under this system, an unprecedented number of charter schools have already been approved in the last year. Indeed, a “fast-track” process expedited the already modest review process even further. Right now, there are already 70 charter school applications awaiting review to open in the fall of 2014.

These numbers may seem like only a trickle, however, if the proposed bill is enacted. For unlike the current groups charged with reviewing charters, the “Public Charter Schools Board” is designed to act more like a charter school advocate and cheerleader than a bona fide oversight body.

Under the proposal, members of the new group would be required by law to demonstrate “an understanding and commitment to charter schools as a strategy for strengthening public education.” Moreover, even where the new board determines that a charter is failing, the bill would allow it to be taken over by another private charter operator who would also be empowered to move in and scoop up any funds left behind. Current law requires such funds to be returned to the state.

As Hill and Ellinwood note:

“With all of the for-profit charter management organizations, ‘chain school franchise owners’ and a board that is designed to approve the maximum number of charter schools, it is likely that these organizations will identify the lax standards to open a charter school in North Carolina and target the state and swoop in like vultures to profit from our children.”

Promoting re-segregation and lax standards

The proposal is rife with other problems as well. Even under current law, charters are often highly segregated by race and socioeconomic class. The proposed bill, however, eliminates the current under-enforced requirement that charter schools “reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition” in the area in which the school is located. Instead schools would only need to “make efforts” to match the demographics of the school’s location.

The bill also does away with the even minimal requirements for teacher certification and college graduation for teachers in core classes – a change that is all but certain to impact poor and minority students.

The big picture

While the negative impacts will be significant and lasting for the thousands of children whose parents will be hoodwinked into enrolling them in the scores of fly-by-night charters that will undoubtedly emerge in the new, deregulated environment, the real damage will be to North Carolina’s public school system as a whole.

If you doubt this, please click here and take some time to watch national education historian Diane Ravitch’s talk at last week’s NC Policy Watch Crucial Conversation in Raleigh. As Ravitch makes plainly and painfully clear, unfettered expansion of charter schools is not ultimately about strengthening our public education system through “competition” and “market forces” as the proponents contend; it is about privatizing and dividing and, ultimately, transforming our public education system from a unifying, common good institution into just another consumer product.

As Ravitch points out persuasively, what ultimately makes charters and their close sibling, school vouchers, so destructive to education is the pernicious way in which they drain public resources (and engaged families) from the traditional public schools. And, in the long run, whether this bloodletting is motivated by cynical corporations or just bumbling, would-be social policy physicians, the impact on the patient is the same.

Let’s hope that the powers-that-be come to their senses and start paying attention to the modern prescriptions of genuine experts like Ravitch before it’s too late. Right now, however, it looks like they’re determined to subject our K-12 system to yet another “good bleeding.”

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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