Sunday, February 28, 2010

VA Should 'Charter' Untested Waters

VA Should ‘Charter’ Untested Waters
Commentary by Sanford D. Horn
February 28, 2010

The business of education is indeed tricky and education is indeed a tricky business.

Education is like going to the doctor for every little malady and stomach ache without regard to cost, because if you have insurance, you don’t see the actual cost. The same is true with education as the costs are built in to our taxes and we don’t see the actual costs. Perhaps if the average taxpayers saw the breakdown of what education costs, they might pay more attention to how substandard and dumbed-down the educational system in the United States truly is and then attempt to affect a change.

Before anyone accuses me of bloviating, I am not just talking the talk but have also walked the walk – as a public school teacher, as a charter school teacher and as a school board candidate. It was as a school board candidate, in 2006, that I called for shrinking the budget by reducing a top-heavy administration and questioning the need to pay the T.C. Williams High School athletic director $92,000 – a salary double that of more than just a few teachers’. Sadly, the voters opted to go in another direction.

This is a case of good money being thrown after a bad system. The City of Alexandria is a most demonstrative example of the need for a charter school in Northern Virginia. According to (March 4, 2010) the City of Alexandria ranks as the 23rd richest municipality in these United States. However, in the Commonwealth of Virginia alone, the Alexandria City Public Schools fall to 193 of 219 public school districts in the commonwealth.

Adding to the embarrassment, T.C. Williams High School ranks 311 out of 319 public high schools in the entire commonwealth and Jefferson-Houston Elementary School ranks 1043 out of 1050 public elementary schools in all Virginia. Numbers like these speak volumes, unfortunately too many in Alexandria cannot read them. This in a city where the median household income is $85,135 and supposedly they take education seriously as 63 percent of residents older than 25 have earned bachelor’s degrees, according to the Forbes statistics.

I hope to affect a change by taking my experience and education to the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia and open a charter school. For the uninitiated, “charter schools are independent public schools that use tax dollars but do not have to follow a lot of school district rules. They can have different hours, different textbooks, different teaching methods and whatever else appeals to the teachers and parents who have gotten permission to set them up.” That definition comes from Jay Mathews, a longtime Washington Post education writer (March 4, 2010; B-2) and is as good a definition as one will find.

Charter schools would not be necessary were it not for the impoverished system of public education across the United States. This is an indictment of both the Democrat and the Republican parties; the Democrats for taking members of the education community votes for granted and the Republicans for virtually ignoring the education community. To be fair, the vast majority of the education community – teachers, administrators and certainly the unions march in lock step with the Democrats, giving that party little reason to provide any more than lip service.

I stand with Governor Bob McDonnell (R), for whom I voted last November, because among other reasons, he supports an increase in the number of charter schools in Virginia. Currently there are three charter schools in operation with a fourth due to open this calendar year – none of which are in Northern Virginia. Clearly, it has been demonstrated that there is a need in Northern Virginia.

Part of the problem is akin to the fox guarding the henhouse. According to the Code of Virginia’s section on charter schools, an easily readable 10 pages, a successful charter school application is one that meets with approval from “the local school board.” Thus the fox-henhouse analogy. Why would a local school board cede power to a charter school and lose students from the public schools it already controls?

Because it is all about power and control. A Washington Post article, “Charter schools plan hits resistance,” (Feb. 25) noted that Gov. McDonnell supports an appeal process in which rejected charter school applicants could seek relief from the state board of education to override the local school board. Groups representing teachers, superintendents and local school boards have voiced objection to this proposal. I believe it is these groups coupled with teachers unions that are obstructing real progress due to their own power in perpetuity plans.

In the interest of transparency, a bill sponsored by Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Prince William) passed the house mandating local school boards to explain the reasons for rejecting any charter applications. Such explanations will assist potential charters to improve their chances with future applications. Currently, no explanations are required. This only further handcuffs the charter school applicants and strengthens the lock local school boards have over preventing parents from having options for their children.

Why would anyone want to stand in the way of genuine progress? Call it plantation politics. In the days after the Civil War or the War Between the States depending upon who you ask, freed slaves who had no education and for the most part only knew lives of field work, continued to work for their former masters. Granted these were now free people, but what economic prowess did they have? Little to none. And the wherewithal to achieve it? Hardly. But somehow, as sharecroppers, they could never get ahead and in reality, life changed little for them.

City schools systems support the above salient point as they have the highest dependency on government for free and reduced priced lunch and now even breakfast has become the responsibility of government. City schools have the highest dropout rates and ultimately higher rates of unemployment. This is not to suggest suburban and rural schools are not immune to this educational quagmire. The dumbing-down pandemic has stretched its talons far and wide, dragging all who stand in its wake into the trough of mediocrity that can only be cured by conjuring up new mechanisms of providing quality education to children without kow-towing to parents.

Social promotion is one area where parents do considerable harm to their children. Parents demand their children be passed along to the next grade for any number of reasons, none of which are as important as the child actually mastering the material of that grade in the first place. Like the evils of affirmative action, society, or the culture of the school, is not doing these children any favors.

In Whose Best Interest?

Without competition all we have is an educational sharecropper system; a virtual monopoly that the American people have idly watched not for years, but for generations, as it has pushed the United States further behind more and more nations as they strive for the betterment that seems to have passed the United States by and pushed the US hurdling toward the abyss.

As consumers would we settle for one brand of toilet paper? One flavor of ice cream? One style of jeans? Certainly not. Not only do we as Americans want options, we want the best money can buy. Without competition there continues to be a spate of homogenized education where more often than not administrators are in fear of parents, where parents believe their child can do no wrong, where teachers are expected to do more with and for less, where teachers are hardly treated like educated professionals – it’s no wonder more and more are leaving the profession, where students behave with disdain and disrespect toward anyone and everyone even those wanting to help them.

Are more charter schools the answer? As one wanting to open one, the surprise answer is not necessarily. Better charter schools with more autonomy – that’s an answer, or at least a good start. Charter schools where personal responsibility is a mantra. Where students are held accountable for their behavior, their character, their homework and grades and whose parents will play key roles in ensuring the success of both their own children as well as the school as a whole. The ability to offer competitive options is a good beginning.

“It is a fundamental principle of the free market that when you infuse competition into any equation, you make it better. We are lacking in any substantial competition in education,” said Virginia Delegate C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) in the above mentioned Post article.

If schools boards, superintendents and teachers unions truly wanted what is best for their charges – the students – the leaders, doctors, lawyers, scientists and teachers of tomorrow, they would fully endorse and encourage greater competition in the educational system. Not to turn this too political, but Democrats who seem to bellow loudest when it comes to issues regarding choice are also quickest to slam the doors on vouchers and charters. Why? Could it be because of the overwhelming, almost unanimous support received by Democrats from those in power positions in education along with teachers and their unions?

As a candidate for school board I recall facing influential groups in an effort to garner their vital endorsements. In spite of being the only candidate in my district with public school teaching experience, I did not secure a single endorsement from such entities. Although I did not win that particular election, many of those who did cast ballots for me said one of the reasons for doing so was my experience in the classroom.

Why then did organizations who represent teachers not feel likewise? Was it because I am a conservative supporting school choice? Was it because I publicly stated throwing good money after failing schools was not the answer? Was it because I suggested the school system was too top heavy and rife with needless layers of administration? It was all of the above simply because my solutions would diminish the stranglehold such organizations have over the public education system not just locally, but nationwide.

Prior to the Virginia Senate passing a watered down version of McDonnell’s nascent proposal on March 9, there were objections from the above mentioned power mongers. They believed McDonnell’s initial proposal giving the state board of education a voice, would thrust new charters on localities without the financing to support the new schools. Until their fears were ultimately assuaged, the representatives of the teachers, administrators and unions actually raised a valid point. Taking a page from the traditionally conservative playbook, the question of from where the funding would emerge was not disingenuous.

A Penny for Your Thoughts, Millions for Stadiums

The solution is the public-private option. Instead of seeking funding via the federal government, purveyors of new charter schools should look toward private industry, foundations and philanthropies with the understanding that such institutions are not dictating policy or teaching practices. That would, as it should, remain in the hands of the professionals.

After all, corporate sponsorships for stadiums are a fixture in society, why not schools? M & T Bank Stadium is where the Baltimore Ravens play football, but M & T Bank does not run the team, determine who should play for the Ravens or the appearance of the uniforms. Closer to the point, and my heart, is the $110 million Comcast Center, home to the University of Maryland men’s and women’s basketball teams. Whatever amount Comcast poured into this NBA-quality arena could easily open a couple of charter schools. Admittedly, as an alumnus, I too contributed to make the Comcast Center a reality.

Public-private partnerships are win-win as the money is not funneled from the federal government, good will is created by corporations who in turn could benefit from improved reputations and potential tax credits. For those people concerned with the influences of advertising, all one need do is look around virtually any school to see various foodstuffs, beverage machines, one brand name of computer or printer instead of another. No, no, that excuse won’t wash.

Corporations looking to recruit students to create the next generation of their workforce should invest in their own futures by investing in the futures of the children they may one day employ. Keep Americans employed by American companies in America.

It is not xenophobic to suggest that too many foreigners who temporarily emigrate to the United States for an allegedly higher quality of education ultimately stay here permanently for undoubtedly higher salaries than they would earn in their country of origin. Perhaps it is the work ethic foreign students display that leads them to the success Americans used to perpetuate more than a generation ago. Quite frankly, who can fault them for seeking greater wealth? However, with the education foreign students garner in this country, they ought to return home and help make their native country a better place to live, work and play, as we say here in Alexandria. After all, if a rising tide is said to lift all boats, these people should bring high tide home.

The Post article also indicated that “charters are freer to experiment with schedules and curricula than regular public schools and are popular with some education reformers.” From those with whom I have spoken, popular with most education reformers would be more accurate. School boards throughout the US are already adjusting schedules on an almost weekly basis as the snow continues piling up in record-breaking and back-breaking volume.

Third World Statistics in the USA

We as a nation can no longer sit by hamstrung by the power brokers who clearly do not have the best interest of the students in mind. It is criminal that a nation as powerful, resourceful and wealthy as the United States of America has schools without heat, schools with broken windows, not enough desks for the students, textbooks so outdated that Ronald Reagan is still president (granted, that is wishful thinking for many of us), no science equipment, no music or art classes, or physical education. This is not an exaggeration – I have taught in schools like that which have been described.

This also begs the question, where is all the money going? It sure wasn’t going into the pockets of the teachers – I have the pay stubs to prove it. Nor for lab, sports, music equipment or updated textbooks or field trips. How can schools in the nation’s capital not embark upon field trips – the city should be treated as a campus adjunct.

Children need music and art education to stimulate the part of the brain that lies dormant from a lack of the non-traditional academic subjects. As for physical education, with all the talk of an obesity crisis in this country, this is needed more than ever. Besides, ask teachers who work in schools sans phys ed how their students release their pent up energy. By being disruptive in the classroom because that is one of the only outlets they have.

Make no mistake, I am not excusing students’ bad behavior simply due to a lack of physical education. I am a firm believer in discipline and am convinced there is not nearly enough of it in our schools.

A lack of discipline, oftentimes the genesis of which is in the home, leads to truancy or worse yet, truculent behavior when miscreant students deign to show up at all. Such malignant behavior spreads like a cancer – eating away at the morale of the students yearning to learn and stealing from their education. Frustration sets in, leading to more students dropping out of school, which in turn plummets their lives further and further toward an unrecoverable vapidness.

According to an article in USA Weekend “One in three kids drops out of school” (Feb. 26-28), “30% [sic] of young people drop out of high school, including half of all minority and low-income youths.”

Right here in Alexandria, VA the graduation rate last year was a paltry 78 percent, according to the inaugural speech given by City Councilwoman Alicia Hughes. There is absolutely no excuse why nearly one out of every four students can not successfully navigate a high school curriculum. And this in a brand new, state-of-the-art school, for which millions of taxpayer dollars were spent, proving that a fancy building does not create successful students.

As paltry as 78 percent sounds, turn those statistics around and look at cities whose graduation rates are 30 and 40 percent, as opposed to dropout rates. Clark County, NV, the home of Las Vegas, a city shunned by Barack Obama, experienced a 44.5 percent graduation rate in 2009, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. Does anyone think the more than half of Vegas’ student body that dropped out will find good, high paying jobs? Don’t bet on it. And for those folks taking Obama’s advice to stay away from Sin City, there go additional tax dollars for public schools or earnings corporations could use to sponsor a charter school. Your words have consequences, Mr. Obama.

And Las Vegas is not the only city whose odds are against its student populations. The graduation rate in Los Angeles was 44.4 percent; Baltimore: 41.5 percent; Cleveland: 34.4 percent and bringing up the rear, Indianapolis, with a truly horrific 30.5 percent graduation rate in 2009, according to the Editorial Projects in Education.

Dreary, disturbing and depressing statistics to say the very least. Even more so that each of those numbers represent children whose ability to pursue happiness will be severely thwarted. Are charter schools the answer? Until administered properly, that remains to be seen, but clearly the present system of government-run public schooling is a palpable and dismal failure.

For those who would suggest that DC charter schools, for example, have not produced beyond what the public schools statistics demonstrate, I maintain it is partly due to improper administration. Charter schools in their infancy that enroll students beginning with middle school or worse yet, high school, are forced to attempt to undo the first six to possibly eight years of public school education.

Consider a newly opened charter school analogous to an expansion team in a sports league. There will be growing pains during the first few years. There is no expectation of an expansion team winning a World Series or Super Bowl during the early years of the franchise. The expansion New York Mets lost 120 games out of 160 – the worst ever – during their inaugural season of 1962. In 1969, after their first seven years in either last or second to last place, the Mets shocked the baseball community by winning their first ever World Series.

Let’s check the statistics after students are educated in charter schools from the genesis of their education and watch graduation figures rise like a Phoenix, not just to respectable rates, but to rates that demonstrate American students can compete successfully in the global arena.

Sanford D. Horn is a writer living in Alexandria, VA. He has a Master’s in Education.

No comments:

Post a Comment