You’d better watch your step if you’re involved in any way with a charter school. It’s now open warfare between the establishment forces and the charter interlopers. At the behest of Ken Bramlett, Inspector General of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), on January 25, 2017, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security raided the offices of Celerity Educational Group, a company which manages seven charter schools in Southern California, in search of evidence of fraud or financial mismanagement. Mr. Bramlett is no stranger to law enforcement raids, with 23 years experience in various police positions as well as affiliation with the FBI National Academy Associates.
The ongoing conflict between the two groups is reaching a fever pitch, particularly in Los Angeles, where over the past eight years charter schools drained away tens of thousands of students from the L.A. Unified schools. The problem is that as students leave the public schools, their allocated public funds go with them. With the continuing loss in enrollment, the school district fears for its financial survival.
Perhaps a few comments on the basic conflict is called for. The charter school concept, which originated in Minnesota in 1991, promotes tuition-free public school receiving waivers from various regulations so it may pursue a program with more freedom in organizational structure, curriculum and educational emphasis than a traditional school. The fly in the ointment is the emphasis by charter schools to increase profitability by operating as non-union shops. Understandably, they are vehemently opposed by the United Federation of Teachers, which accuses them of “. . . privatizing public education and breaking the power of teacher unions,” adding “. . . we adamantly reject the idea that anti-unionism has any place in real education reform.” With massive sums of money at stake, the conflict is inevitable. As long as taxpayer funds continue to flow into schooling, with each competing group relegated to getting its share however it can, advocates for both traditional and charter schools will continue to fight it out for the loot.
You may ask why large numbers of students are leaving the public schools and enrolling in charter schools. The justification comes as no mystery. In general, charter schools throughout the nation developed a reputation of providing superior education. Whether this is so is hotly debated, but it’s nonetheless believed by many. You might note Celerity schools posted higher test scores than the L.A. Unified average. In 2016, 55% of Celerity students who took the state English exam scored at or above grade level, as opposed to only 39% throughout the district. It can be claimed a student’s superior performance may not be attributable to the proficiency of the school attended, but it’s nonetheless an effective arguing point.
Despite the bad press reported on learning in America, let me spread a little favorable light on this subject. Education in the United States is not as grim as reported. The continual focus on the failing school distorts the picture. By definition, a school is “failing” if it’s in the bottom 5% of schools across the state based on combined English Language Arts and math scores. By mathematical necessity, five percent of the schools in every state must be designated as failing, and this is so regardless of the quality of teaching, the condition of the campus or a positive attitude of the students. If a school falls into this category because a large portion of the student body is not proficient in English, or perhaps not inherently scholastic by nature, or that many must work to help support their family, it will remain a failing school. So, despite the stigma assigned to a failing school, there’s no reason why highly-motivated pupils cannot do well in such a setting. Provided no actual hostility to education exists, a relatively bright and attentive student can both master the required subjects and maintain a high academic standing in the class. The fact a school may be designated as “failing” need not rub off on those who attend. If the media would concentrate on the ninety-five percent of schools which are not failing, we’d discover there are many fine institutions, a huge pool of dedicated instructors and a nation brimming with educated youngsters.
In this brouhaha, a fundamental question must be answered: Does the reputed benefits and techniques the charter schools claim to offer actually enhance the educational process, or are the differences between the two systems mostly contrived as the participants haggle over the money. I contend it doesn’t matter much how a school functions or whether the faculty is particularly competent. As a chemistry instructor some years ago, I made an interesting discovery. My bright and industrious students did well. Those who were bright, though not particularly motivated, managed to get by. The dull ones who applied themselves also managed to get by, but the dummies who fluffed off invariably failed. It became clear to me: Bright and motivated students will do well while those who are dull and lethargic will do poorly, regardless of how instructors perform or the school is administered. In this regard, nothing will ever change.
I’ll now share with you my beliefs concerning the school wars in progress. The belligerents phrase their arguments in grandiose ways: “Children of working-class families possess the right to demand quality education,” as opposed to “Parents must have the ability to transform their chronically underperforming schools.” But the conflict is far more profound than the hyperbole suggests. The root of the problem is that massive amounts of taxpayer dollars follow the student, where under the formulas predicated upon Average Daily Attendance (ADA), fortunes will flow to those whose schools can be governmentally sanctioned. It’s this perennial conflict over the money which causes the battle to rage on as it does.
I’ll offer a final thought on this matter. There’s a fundamental flaw in the American public school system the professional educators dare not acknowledge. It’s that millions of youngsters are impressed into a system for no legitimate reason. Legions of youths will grace the seats of countless classrooms and never learn much of anything. How, you may ask, can an establishment employing a huge work force and consuming a staggering amount of the nation’s resources be permitted to function in this manner? It’s because the school system is neither designed nor does it operate primarily to deliver an education to its students. Instruction in America is, at best, a peripheral goal of the public schools. In reality, the institution exists for the benefit of many diverse and conflicting groups including elected public officials, administrative hierarchy of the schools, the teachers and their representatives, non-credentialed employees, textbook publishers and distributors, and a host of groups and individuals too numerous to mention. The brutal fact is students are not among the many groups to whom benefits are bestowed. They’re children and, as such, are in no position to enforce demands. They can be safely ignored by the establishment. And so, the school system is what it is: an institution where money is passed around to those who are favored.