Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Government Schools vs School Privatization

In many cases the reformers of public education prefer to have public schools operated by Turkish, muslim-dominated, self appointed foundations, than by our elected school boards

Haters of our public school systems have hit upon what they think is a great way to rebrand and stigmatize our public schools with a negative image. These public school opponents, such as Fox News commentator, John Stossel, now often refer to our public schools as "government schools". The implication is that anything run by government is somehow substandard while anything run by private business, religious groups, or entrepreneurs is inherently good and successful.  Favored "non-government" school groups include Turkish muslim dominated foundations such as those established by Turkish immigrant Fetullah Gulen. Louisiana originally had two such schools. Gulen schools are the second largest group of charter schools in the U.S.

This trend in school privatization denies the democratic underpinnings of our public schools, where we the people elect the school boards that manage the public schools funded with our tax dollars. The animosity that is being generated toward our "government schools" assumes that the voters are not capable of electing persons who are qualified to manage our schools. Yet at the same time we are being led to believe that it is OK to hand over our schools with minimal oversight to profit seeking managers. The only apparent requirement is that these unsupervised managers raise student test scores. We now have ample evidence that test scores can be artificially raised in numerous ways that in no way reflect academic achievement! 

I believe this privatization movement is a recipe for the destruction of our public schools, yet the Republican party platform adopted just this week calls for major expansions of school choice using charter schools and vouchers. Unfortunately this trend is not restricted to only one political party. The sub-group, Democrats for Education Reform strongly advocates for the expansion of charters.

In Louisiana the experiments in school privatization through "government" funding of charter schools and voucher schools has produced a plethora of highly inefficient and often fraudulent school management schemes. I would like to point out some of the most serious abuses.

The charter schools across our nation inspired by the Turkish cleric, Fetullah Gulen are characterized by Turkish male dominated, autocratic management. In Louisiana, investigations have uncovered  rigged construction bidding using our tax dollars favoring Turkish construction companies, abuse of special education regulations, cover-ups of child abuse and attempts to avoid serving the most at-risk students. One of the Turkish dominated charter schools in New Orleans was finally closed by BESE following a child abuse scandal, but only after a whistleblower from the LA Department of Education who revealed unethical and possibly fraudulent actions was fired. Yes, our Department of Education fired the whistleblower who had recommended protection for whistleblowers!

Other charter schools have been characterized by a similar culture of corruption, misuse of public funds, cheating on state tests and the use of disciplinary policies to remove the most difficult to educate students. Instead of taking on the challenge of better educating underprivileged students, charter managers have put their energy into funneling tax dollars and foundation support into their own pockets.

Virtual Charter Schools Are the Worst Performers!
Both charters and voucher schools in Louisiana have sprung up primarily to reap the tax dollars made available to anyone who could put together an advertising campaign to attract parents with promises of high academic performance for their children. One of the best examples of false advertising are the online virtual charter schools that advertise with appeals such as "for students eager to receive instruction above their grade level". It turns out that scientific studies have demonstrated that students enrolled in such schools on average, lose one year of progress for every year of enrollment.

Voucher Schools Shortchange Parents Who Choose Them
One of the largest voucher schools in the early days of privatization in Louisiana was a shell of a school designed to enrich a local preacher. This school was finally closed when the news media revealed the lack of facilities and qualified educators. One of the abuses designed to encourage proliferation of charter schools and vouchers was the legislative exemption that was passed by Jindal to allow non-certified teachers. This study by the Brookings Institute showed that student test scores declined after they transferred to voucher schools.

So charter schools in Louisiana funded by state MFP tax dollars with a minimum of oversight, exemptions from quality controls, with self appointed boards, often hire for-profit operators who pay themselves whatever funds they can divert from our tax dollars. However, these schools and a major portion of voucher school budgets are really government funded schools but without the accountability that is demanded of the real public schools. State legislators who love "choice schools" probably because they receive political contributions from the operators, forget to note that at least two-thirds of each student's funding to choice schools comes from taxpayers who have no children in K-12 schools. So every time a parent takes the MFP funding for their child to a private or charter school, I am being denied the choice of how my education tax dollars are to be spent. The only way to insure that all taxpayers benefit from "choice" is to insure that all schools receiving tax monies are overseen by elected school boards. Sure charter and voucher students are required to take the state tests, but their school managers use every trick in the book to juke the stats. Recently the New Orleans media found that some students were hurriedly pushed back to lower grades to boost test score averages. It was also revealed that one school had falsified testing results to insure certain large foundation grants would be received.

It is now pretty clear that there is no real difference between for-profit and non-profit charter schools in Louisiana. The so called non-profits often launder our tax dollars into exorbitant salaries for top administrators. Students are often taught by unqualified and minimally trained teachers. The biggest abuses are usually in the area of special education where such schools often divert special education funding to regular programs.

Why do I believe that these smear tactics against public schools and the replacement of public schools with charters and vouchers threatens the very existence of public schools? Public school funding is being steadily drained each year to the point that soon our real public schools will have difficulty providing a first class education to future students.  Evidence is building that choice schools generally (except for those with selective admission) have lower student performance. We are also finding that because of the over-emphasis on state test scores, students in choice schools are not getting a well rounded education. There is almost no preparation of students for vocational-technical careers. I recently found by reviewing college enrollments that few Recovery School District students ever make it through college. But in addition, the lowering of standards for the teaching profession to accommodate charter schools and the focus on rating teachers using student test scores is doing irreparable damage to our teaching profession. Our once attractive teacher retirement system which kept many teachers teaching for a career is being seriously eroded as charter and voucher schools are allowed to opt out of teacher retirement plans. Even if our public officials finally wake up to the damage being done, it will be more difficult to rebuild our public schools. That's why those of us who know that the real public schools are critical to the future of our state and nation need to act now in electing pro-public education legislators and governors. At least we have made one giant step forward in electing Governor John Bel Edwards, but he needs our help in supporting and improving public education.

So next time you see a story about the need to do away with, or provide competition for our "government schools" be aware that these folks want to take away "your right to choose" the management of your tax dollars that need to be carefully monitored to insure the education of all American children.