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Education’s Uneven Playing Field

Let me count the ways that charter schools aren’t public schools

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People who like charter schools and want to speed up their proliferation always say charter schools are public schools. They say this not because it's true, but because they think this will ease the mind of the community as they seek to privatize public education. Well, friends, charter schools are not public schools, and let me count the ways.

Many in the Florida Legislature are looking to exempt charter schools from the Student Success Act (SSA). In case you didn’t know, the SSA ended tenure-like protections, said 50 percent of teacher evaluations had to be based on test scores, and called for, but didn’t fund, merit pay. Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, while attempting to have his cake and eat it, too, said in the Orlando Sentinel that the law “was never meant to cover charters.” He said that because charter school teachers are all “at will” employees — without the tenure-like protections that some traditional school employees enjoy — the law wasn’t meant to govern their work.

However, if you are following along, something the representative obviously hasn’t been doing, the SSA ended tenure-like protections. Then, Senate President Don Geatz said it’s OK to exempt charter school teachers — not public school teachers — from the odious Student Success Act. “I’ve been in business for 30 years. I’ve never asked for an even playing field,” Geatz said, reported by State Impact (stateimpact.npr.org). “You can’t make everything equal.”

This is what National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says about them on its website: Charter schools are always public schools. They never charge tuition, and they accept any student who wants to attend. Charter laws require that students are admitted by a random lottery drawing in cases where too many students want to enroll in a single charter school. Charter schools must also meet the state and federal academic requirements that apply to all public schools.

Recent studies have shown charter schools, despite claiming to be bastions of fairness, often pick and choose whom they accept.

Reuters just did a comprehensive piece showing how many charter schools prohibit ESOL students, poor academic performers and students whose parents are involved less than they like. State Impact reported how charter schools exclude disabled students, saying more than 86 percent of the charter schools do not serve a single child with a severe disability — compared to more than half of public schools which do. In Duval County, just one student enrolled in a charter school has a severe disability. Duval district schools educate more than 1,000 severely disabled students. There’s not a single child with a severe disability in charter schools in Pinellas County, the nation’s 24th-largest school district. The majority of charter school students with severe disabilities are concentrated in a handful of schools that specialize in those disabilities, often autism.

Public schools are required to try to educate all students who show up on the doorstep, whether they're disabled, speak a different language, aren’t academically inclined, have frequent discipline problems or have absentee parents. If charter schools are public schools, shouldn’t they be required to do the same?

Charter schools also get rid of kids at a faster and far greater rate than public schools do. All schools have some degree of mobility, but a Statewide Analysis of Student Mobility in the District of Columbia reported essentially no overall attrition from regular public schools. Expulsion undoubtedly counts for some of the charter school losses, but low-performing kids being counseled out also undoubtedly plays a role. Public schools, not charter schools, take all the kids who arrive at their door and do their best to educate them.

Furthermore, charter schools don’t have the same financial accountability measures, and this has led to massive malfeasance. Leslie Postal wrote in the Orlando Sentinel that, according to an August report by the state auditor general, a third of state charter schools had accounting problems, legal violations or other problems in their 2011 audits. One-third! Could you imagine if one-third of public schools came back with the same types of reports? The State Legislature would be looking to chop heads even more than it is now. This is the same industry that allowed the operator of a failed charter school to take home $890,000 over a two-year period. To give you some scale, the new Duval County Schools superintendent, who oversees some 170 schools, 14,000 employees and a billion-dollar budget, makes $275,000.

Some people might say: So what? The long waiting lists for charter schools prove the public wants them. Well, friends, even that’s a lie. Miami-Dade official Iraida Mendez-Cartaya testified before the Florida Legislature that in her district, students are likely to appear on more than one waiting list — an obvious reason for such inflated numbers.

Finally, don’t even get me started about how study after study says charter schools don’t perform any better than their public school counterparts.

At the end of the day, charter schools don’t follow the same laws, they don’t have the same admission standards, they get rid of students that public schools wouldn’t, and they don’t have financial accountability. How could anybody possibly mistake a charter school for a public school? It is high time we stopped referring to them that way.

I have no doubt there are some fine charter schools where kids are getting a wonderful education. The problem is that this rush to privatize has created too great of an opportunity for charlatans and corporations looking to make a buck. Charter schools as parent-teacher driven laboratories have a role to play in education. Charter schools as a replacement for public schools do a disservice to both the children who attend them and the public that finances them.

Charter schools are not public schools, and the only reason people like former governor Jeb Bush and Geatz say they are is because it gives their privatization agenda some cover. It's time we woke up and said, “Enough” — not because there are two many poor performing charter schools out there that should be closed but, simply, enough.

Guerrieri is a teacher who also writes a blog about education issues called Education Matters.

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