Sunday, May 22, 2005


Chartering a bad course

So there I was, a real-live participant in the Right's bold experiment to retake public education from the NEA and the secular humanists.

Really, it's all a blur to me now. I remember a pencil hitting me in the back of my head as I was writing something on the board. On numerous occasions I was called things that I can't describe on this family-oriented blog. I still have nightmares of this really big girl up in my face, hands on hips, head swiveling, keepin' it real.

The harder I think, the more vivid memories become, like the time a fifth-grader incited a near-riot when he told me, "I'm-a f--- you up," as I was escorting his sister to the office for some forgotten infraction. Oh yeah, there were also the assault charge I filed against another fifth-grader after he shoved me trying force his way back into a classroom from which I had banished him. Both offenders were allowed to return to school after an all-too-brief suspension.

Welcome to the world of charter schools, privately run institutions dreamt up by right-wing think-tankers in an effort to inject some free-market reform to fix our public education system. As the marketeers envisioned it, charter schools would compete against the public schools for students and receive the state's per-pupil allocation for each child enrolled. Unburdened by top-heavy bureaucracies, charter schools would reinject excellence into the system and thrive with disciplined environments and high test scores. The competing traditional public schools would either have to improve or close. And if any charters themselves failed, they could be closed much more easily than any public school. Or so the position papers stated.

But a funny thing has happened down here on planet Earth. Across America the research is mixed, but the concensus is concluding that charters do a worse job of educating students than public schools. Here in St. Louis, the charters are almost uniformly bad with test scores so low they barely register, tales of out-of-control discipline and rampant fraud and waste. Our city schools, as bad as they are - and believe me, they're pretty darned bad - outperform charters by a longshot on practically every indicator.

Which brings me to the reason I started dredging up all these bad memories I had managed to beat down. According to this morning's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, not only are our area charter schools a mess, we can't even close the darned things when they're deemed a failure. Out of 27 charters established in Missouri since the law permitting them was passed in 1998, only two have actually closed. About a third, including my old school, have lost the sponsorhip by a state university needed to operate, yet still continue to do just that. Across the river in Illinois, the picture is equally bleak. Most of these schools have learned they can litigate and legally maneuver into infinity.

And boy, does my old school need some closure. Imagine 1,200 kids, kindergarten through eighth-grade, jampacked in a building with only three small restrooms. Imagine, out of entire grade levels, the number of kids scoring "proficient" on the Missouri's MAP test in the single digits. Imagine cops herding handcuffed students out the front door and responding to calls to the school almost daily. Imagine a school that for at least three years had no library, playground equipment or a gym - not even textbooks its first year. Imagine a top school official indicted on charges he stole $22,000 from federal funds earmarked for nutrition programs.

Fortunately, there's a silver lining in this busted system. Oh sorry, not if you're a student or parent. But in typical conservative fashion, there's big money to be made here in warehousing inner-city kids whose parents were hoping for something better. Apparently you don't even have to teach them much. Hell, they're not really even kids to these coporate executives, who aren't shy about packing 30 of them into a room. Just think of them as little walking bundles of cash, courtesy of the taxpayers.

And now, thanks to the Ayn Randers who concocted this scheme and the politicians and bueaucrats who allow it perpetuate, we now have not only one broken-down education system, but two. Apparently, they're both here to stay.

And now for something completely different:

I think enough has been said about the Newsweek/Quran-flushing scandal that my erudite opinion is hardly called for. Instead I'll just applaud Frank Rich's column on the matter in today's New York Times and let you read it for yourself. Just click the link below. You'll probably need to register, but it's free.

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