Michael Fabricant: Disturbing trends in public education and why charter schools aren’t the answer.

This image was created by public-school art teachers Donna Barnard and Carol Dvorak of Oklahoma. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Professor in the School of Social Work and executive officer of the Ph.D. program in social welfare at Hunter College, City University of New York. He is author of Organizing for Educational Justice.

The present public education policy conversation is focused on exit and blame. Very rarely do we hear about how an unequal investment in our students influences academic performance. We’re talking about an inequality in the investment in, for example, suburban schools relative to their inner city school counterparts and about the U.S. having the one of the most unequal student per-capita investment records in the world. The discrepancy between the U.S.’s investment in poor and more affluent children is dramatic by any measure. Simply throwing money at problems is not a solution. As Linda Darling-Hammond and others note, we know what works in improving academic performance. Yet, targeted investments in teacher support, parent engagement, and after-school programming are simply not being made.

We are in a moment in which charter schools are being heralded as the answer. The back-story regarding charter policy and testing is twofold; on one hand, charter schools offer an opportunity to privatize and capitalize yet another public asset. Equally important, the policy further denigrates on the basis of disinvestment and systematic propaganda all things public, particularly schools. Testing adds a veneer of both scientific legitimacy and social justice to policies of school closings. Bad or low-testing schools close because they are not meeting the needs of low-income students of color. Thus testing is described as an instrument of social justice and equity.

These narratives turn social and political realities on their heads. Firstly, testing as a singular form of accountability is limited. Secondly, charter schools’ academic performance (as measured by a cross section of surveys) is no better and perhaps a bit worse than public schools. Thirdly, the media has disregarded this data and continued its very loud drum beat for charter schooling as an alternative to public schools. Fourthly, despite evidence that current testing formulas are misused and flawed and that charters are not producing better results, public money is being rapidly reallocated to these initiatives. Fifthly—many social entrepreneurs are making significant profits from both testing and charter schooling which, in turn, reallocates money from the classroom into private pockets. All of these trends are disturbing.

But most disturbing of all is that our schools continue to fail our poorest students and students of color. About that there is no question. Present policy does not address the basic breakdown of underinvestment in these schools and an unwillingness to use empirical evidence to both track and shape targeted programming. It simply does not reflect a belief that public schools can work. Consequently, charter schools and testing are held up as the best and most inexpensive answers. This twinning of scientific legitimacy and an ideology of market choice to gut public investment, close neighborhood schools and redistribute dollars and authority to social entrepreneurs is simply the most disturbing trend today. It assures the continued failure of public education, radical restructuring of public institutions and redistribution of public assets. These cynical policies ultimately rob all of us of the hope of seriously undertaking the complex yet ultimately possible work of improving public education for all of the poorest student of color.

The recent high-profile documentary Waiting for Superman reinforces these trends and beliefs through its resistance to tackling the complex causes and foundational solutions for solving “the public education crisis.” According to the documentary, teachers and their unions are responsible for school failure; those who work outside the system, no matter their record — like Green Dot’s Steve Barr or the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Geoff Canada — are the heroes; and charter schools (and neighborhood school closings) are the answer. Like John Wayne in The Searchers, these outsiders will be able to create another way of solving problems. This rather simplistic propaganda fails to address persistent limitations of the successes of its “heroes,” the difficulties of scaling up innovation and the unimpressive aggregated performance of charters. Equally important, the intersection between targeted investment and teacher performance is ignored. Not to mention that the relationship between those financing the film and charter-school economic and political interest groups is a powerful reminder of how propaganda is created.

In the midst of this turbulence I would posit that the best hopes for improving public education in the poorest neighborhoods are the parents of the children in these neighborhoods. Parents as a collective force are most likely to be able to break through the tissue of presumption and propaganda masquerading as effective policy-making. Their expertise and direct experience with what is working and what is not is the only needle capable of lancing the present poisonous boil of an education policy that emphasizes exit and school closings.

It is within this context that parents in the South Bronx came together and created the Community Collaborative to Improve District 9 (CC9). The campaign both provided support to teachers in very low-performing schools within the neighborhood and was later scaled up to reach across the city. Critically, the program birthed by the campaign helped to produce significant improvements in test scores within neighborhood schools. CC9 built another source of power as a corrective to established political power. It built that power through strategic collaboration and its own internal democratic practices. This story is critically important in a moment when we are being told no new money exists for public education and that ever deeper cuts will be exacted. The only way of resisting cut-back policy, promoting substantial targeted investment and restoring our public space is to create alternative sources of power that challenge the presumptions of dominant discourse and policy. Those are precisely the lessons of CC9. Now, more than ever, those lessons are the only ones we can trust to help guide us through the threatening maze of self-interest, propaganda and privatizing policy.


For more information on CC9, take a look at Michael Fabricant’s Organizing for Educational Justice.

“Everyone who is interested in authentic, deep school reform—the type of school change that will make a difference in the lives of children—should read this book.”
—Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

One thought on “Michael Fabricant: Disturbing trends in public education and why charter schools aren’t the answer.

  1. As a former charter school teacher, I agree with the author that charter schools are not the answer. The administrators at my school released 50% of the staff the year before I was hired, and somehow, they all kept their positions. Mid-year, I was released from my at-will agreement without any reason. These schools claim to say that they provide individualized educational opportunities for students and make decisions that benefit student learning…but the decisions made at my school do not reflect that. How does putting in a long-term sub for the second half of the year lead to higher levels of student learning? How is it that 50% of teachers get released and four administrators keep their job?

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