By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the end, though, what‘s so bad about unfettered choice, even if that were to be the primary accomplishment of charter schools? Maybe nothing, but the book When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale, about school choice in New Zealand, raises concerns. In it, former New York Times reporter Edward B. Fiske and Duke University professor Helen F. Ladd build on other scholars’ research to recount what happened when the government abolished neighborhood enrollment zones, forcing all schools to compete for students.
Many parents, especially those with low incomes, were not able to exercise ”choice,“ because few alternatives existed where they lived, or because they could not afford transportation, student fees and other costs associated with attending a popular school. Over time, enrollment patterns became increasingly stratified along ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Minority students -- mostly Maoris and Pacific Islanders -- became increasingly concentrated in certain schools, as did problem students who could not meet admission criteria established by the ”desirable“ schools. In short, said the authors, some schools were thrown into a downward spiral, while others ”excelled“ thanks in large part to an influx of educated, prosperous families.
In this country, by contrast, charter supporters point with pride to the significant numbers of minority students in U.S. charter schools. But that hardly settles the issue of potential re-segregation. A detailed study of individual charter schools in Arizona, published last year in the Education Policy Analysis Archives, looked beyond simply totaling up the number of minorities enrolled in charters. Researchers found that minority students were clustered in a handful of charters near where they lived. Other charter schools had a much higher percentage of white students than neighborhood schools. These charters seemed to be exacerbating the ethnic separation of students, even in multiethnic neighborhoods. Other studies of choice schools in the U.S. and Great Britain have reached similar conclusions.
Closer to home, in San Diego, the student population at the Tubman Waldorf-style school, though relatively diverse, is whiter, more prosperous and less transient than both the district as a whole and neighborhood schools it was once compared to. The new Explorer charter school in gentrified La Jolla is 92 percent Anglo. The urban Sojourner Truth Learning Academy is 96 percent African-American.
In some instances, to be fair, charter schools encourage Anglo or prosperous families to return to a public school, and their personal stake in public education benefits the entire school system. And many charter operators actively recruit a diverse student population. Moreover, a well-run, all-minority charter school would clearly be preferable to a dismal traditional school.
Still, the evolving choice system runs a tangible risk of segregation, and also for engendering a two-tiered system. In this nightmare scenario, prosperous families would have access to charters with creative curricula, arts education, college prep and experienced teachers, while impoverished minority neighborhoods would have to settle for last-chance or vocational schools, or for-profit charters that cut costs with inexperienced teachers using idiot-proof canned curricula. That is just the sort of dispiriting school described by writer Elizabeth Kolbert in her October 9 New Yorker profile of the for-profit Advantage Schools.
In addition, a 1998 study raised concerns over the treatment of disabled students a at for-profit charter schools in Massachusetts. Researchers concluded that the schools ”often ignore special-education law and treat students with more complicated disabilities as financial liabilities“ -- even while promotional materials fairly glowed with nondiscrimination statements and welcoming language.
More specifically, researchers Nancy J. Zollers and Arun K. Ramanathan wrote that these schools did a ”decent job“ with mildly disabled students. But with other disabled students, they ”engaged in a pattern of disregard and often blatant hostility toward students with more complicated behavioral and cognitive disabilities.“
Among the practices they documented: Schools would re-classify moderately disabled students as severely disabled so administrators could escape a legal obligation to serve these students. Other disabled students were ”counseled out,“ that is, the charter school advised parents that traditional public schools would be a better place for their children. The researchers even recorded instances of disabled students being harshly and inappropriately disciplined, in an apparent attempt to encourage their departure.
Such tactics were notably less apparent in that state‘s not-for-profit charters. And some charters have done excellent work with disabled students, even specializing in programs to help them.
For-profit operators have generally avoided California, because schools receive so much less funding here than in many other states. (Some New York school systems, for example, spend $8,500 per student per year compared to about $4,300 per student that is available to California charter schools.)
Even so, there’s anecdotal evidence that the ”counseling out“ process also has occurred here. The accusers include Superintendent Richard Graey of the Mattole Unified School District. During the 1998-99 school year, Graey‘s district operated a charter-school affiliate of the one2one California Learning Foundation, which specialized in computer-assisted home-schooling. ”When I first started with them, they didn’t want to have special-education kids in the school,“ said Graey. ”I said, ‘You can’t do that.‘ They just didn’t know what the law said.“
One2one California has since dissolved, said A. James Jones, the CEO of the one2one Learning Foundation, the Dallas-based nonprofit that spawned one2one California and also operates a charter school in Texas. On behalf of the Dallas organization, said Jones, he has personally assumed responsibility for eight California charter-school affiliates.