In my last post, I explained that I no longer believe TFA to be improving the educational landscape of my city for the better. My chief complaint is the organization’s courtship of private philanthropists whose primary objective is to weaken public schools and strengthen charter schools.
A huge part of what rankles me about TFA nationally is my feeling that the organization is castling in a fight against public education. If you will forgive a chess metaphor, castling is a move in chess which shelters the king in a corner of the board, typically behind a row of pawns, and frees the rook to attack. I see TFA as the rook in this game, affording the king (corporate reformers writ large) some cover to advance their agenda on more favorable terms(1).
I had no reason to believe that our local group was making any inroads of this sort if only because Texas is already an at-will, right-to-work state, so it’s not like we could have made things any worse for teachers’ rights(2). But then I came across the news that the George W. Brackenridge Foundation is trying to fund-raise $50 million to increase the number of students enrolled in a charter school by 80,000 by adding 145 new charter schools. To give you some perspective, if we were to treat the students enrolled in charter schools as a single district, they would be the second largest school district in Bexar County to Northside ISD(3).
The George W. Brackenridge Foundation, like many big-money education philanthropists, is a benefactor of Teach for America. The board of the George W. Brackenridge: chairwoman Victoria Rico also serves on the boards of IDEA and BASIS Texas charter schools(4); trustee Randy Boatwright “is the founder and owner of Boatright Oil & Gas Properties”; trustee David H.O. Roth(5) “is a Shareholder at Cox Smith Attorneys where he heads the firm’s Energy Industry Taskforce.” Not exactly the first three people I’d choose to be at the forefront of transformative educational change.
I have made an about-face on charters. Before I began teaching, I admired what schools like KIPP were advertising: take the “same kids” as low-performing urban public schools and get better results. The extended school day/week/year, the 24-hour availability of the teachers by phone, the well-developed culture of discipline; all of this sounded like what kids need to overcome an achievement gap.
Then I started teaching in a traditional public school. I was faced with the intense rigor and commitment of the job and came to appreciate the healthy balance I could achieve by keeping work and home comfortably at arm’s length. I felt the drain of a 7 AM to 6 PM work schedule, not because my school asked me to work those hours, but because I wanted to do everything within my power to do better for my students. I could not imagine this daily schedule being a mandate and not a choice.
I am dismayed that charters have become the raison d’être of education reformers in San Antonio, though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as it’s quite clear this is trend throughout the country.
I do not think KIPP or IDEA are “bad” schools. I think they do right by some of their kids. The problems I have with charters, “high-performing” or otherwise, are:
- Exclusivity – Charters do not have to keep all students. What invariably happens as a result is that the least desirable students are weeded out of high-performing charter schools like KIPP and IDEA. This includes students with severe to moderate disabilities and students who are Limited English Proficient. The effect is known as “cream skimming” in which the students with the easiest to serve needs remain and the ones with the most challenging needs are sent back to their district schools or perhaps a “second-chance charter.” This is in opposition to the philosophy of “One day, all children…” espoused by the TFA organization. What this means in practical terms is that the students served by charters are not apples to be compared to the apples of traditional public schools given that their demographic make-up is decidedly less poor, less disabled, and less limited in English language skills. This tells me the methods used by “high-performing” charter schools are not meeting the needs of our kids who have the most needs, most likely because they hire the least-experienced and least-equipped to handle these higher needs.
- Unreasonable working conditions – The high-pressure, high-workload expectations of teachers at KIPP and other charter schools is not good for professional development, leads to high levels of attrition, and fosters an environment for teachers to burn out quickly. Who would want to work for 20 years in a school which has them on call nearly all year at a job in which they are at school nearly all day? When are teachers supposed to have families of their own? Not to mention these teachers are working for salaries less than their public school peers are earning. I fear this model is what corporate reformers truly desire: more work for less pay. As long as charters cream skim, it will appear this model gets “better results” and this will build greater public support for charter school expansion, despite the long term perils of a teaching profession defined by a revolving door of energetic young people stopping in for a few years before moving onto a job with better pay and working conditions. This leads to…
- Deprofessionalizing of the teaching profession – If we continue forward in the expansion of charter school networks, professional educators, knowing their market value, will be less likely to serve students in low-income communities knowing that suburban school districts will provide better pay and working conditions. This will leave the students served by the melange of charters to be taught by less-credentialed, less-experienced, and less-trained teachers, many of whom will no doubt be TFA corps members as they are today. I imagine TFA’s San Antonio presence will be bolstered significantly by an expansion of charter networks founded by TFA alumni. And they will teach for 2 or 3 years and then leave only to be replaced by another TFA corps member who will teach for 2 or 3 years and you get it. All this despite years of research and evidence pointing to the increased effectiveness of veteran career teachers who get to year 5 or so. Oh well, can’t let a little empiricism get in the way of change, I guess.
- Segregation – How funny that the solution to the “civil rights issue of our time” is to put kids in schools with even greater racial segregation than their neighborhood schools. But charters and privatization do exactly that.
- Perverse incentives – Investors can make a mint off the construction of new charter schools. The profit motive is an insufficient justification for the expansion of charter schools.
- Charters represent an abandonment of the public sphere – There is something sacred to me about what public schools represent. It is accountable to its community in a democratic way. Its function is, at its heart, about producing tomorrow’s citizens. The corporate reform movement is less interested in that. It is myopically focused on a narrow vision of academic achievement as measured by standardized tests. It is less interested in producing citizens and more so in producing good workers. They’ll crow about decreased competitiveness with Asian tigers as they have done for decades despite no ill effects to American economic competitiveness from supposed Japanese/Singaporean/S. Korean et al. superiority in math testing(6). And they will use this rationale to support policies which strip teachers of their voices, of their rights as stakeholders in the education of their students. The school choice model means parents are customers who must air their grievances in the marketplace. If a customer is dissatisfied, she takes her business elsewhere. And if the market doesn’t meet your needs? Well, there isn’t a big enough market for what you want to be cost-effective or profitable. You’re a passive participant voting with the dollars your child nets the school where she attends. You don’t vote for your school board members. I think I am struggling to articulate why this bothers me as much as it does, but life is long and I’m sure I will talk about it again in the future.
As a direct supplier of teachers to charter schools and a direct beneficiary of the expansion of charter schools in San Antonio, TFA’s mission to improve public education in San Antonio is fatally compromised. I do not believe that traditional public schools and charter schools will mutually benefit from the expansion of charters given the funding implications of student enrollment.
Again, I question neither the sincerity nor the talents of TFA as a whole, but at this juncture in the game, the very talented rooks are moving into position to protect the king and advance a privatization agenda that is not in the best interests of the students we serve.
(1) If you’d care to extend the metaphor, let’s call the pawns “school children in low-income neighborhoods” many of whom will be sacrificed in service of the king.
(2) Cue ominous music.
(3) Enrollment: ~97,000 and the district in which I was educated from K through 12.
(4) If you read the Texas Observer link in the second paragraph, you will see that these two charter networks are among the ones targeted to expand under the Brackenridge plan.
(5) What a total bummer this isn’t David Lee Roth, he could champion the death of public schools while doing acrobatic bicycle kicks in a lycra jumpsuit and I would totally be on board with it.
(6) And, in spite of our inferiority complex, East Asian countries are equally insecure about their capability to produce children who exhibit creativity and risk-taking the way we do.