To seem rather than to be

To seem rather than to be

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing

Supporters of public education fight back against empty promises of state’s school privatization movement

Americans are suckers for advertising and, in some ways, it’s an admirable trait. It speaks to our national traditions of optimism and hope for the future.

Unlike so many other parts of the world in which people have been beaten down for so long that they embrace a kind of chronic skepticism and suspicion, most Americans still harbor dreams of a better life for themselves and their children. We want to believe those promises – from drug and car companies, financial planners, computer career outfits, and the like.

All of which serves in part to explain the allure of “school choice.”

Think about it: School can be hard. You’re a parent with less-than-perfect recollections of your own school experience. The news is full of stories about school funding problems. The public school to which your child is assigned is a little dog-eared, a bit of a melting pot and somewhat intimidating. Maybe your child has special needs.

Now, all of a sudden, you’re presented with glossy brochures and websites promising something different and better: lower class sizes, brand new textbooks and computers, a “new and innovative” curriculum and a bright new school full of clean, happy, well-fed kids who look familiar. And better yet, the school is free and/or dramatically subsidized!

For Americans raised on the secular religion of modern consumerism, it’s easy to understand the allure of such a sales pitch – especially when the “competition” doesn’t even play the marketing game.

Most presenters and attendees at this past Saturday’s conference (“Impact of Privatizing Public Schools: A Crisis in the Making”) sponsored by Public Schools First NC at Raleigh’s McKimmon Center, are familiar with this one-sided contest. They (educators, parents, school board members, researchers, advocates) have seen these kinds of come-ons time and again and watched as private actors have slowly but surely eroded faith in our public schools and lured parents and children into the state’s mushrooming networks of charter and voucher schools.

On Saturday, they told the story, via dozens of tables and charts and numerous real world anecdotes, of how North Carolina’s rapid expansion of charters and vouchers is undermining our already threadbare and neglected public school system.

They also told the audience of 200 or so:

  • How voucher and charter schools generally do not reflect the racial/ethnic make-ups of the counties in which they are located and, as a result, how they are helping to worsen the state’s already problematic levels of school segregation;
  • How charter and voucher schools have no obligation to take on kids with special needs (or provide free lunch or free transportation) and inevitably end up “cherry picking” children and parents;
  • How charter and voucher schools frequently expel challenging children and send them back to the traditional public schools, which are obligated to take them;
  • How the General Assembly and state education officials have allowed charters to explode in the state’s two largest systems of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake over the objection of local officials and to the detriment of traditional public schools;
  • How many voucher schools openly discriminate against children based on their parents’ religion, marital status and/or sexual orientation;
  • How, while some charter schools have produced great results, many others have literally failed, shuttered their doors, and sent their enrollees back to the traditional public schools in short order;
  • How millions of taxpayer dollars are flowing to out-of-state corporations for shareholder profits, big executive salaries and lavish advertising budgets;
  • How high schools are a lot more expensive to run than elementary schools and are, as a result, less attractive to investors;
  • How the state’s crude and one-of-a-kind system of assessing and affixing letter grades to traditional public schools (a system that places an outsized emphasis on standardized test scores and fails to take poverty and other factors into account) sets many schools up for failure;
  • How public school teachers are subjected to a mysterious, privately-developed and managed evaluation system that often produces wildly inconsistent results;
  • How charter and voucher schools are exempted from accountability measures;
  • How charters and vouchers bear many striking similarities to mid-20th Century efforts to resist school integration; and
  • How the promised innovations that were supposed to redound throughout the public education system as the result of “market competition” and from charter schools serving as “incubators of innovation” have simply never materialized.

In short, the presenters and attendees at Saturday’s event explained how North Carolinians have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to charters and vouchers. This is not to say that many children aren’t doing just fine in the charter schools and private voucher schools that they attend or that many adults behind those schools don’t have laudable intentions. It is to say, however, that when one surveys the big picture, there is simply no indication that either the state’s children or its education system as a whole are better off as a result of this costly experiment.

It needs to be rethought.