The Obama administration has made opening more charter schools one of its top priorities in its plans to improve the nation’s education system. On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the annual gathering of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, DC. His address came on the heels of a new Stanford University report that found that, on average, students in charter schools were not faring as well as students in traditional public schools. [includes rush transcript]
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JUAN GONZALEZ: The Obama administration has made opening more charter schools one of its top priorities in its plans to improve the nation’s education system. On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the annual gathering of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, DC.
ARNE DUNCAN: So I’m a big, big supporter of these successful charter schools, and so is the President. And that’s why one of our top priorities is a $52 million increase in charter school funding for our FY 2010 budget.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Duncan is pushing aggressively to expand the number of charter schools around the country, and the Obama administration has been working to persuade state legislators to lift caps on the number of charter schools. According to Education Department figures, there are currently some 4,600 charter schools operating around the country. They now educate some 1.4 million of the nation’s 50 million public school students. The schools are financed with taxpayer money but operate free of many curricular requirements and other regulations that apply to traditional public schools.
In his remarks on Monday, Education Secretary Duncan also addressed some criticisms of charter schools as anti-union and pro-privatization.
ARNE DUNCAN: We also need to work together to help people better understand charters. Many people equate charters with privatization, and part of the problem is that some charters overtly separate themselves from the surrounding district. This is why opponents often say that charters take money away from public schools. And we all know that’s absolutely misleading. Charter schools are public schools serving our children with our money. Instead of standing apart — instead of standing apart, charters should be partnering with districts, sharing lessons and sharing credit. Charters are supposed to be laboratories of innovation that we can all learn from.
And charters are not inherently anti-union. Albert Shanker, the legendary former head of the AFT, was an early advocate. Many quality charters today actually are unionized. What distinguishes great charters is not the absence of a labor agreement, but the presence of an educational strategy built around commonsense ideas, more time on task, aligned curricula, high parent involvement, great teacher support and strong leadership.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The gathering of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools came on the heels of a new report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO. The report found that, on average, students in charter schools were not faring as well as students in traditional public schools. In his address, Education Secretary Duncan addressed the findings of the report and said that only high-quality charters should be allowed to operate.
ARNE DUNCAN: The CREDO report last week was absolutely a wake-up call, even if you dispute some of its conclusions or its language. The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and even third-rate schools to continue to exist. Your goal should always be quality, not quantity.
Charter authorizers need to do a better job of holding schools accountable, and the charter schools need to support them loudly and sincerely. I absolutely applaud the work that the Alliance is doing with the National Association of Charter Schools Authorizers to strengthen academic and operational quality. We need that. We also need to be willing to hold low-performing charters accountable.
AMY GOODMAN: Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking in Washington, DC.
Well, among those who also addressed the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools yesterday was the lead author of that Stanford University report, Kenneth Surratt. He is assistant director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford. He joins us also from Washington, DC.
And we’re joined by Bob Peterson, the founding editor of Rethinking Schools. He teaches fifth grade at a public school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, co-editor of the book Keeping the Promise?: The Debate over Charter Schools, joining us from Milwaukee.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Kenneth Surratt, let’s begin with you. Your major findings in this report?
KENNETH SURRATT: The major finding is that, on average, charter school students in the sixteen states that we looked at are performing a little bit below their traditional public school peers.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Bob Peterson, could you expand on that? Because that is definitely going against the grain of what most charter school — the charter school movement is telling the public.
BOB PETERSON: Yeah. I think it’s really important to see that, on page thirty-two of their report, they reported that black and Hispanic students scored significantly lower in charter schools, significantly lower than their counterparts in public schools. That’s just in math and reading.
I mean, there’s good charter schools, and there’s bad charter schools, just like there’s good public schools and bad public schools. The question is whether or not charter schools can be an engine for reform of public education. Obama and Duncan seem to think so. I’d completely disagree.
AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Surratt, this report that you came out with, it was more being framed by Arne Duncan that there are some problem schools. But the fact that your report found that, on average, kids in these schools across the country are doing worse, isn’t this a major blow to the charter school movement?
KENNETH SURRATT: I don’t think so. One of the findings — we looked at over 2,400 schools within our study, and on average — and we did what we call a quality curve, and 46 percent of the charter schools are doing statistically insignificant differently than their traditional public school peers. Seventeen percent are outperforming. But the sobering part is that 37 percent are underperforming compared to their peers.
But, you know, what we feel is that charters, once they get back to this focus of the trade-off that they had for flexibility, for accountability, you know, and closing those underperforming schools and finding ways to replicate the higher-performing ones, that the movement could continue to grow.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Kenneth Surratt, I’d like to ask you about the mix of schools that you analyzed. I know you had numerous states. But it’s been my experience, at least with the charter school movement here in New York City, that most charter schools start out at the lowest grades. There are some high school, but most start out at kindergarten, first and second, and then build up. And those are generally the easiest grades to deal with. Not as many start at the intermediate or high school level, where you could really gauge whether a genuine substantive progress is being made. What is your — in your study, what was the mix between primary, intermediate and high schools that you looked at across the country?
KENNETH SURRATT: You know, I don’t have an exact breakdown of the number of schools in each one of those. But what made our analysis — we did look at performance at elementary, middle, high school and multi-level schools and found that actually elementary and middle schools were actually outperforming their traditional public school peers.
The way — the measure that we used is growth on their — each state’s test. And because testing is generally from third to eighth grade, so we can’t even really look at the schools who just have kindergarten through third grade, because we haven’t gotten a growth score on those yet.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Peterson, talk overall about the growth of the public charter school movement, where it’s come from, who is behind it, and then how you’re organizing with public school teachers around the country.
BOB PETERSON: Yeah, the charter school movement started, I think, with very well-intended individuals who wanted to be free from what they considered bureaucracy and some rigid union contracts and that their core beliefs or their assumptions were that once they had that freedom, they would increase academic achievement and that they would be innovative and that, furthermore, that those lessons would be shared with the public schools. That just hasn’t been the case. There’s no state or district where charter school policies have really been transformative in that way. And that, in fact, is why we need a public education. In a democracy, we have to service all kids. And oftentimes we find in charter schools there is some picking and selecting of children through rigorous or complicated application forms, and so on and so forth.
The other thing that’s really important to keep in mind is that while the charter school movement includes some very well-intended individuals and some quality schools, it’s also become a favorite of conservative forces and conservative foundations that have really championed charterizing and the marketizing, as I say, the whole public sphere of public education. And so, they would like to see more private control of schools, less union, quote, “interference.” And it’s a very disconcerting problem, because those of us who have the interests of all kids at heart know that there’s inherent problems in a market solution.
And so, what we really need to do is to challenge this notion that the charters are the engine of reform. There are a lot of different ways that schools can be reformed. There’s no silver bullet. But it’s not — unfortunately, it’s not the charter movement, which apparently Obama and Duncan have seen fit to say is the silver bullet.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Arne Duncan, his background in Chicago?
BOB PETERSON: Yeah, Arne Duncan, we did a cover story in our Rethinking Schools magazine, “The Duncan Myth,” just in our spring issue. And Duncan was basically the CEO, as they’re called, of the Chicago school system. He championed — he worked with the mayor, of course, and in fact he says that he’s for mayoral control of many school districts — in my mind, an anti-democratic tendency, if we’ve ever seen one.
He did a number of things. His claim to fame was really closing down schools that didn’t work, although, in the process, he alienated huge swaths of the community in Chicago. There were supposed to be public hearings, which he never attended. I mean, there were hearings, but he didn’t go, his people didn’t go. And these number — over twenty schools were closed down and then reopened up under a plan of Renaissance 2010. The problem is, a lot of the neighborhood kids who were served by these schools, whose parents wanted them to stay open, were excluded through a variety of means in the new schools that opened up, the more boutique charter schools that sometimes occur throughout this country.
The question — and the other thing that he did that’s of interest to many of your viewers, I’m sure, is that he opened up five military academies, schools, and expanded the ROTC program in middle school or junior high school, something which some of us have some serious concerns about, whether or not that should be how we channel students through the public schools.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Bob Peterson, founding editor of Rethinking Schools, fifth grade teacher at a public school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And we’re joined by one of the lead authors of the Stanford University report "Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States," that Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited yesterday in his meeting with schools around the country, Kenneth Surratt, assistant director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: In a few minutes, we’re going to be talking about the censorship of the internet in Iran and the European companies that are providing the technology for that, well, there in Iran and here at home in the United States. Then we’re going to look at the Guantanamo prisoners, the Uyghurs, and a video that just has come out showing one of those prisoners, who has been held for years at Guantanamo, was tortured by al-Qaeda and held by the Taliban for a year and a half, before being held at Guantanamo.
But we’re continuing now on charter schools. Kenneth Surratt with us, assistant director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, just came out with a big report, "Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States." And Bob Peterson, a fifth grade teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, founding editor of Rethinking Schools. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Kenneth Surratt, I’d like to ask you again about your study. Again, my experience in reporting on the charter school movement here in New York City is that the charters tend to have far fewer percentages, compared to the public schools, of special education children or children — immigrant children, perhaps — who are limited English proficient. I’m wondering if, in your study of other states around the country, you found a similar situation that may, to some degree, skew the actual performance, the achievement levels, of the students in those charter schools?
KENNETH SURRATT: Actually, our study found that students with special needs in the charter schools are outperforming their peers in math and on par with their traditional public school peers in reading. English language learners, we actually found, are doing better than their traditional public school peers in both reading and math at significant levels.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But are the percentages in the charters comparable to those in the public school systems from which they come?
KENNETH SURRATT: You know, I think it varies state by state. In each location that we looked at, I believe there were some that were higher. Most were about on par. But I didn’t see a significant difference in any of the states that we looked at.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Bob Peterson, I’d like ask you, in terms of the fact that most charter schools are also nonprofit — run by nonprofit organizations and can bring in foundation and other funding, I found increasing problems in disparities in the pay scales of the directors of these nonprofits, much higher salaries than your normal public school principals would have. I’m wondering, your concern about the accountability factor of these charters, since they are not directly controlled by the local public school system?
BOB PETERSON: I agree. There’s real accountability factors.
And I just want to go back to the special needs issue. I mean, if you look at the Stanford report on Illinois, for example, 15 percent is the average number of special needs students in public schools, and only ten percent in the charter schools. Now, that actually is significant. And it’s not just a matter of how well those students are doing; it’s the impact on the classroom teacher. I’ve taught for nearly thirty years. I know the difference between having just a few special needs children in a classroom and having a lot more. And we find this in Milwaukee, too, where not only the charter schools, but we have a publicly funded private voucher program, which have very few special needs kids. And the concern I have is that we’re setting up a two-tier system, where there is the most difficult-to-educate kids, a higher percentage of special needs, English language learners, kids who are counseled out of charter schools and voucher schools because of discipline problems — they end up in the public schools, where there’s a self-selected group in the charter schools. That’s not right.
We should really hold public charter schools — coming back to your question about accountable — to serving the children of all families in our district and having transparency, so we know when kids are being counseled out, when kids are basically being kicked out of schools. Just, we should not have charter schools emulate some of the worst aspects of public schools, because in some public schools there are admissions standards, there’s basically discrimination, not full access towards the kids who need it most. We should be trying to reverse that trend, not accentuate it by promoting these kind of charter school solutions.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’ll continue, certainly, to follow this issue. Bob Peterson, founding editor of Rethinking Schools, teacher of fifth graders at a public school in Milwaukee, co-edited the book Keeping the Promise?: The Debate over Charter Schools. And in Washington, DC, where the big public school — public charter school conference took place yesterday with the Education Secretary Duncan, is Kenneth Surratt, assistant director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, co-author of "Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States."