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The myth of charter school success

Critics of public education have argued for years that throwing money at public schools doesn't solve the "education crisis." Now come Eli Broad (who revealed his formula for charter school "success" last week), Bill Gates, the Annenbergs, Hunts, Waltons and other billionaires who willingly pour vast sums of money into "public" education provided they can designate where it goes and how it will be used. Apparently, throwing money at the schools is acceptable if you get to call the shots.

In the last decade, conservative philanthropists have given hundreds of millions of dollars to establish their own agendas. The most recent announcement, January's grant of a paltry $23 million by Broad, was typical of this modern philanthropy. Instead of truly aiding public education, Broad chose to subsidize several privately operated charter school conglomerates in the Los Angeles area. Principal beneficiaries of his largess were the highly-regimented KIPP schools and the misnamed Aspire Public Schools. The only thing public about either system is that they are supported by California taxpayers. Broad's grant is but a fraction of the amount given to these schools by the state.

Typical charter schools such as Green Dot, which Broad also subsidizes with what are probably tax-deductible gifts, are privately controlled and run by unelected, self-appointed boards that are effectively unaccountable to the public. The State Board of Education and the state agency that "oversees" charters are now dominated by pro-charter appointees.

KIPP, Aspire and Green Dot have "succeeded" because a relatively small number of motivated parents and students have voluntarily withdrawn from the Los Angeles Unified School District, believing that the district has not coped with the massive problems facing public education in urban California today.

From the day the Supreme Court ruled that schools must end segregation, including the de facto system in California's urban schools, a steady flow of white children left our public schools. Forced busing dramatically escalated that. Education-oriented parents who might have kept the schools on their toes no longer had any interest in the public schools, as their children were now attending private institutions.

Simultaneously, the percentage of nonnative students enrolled in the public schools skyrocketed. Many had extremely limited English language skills and their parents often could not speak English at all. That's a recipe for educational disaster.

KIPP, Aspire and Green Dot don't face that problem. Through what amounts to a contract with parents and students, they screen their applicants and admit a clientele that, in a traditional public school, would do as well or better than they are doing in the charter school.

If Broad's pet charters had to accept 3,000 limited-English, low-income students from ethnic backgrounds that include a high percentage of single-parent families, with widespread gang involvement and little commitment to education, scores that the charters now trumpet would fall significantly. But working with a select group of students who would score well at any school, Broad's charters garner only somewhat better-than-average test scores - despite the massive amount of public and private money poured into them.

Charters claim that their schools score far better than traditional public schools serving similar students. That's not true. The students at Locke or any of the other at-risk high schools in LAUSD are not "similar students" when compared to those who have left the public schools and moved to the charters. What Broad, Green Dot and the others do not reveal is the scores of those charter students when they were in regular public schools. It's our belief that those students were already outscoring their fellow students in the traditional schools before they moved into charters. Low-scoring students do not enroll in Broad's charters. His charters have skimmed off the education-oriented kids who otherwise would be raising test scores for traditional public schools.

We challenge Broad or any of his fellow privateers to fund a demonstration project within the conventional public schools. Let LAUSD administrators and faculty develop an experimental public school for all types of students, giving the teachers the opportunity to develop an initiative on their own consistent with traditional educational values.

Walter P. Coombs and Ralph E. Shaffer are professors emeriti at Cal Poly Pomona.

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