Charter schools are taking a hit due to national politics

A fascinating commentary appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review section by Conor Williams, a New America senior education policy program researcher.  Entitled “Charter Schools have a Betsy DeVos Problem,” it outlines  the story of Hiawatha Academy’s Morris Park Elementary School, a charter school in Minneapolis in which 90 percent of its students are Hispanic.  Most of the children enrolled here are kids of immigrants.  75 percent of the student body is learning English as a second language.  At this facility, the author points out, proficiency rates for math and English language arts are more than twice as high as those in the rest of the state.  According to Mr. Williams,

“Hiawatha schools should be easy for the left to love. They’re full of progressive educators helping children of color from low-income families succeed.  And yet, they’re charter schools.”

Because Betsy DeVos is such a strong supporter of charter schools and her boss President Trump is so vehemently against illegal immigration, it is putting supporters of these alternative schools in a tough position.  Mr. Williams continues:

“And now the teachers are being forced to respond to criticism from people who by most measures should be their allies.  Robert Panning-Miller, the former president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, has called Hiawatha schools emblematic of a ‘corporate reform movement’ that values ‘compliance and test scores over critical thinking’ and criticized them as being part of an ‘apartheid education’ movement, because their children are almost exclusively children of color.”

Of course, the political left has always disliked charters.  It is threatened by charter’s disruption of their dominance of the education monopoly of government schools, and they hate the fact that almost all charters do not have unionized teachers.  But now it seems that the election of Donald Trump, and the selection of Betsy DeVos as his U.S. Department of Education Secretary, has added lighter fluid to their attacks.

So it should come as no surprise that the group leading the collective bargaining agreement negotiations for Cesar Chavez Prep PCS should come under assault by Rachel Cohen writing for the Washington City Paper.  In her recent highly demeaning piece on TenSquare, the charter school consulting group, she includes this quotation that eerily mirrors the words of Mr. Panning-Miller captured in Mr. William’s article,

“Christian Herr, a Chavez Prep science teacher who sits on his union’s bargaining team, says that a major change in his school since TenSquare’s takeover is a greatly increased emphasis on standardized test prep.  ‘It’s not like we needed to spend $140,000 a month to have someone tell us to do more test prep,’ he says. ‘It was really hard for us when our school board decided some things needed to be restructured, but didn’t even come to us, didn’t even ask what we the teachers thought. They have these buildings full of people who live in these neighborhoods and have worked in these schools for a long time, all this expertise, yet you make the choice to bring in someone who knows nothing about it and pay them massive amounts of money.’”

It is a complete mystery how Josh Kern, the co-founder of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, and who was its executive director for a decade, could be accused of being “someone who knows nothing” about creating a high performing school.  That Ms. Cohen considers herself a credible reporter and includes this remark by one of the leaders who brought the American Federation of Teachers to Chavez without challenging its assertion is proof of her motivation in conducting her investigation.

In her report, Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, is made to appear corrupt because he apparently recommended that a school utilize TenSquare to improve their academic results.  Next, I’m sure she will claim he is in cahoots with Charter Board Partners for his advice that a charter turn to them for assistance with governance issues.  The final icing on the cake will be be his providing of the phone number of Building Hope when a new school needs to find its permanent facility.  Somehow turning to experts has become a crime.

It’s all beyond the pale.  Perhaps for her next submission Ms. Cohen could focus instead on relating the tales of the heroes in our D.C. charter schools who are preparing for college young people who in the past might have ended up in prison or dead.  As Hiawatha School’s English language development teacher Natalie Heath explains to Mr. Williams:

“I wish that people knew that the thing that’s most important to us is that students are achieving at high academic levels and they’re also empowered individuals.  That’s all that should matter.  But when it comes to education priorities in 2018, it seems to be the last thing anyone wants to talk about.”




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