Patronage, Politics and Charter Schools

The math looks very promising for the well-heeled in Chicago

The math looks very promising for the well-heeled in Chicago

By Don Rose.  Introduction by William Astore.

Charter schools, in theory, offer advantages to public schools.  They’re advertised as offering “choice” to concerned parents, who shop for the “best” schools as measured by test scores and related data.  They promise to hold teachers accountable.  They say they offer novelty in pedagogy.  

But in practice charter schools are often inferior to public schools. They’re also often efforts at politicizing and commercializing education for the advantage of various stakeholders. They convert (and at times corrupt) a public good into a private gain.

As Don Rose shows in the article below on Chicago’s schools, the creation and funding of charter schools creates fresh opportunities for profit-taking and influence-peddling among the well-connected.  And private gain for a few, in the name of public good for the many, may be more than a feature of capitalism.  It may be a contradiction, especially where our children are involved.  Anyone want to bet whether this issue is raised in Chicago’s freshly minted charters?  Or for that matter in the Mayor’s office?  W.J. Astore 

Patronage, Politics and Charter Schools

Don Rose

Charter school proponents, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett, argue that those publicly funded, semiprivatized schools offer communities greater choice in education because dropping union regulations enable the schools to develop innovative new programming and thus improve education by creating models for public schools to adapt.

This may have been the historical case, but charters long ago ceased offering anything new that public schools could utilize, particularly since teachers unions in today’s world have reformed significantly, focusing more on education than protecting the jobs of any and all teachers—Including the lousy ones. Credit American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Chicago counterpart Karen Lewis (whose style many find irritating).

Chicago, like New York, already offers a range of choices within the public system and many more could be created. On average, charters run the same gamut as public schools, ranging from superb to miserable. KIPP charter schools are excellent, but in Chicago and New York even the best charters are outperformed by the best public schools. (That’s why charter advocate and funder Bruce Rauner, the zillionaire gubernatorial contender, clouted his suburban-dwelling daughter into Payton, a top Chicago public school.)

Critics raise several issues, aside from the fact that charters offer no guarantee of quality. They view charters as strides toward union busting, paying lower wages to nonunion teachers; they see a drain of public dollars because per-pupil funding is often double or triple that of public-school kids, with taxpayers footing the bills. Many also believe the charter movement’s ultimate goal is privatizing public education.

Chicago schools are $1 billion in debt. Last year it slashed the budget and closed 50 schools—with more to shut this year—claiming closures will save millions. As it happens the savings are far less than proclaimed because “receiving” schools had to be upgraded. Meanwhile about a thousand minority kids disappeared from CPS records in the switchover.

Here comes the Alice-in-Wonderland part: Mad Hatter Emanuel now wants to open 22 new charters, some where he closed schools because of “underpopulation.”  This will cost Chicagoans $225 million over the next decade, plus the inflated per-pupil allowance paid by the state.

Why?

Because charters are the new coin of political patronage. A glaring example is the UNO group, until recently led by Juan Rangel, who was forced out after exposes of cronyism and corruption in its charter network, which has received more than $100 million in state money. Rangel, who earned $260,000 a year, was a co-chair of Emanuel’s mayoral campaign while UNO personnel worked in local campaigns against Emanuel’s critics.

The Sun-Times just revealed that two close cronies of the mayor own properties where a pair of the new charter schools will be housed. One will collect annual rents starting at $529,000 rising to $961,000; the other will collect $180,000 rising to $500,000.

This is classic pinstripe patronage, typically funneled through contracts with lawyers and bond issuers. Now it’s an unconscionable mix of money and politics, short-changing the debt-plagued public school system, punishing children and taxpayers alike.

9 thoughts on “Patronage, Politics and Charter Schools

  1. At some point early in the history of this “republic” or whatever the hell we live in here in the USA, wise heads decided it was in the national interest for all children to receive a rounded education, with the public footing the bill, whether a given household actually had offspring in the “pool” or not. The idea was to flush out of backwood shacks those young ‘uns who would otherwise receive a Biblical “education” ignoring science or no education at all, in favor of working in a mill, tending tobacco crops or whatever. The apparent decay of the public system is but a reflection of societal ills, issues that go far beyond some incompetent, unmotivated teachers. I have no doubt that the charter school movement was initially largely motivated by the “christian” right’s desire to move society away from the great evil of “secular, humanist values” (the scariest notion to this mindset since The International Communist Conspiracy fell on hard times…in fact, in what passes for these folks’ “minds,” practically the same thing!). And then it became a feeding frenzy as public funding became available to these new charter operations. The horses are long out the stable door, so reversing this trend would be very difficult. But I will continue to be outraged (‘cuz “that’s how I roll”!) at the shunting of public tax revenues to these for-profit entities. If we are to still mandate that children must receive an education, it should be done in the public sphere and the problems should be addressed to the extent things can be improved inside those school facilities. As to the larger problem of the environment at home, where Junior plays ultra-violent video games for hours on end and Mom and Pop are terrified to intervene? That can only be resolved behind the closed doors of the individual home. If that sounds like an old-school call for DISCIPLINE…you are correct, go to the head of the class. And that’s as close as you’ll ever catch me veering toward the (supposed) message of “conservatives”!

    • Great comment, Greg. In theory, and let me repeat that “in theory” caveat, charter schools are better, more responsive, more accountable, whatever. In practice, they are avenues for the well-connected to profit from education while exerting control, either directly or indirectly, on the curriculum. Many, if not most, public schools are equal to or better than the highly touted charters. So why promote charters? As you say, usually for ideological reasons (e.g. religion) or for profit (as Don Rose’s article documents).

  2. Let’s be very direct about so called “charter” schools. They are privately & corporately owned, for profit schools with our taxpayer money as a subsidy. They are in direct contradiction to what the founding fathers set up to maintain our democracy. FREE PUBLIC EDUCATION, as part of the common good along with freedom of expression, privacy, and a free press. So we now live in a country that offers only a sample of each of these pillars of what we fool ourselves into claiming is “freedom”. Charter schools are directly undercutting our democracy and should be eliminated.

  3. Charter schools are just one more way for wealthy investors to bleed us dry. It has little, if anything, to do with actual improvements to education. We should focus on public school quality AND on quality jobs for teachers. Kick money bags out of the equation and stop the race to the bottom.

  4. Pingback: The Fix Is In: Money, Sex, Politics, and Education in America | The Contrary Perspective

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