Sunday, March 29, 2009

TEA Well-Schooled In Rhetorical Excess

We can only hope that the president of Tennessee Education Association (TEA) is more concerned about the facts in the classroom than in the halls of the state capitol.

After all, he regularly skewers them in his quest to become the educational version of the N.R.A., working to block any proposed legislation in the Tennessee Legislature that might inject more accountability into public education or more innovation into a pedagogy developed for the Industrial Age.

The reason for his latest act of “shoot first and get the facts straight later” was a bill pending in Nashville that would loosen the state’s restrictive law defining who can attend charter schools. To hear Earl Wiman, it would seem that the whole of Western public education hangs in the balance, and perhaps, it was because of the stress from this responsibility that he made four errors of fact in a two-sentence response.

“Overall, you’re reducing resources public schools have in order to serve a select group of students,” he said. “That’s not what public schools and public policy should be about.”

Get It Right

One, Mr. Wiman said that charter schools are reducing public school resources. If he believes it, he needs to sign up for remedial math. If there are about 3,000 charter schools students in Memphis City Schools, that means there are 3,000 fewer students in traditional schools. According to state law, a student in a charter school is to have the same amount spent on his education as in a traditional school. If this were true then, there’s no reduction in resources, because it’s a wash.

More to the point, as we wrote 18 months ago, Memphis City Schools does not comply with state law, so about $3,000 less is spent per charter school student than a traditional school student, or about $9 million a year for 3,000 students. So, actually, right now, “public schools” have more money, not less.

Two, Mr. Wiman said that charter schools are hurting public schools. Here’s the thing: in Tennessee, charter schools are public schools. For example, the charter schools in Memphis are part of Memphis City Schools. In return for its contract, or charter, it has more autonomy than traditional schools, and because it is allowed more flexibility, it can experiment with changes that can be applied to the entire district (that is if the district would quit treating charter schools like the enemy), but along the way, it must also comply with many rules and regulations of the city schools district.

Selective Memory

Third, Mr. Wiman said charter schools serve a “select” group, apparently wanting to imply that charter schools are “creaming” the best students from Memphis City Schools. He surely knows that he’s not telling the truth, because the only thing select about charter schools students is that they are the most poorly-performing students or from the most poorly-performing schools.

You see, the only students in Tennessee who can attend charter schools are those who are failing students, who attend failing schools or who already attend a charter school. It was just one of several barriers set in the way of charter schools’ success in Tennessee, but which they still managed to scale to prove that public education should encourage more innovation, not less.

Fourth, Mr. Wiman said charter schools are poor public policy. We are hard-pressed to understand how anything that gives parents more choices – something they clearly want, according to polling – for their children’s education is bad. It just indicates how out of touch TEA is with the people who entrust them to do what is best for their children.

High Stakes

The sad thing is that in the halls of the legislature, this issue will likely be decided on the basis of the lobbying by either those in favor of the change to state law or those opposing it. Unfortunately, as usual, no one will take the time to determine what the parents want, and once more, students will be treated as pawns in a game of high-stakes politics.

And it’s high stakes, most of all, because it’s their lives that hang in the balance.

Large bureaucracies often act like organisms that see innovations as viruses they must attack. That's why so many promising ideas are suffocated in their infancies, and why after 30 years of talking about it, city and county governments still are trying to consolidate their engineers' offices.

The most telling example of this bureaucratic antipathy is found in Memphis City Schools' attitude toward charter schools. A district beset by controversies, federal and state investigations, and academic inertia, and with 78 percent of parents giving the schools a grade of C or lower, should claim charter schools as a much-needed success story.

History Lesson

After all, every charter school in Memphis is part of the city school district. It's just hard to tell it by the way those schools are treated. It began when the Tennessee Legislature passed the charter school law in 2002, but after intense lobbying from educators, lawmakers capped the number of charter schools in Memphis at 20 and refused to allow every student the opportunity to attend.

Despite the hurdles, interest in Memphis was immediate. The state's first charter school opened in 2003, eight more followed, and four new ones are now in the works. The rest of Tennessee has only three, all in Nashville.

On the best days, city school officials gave charter schools lip service, and on the worst, they treated them like pariahs, a disdain most vividly on display when Yo! Academy was closed with a speed thought impossible in the school district.

In recommending the closing, Interim Superintendent Dan Ward said he would not condemn students to attend a school that's not working. Left unspoken was the fact that 100 regular city schools clearly fell into the same category. Also, Yo! Academy was shut down after being on the state's high-priority list for one year while more than 20 regular schools had been on the list for six straight years.

No Helping Hands

Charter schools have received little help and support from the central office. Lines of communications have been fragile, if not nonexistent, most of the time.

Sometimes, it seems that district officials — and the teachers union in particular — fear that the autonomy given to charters to hire their own teachers and principals and the accountability built into the schools could infect the established educational order of things even though only about 3,000 of the district's 105,000 students attend charter schools.

Meanwhile, charter school students are doing significantly better on state tests than comparable students in regular city schools, according to the annual analysis of the University of Memphis Center for Research in Education Policy. In addition, researchers report that parents and teachers are much more satisfied with the charter schools' environments than regular city schools.

These results are even more impressive considering that the charter schools are being shortchanged. State law says students in charter schools will get the same amount of public money spent on them as other students; however, calculations by Memphis City Schools result in payments that are about 25 percent less.

Compounding Disinterest

To compound the financial stress, charter schools, in keeping with state law, don't get any county government bond money for construction and renovation. As a result, their organizers spend considerable time raising the missing funds.

All of this benign neglect makes little sense to outsiders, particularly in the midst of the controversies rocking Memphis City Schools.

Over at one charter school — Circles of Success Learning Academy (COSLA) — elementary students regularly recite a creed that says in part: "I am capable of meeting every challenge that I must face. I will use my physical, mental, and spiritual capacities to reach my destiny. I will not try to make anyone feel less than me nor allow anyone to make me feel less than the person I am. I will never bring reproach on myself or my school. I am responsible for my own success."

It's a creed that speaks to the central philosophy of charter schools, where its advocates see themselves as part of a movement rather than just as operators of a few schools. As uplifting as it is to hear young students repeat the creed, it would be even more uplifting if it was coming from Memphis City Schools.


Anonymous said...

Great post - thanks for bringing to light many of the public school injustices that persist. While affluent parents can readily choose the school that's best for their children, the parents with limited economic means are sadly denied that same opportunity (by the very people who are supposed to look out for the interests of students).

It's criminal how the folks part of the status quo try to squash anything and anyone that they perceive as threat to their jobs and security.

I'm glad to see the CA picked up on something positive in the community and cast a light on some school efforts making a huge difference for kids (and how these charter schools are getting marginalized by districts and legislators for their efforts).

Zippy the giver said...

Anonymous, you got that right.

Anonymous said...

That was a good post. You're right that MCS would do well to do more to claim and support the charter schools. Maybe we'll see less reasons from them not to now that they have a few charter schools of their own.

One thing that could be disputed is your characterization of the YO! Academy closing. The school was closed not just because it had poor performance (2 years), but because it had financial problems too. Those financial problems that questioned whether the school would be able to operate for the entire coming school year seemed to be the final straw that pushed the School Board to withdraw the charter. There aren't many who would call YO! Memphis a model of financial responsibility. Ward's quote on the school closing was certainly ironic, but if the school had just been on the list, without financial struggles, it didn't seem definite at the time that the school would have been closed.

Smart City Consulting said...


We wrote about it at the time. We believe that the financials at YO! were not reason enough to shut the place down. We believe that they were used to justify a decision made for other reasons. We hope you'll read the earlier post written at the time.

Thanks so much for the comment.