Sunday, May 03, 2009

Democrats Contribute To Worst Legislature

We know we’ve given Republicans a hard time because of their insipid law-making during this session of the Tennessee Legislature, but in the interest of fairness, we note that the inane behavior on Capitol Hill is hardly the province of one party

Democrats, notably those from Shelby County, continue to build the case for this legislature to be called the worst in modern history. Both political parties have proven just how out of touch they are and how easy it is to place your political ambitions over the public good.

If, as some people say, gun obsession for many is an extension of a castration anxiety, Republican legislators must have nightmares of becoming eunuchs.

It’s only a matter of time before someone is killed in a park or restaurant by a quick trigger finger. When it does, the bumper sticker will be proven right. Guns don’t kill people, people do – and those people are the state legislators passing these laws.

Sacrificing Kids For Political Ambition

But not to be outdone, Democratic legislators used kids rather than guns for their political pandering, relying on one of their favorite bogeymen - charter schools – as they opposed an amendment that would give more Memphis parents choices for their children’s education.

The Democrats used their same old time-worn red herrings:

* Charter schools undermine public schools (even though charter schools are public schools)

* Charter schools “cherry pick” students (even though state law requires them to educate failing students or students from failing schools)

* Charter schools take money from public schools (even though they are supposed to be funded at the same level as public schools, Memphis City Schools shortchanges them)

* Our state doesn’t need more charter schools because we are doing so well on our state assessment tests (even though repeated research has shown that our TCAP and Gateway tests are a farce)

100% College-bound

While all of this political theater was taking place in Nashville, the drama here was in the fact that every one of the 70 students in the first senior class of the first charter school in Tennessee has been accepted to college. Despite taking some of the lowest-performing students in Memphis City Schools, Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering’s (MASE) senior class was 100% college-bound.

In other words, MASE took Memphis City Schools’ slogan seriously – Every Child. Every Day. College Bound – but instead of a thank you card from the city district, our city officials took to the halls of the legislature to lobby against giving more students the same kind of opportunity.

We’re not suggesting that charter schools are the panacea. The problems of Memphis City Schools are too deep and wide for a single magic answer, but it’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t be trying as many innovations as possible to improve the disappointing performance of our district.

And yet, the teachers unions, the educational bureaucrats, aided and abetted by our local Democratic legislators, treat the children in our classrooms as props in an annual political theater aimed at protecting teachers from more accountability, fighting any innovations that aren’t invented by them and rejecting any solutions that come from nontraditional sources.

Charter Schools As Civil Rights

This has been peculiar behavior, but it’s even stranger these days, now that President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have called for less restrictive charter laws so that more children are given this opportunity. In fact, almost in the same breath, Secretary Duncan rightly calls quality education the “civil rights issue of our generation.”

But year after year, whenever a charter law comes before the Tennessee Legislature, the emphasis is less on the civil rights of the next generation as the fund-raising ability of the politicians in the room. Sadly, there’s really no one in Nashville lobbying for students themselves. Instead, districts like ours lobby for protection of the status quo.

In previous years, opponents have suggested that charter schools were some insidious invention of white conservative businessmen. The backdrop this year was radically changed because President Obama, in a March 10 speech, called for states to lift arbitrary caps on the growth of public charter schools in the interest of “promoting innovation and excellence.” He said the 26 states, including Tennessee, that have caps on charter schools should remove them.

“Right now, there are caps on how many charter schools are allowed in some states, no matter how well they are preparing our students,” President Obama said. “This isn’t good for our children, our economy, or our country. I call on states to reform their charter rules and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools, wherever such caps are in place.”

Wanted: Focus And Logic

Then, in an op-ed column in the Nashville Tennesseean about five weeks later, Secretary Duncan, along with Tennessee Senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, wrote: “We have seen the potential that charter schools can have in getting results for American students. As the debate over public charter schools moves forward across the country and in Tennessee, we must stay focused on the core issue, which is educational quality, not government.”

Unfortunately, focus is not something that raised its head in the legislative hearings on removing Tennessee’s restrictive charter school caps. Logic was in even shorter supply. To his credit, Tennessee's most persuasive advocate for school reform, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean asked the legislature to make Tennessee friendlier for charter schools, rightly observing that it's not a partisan issue.

Meanwhile, desks in charter school classrooms go empty, and Tennessee can only have 50 total charter schools in the entire state. Memphis can have no more than 20, and only failing students and students from failing schools can attend them. All that’s been asked of the legislature is to expand the pool of potential charter school students so that more parents have choices for their children’s education.

It would seem that legislators might want to get an independent reading of the situation. There is such a report written for the Tennessee Comptroller by principal legislative research assistant Erin Do with the help of researchers at University of Memphis’ Center for Research in Educational Policy. It points to the charter schools’ autonomy to select teachers and the additional flexibility given to teachers in return for more responsibility.

Everyone Else Is Out Of Step

While charters tend to use traditional methods of instruction and may appear on first look to be similar to regular schools, they have longer school days and additional school days which allow enrichment and remediation classes for students. “The established culture in each charter school allows for a higher level of student engagement,” the report said, noting that the charter schools have internships, field trips, guest speakers, small class size, additional teacher assistants, site-based decision-making and character education.

According to the report, the elements of successful charter schools include:

• They are driven by mission and positive school culture

• They teach for mastery and focus on college preparation

• They innovate across the program

• They engage families as partners

• They value professional learning

• They hold themselves accountable

I guess it’s asking too much that our legislators actually get the facts before they vote. This time around, they’re not only ignoring the results of the schools and the recommendations of the state’s own report, but the president and secretary of education for good measure.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Let me ask you two questions:

1) If there was no conclusive evidence that at-risk students attending charter schools do better than their public school counterparts, would you still support public funding of the charters?

2) If the issue is really quality education for children, would you support the right of workers - teachers and support staff - to unionize in the charter schools IF they agreed to waive the kinds of tenure and accountability standards that you and charter advocates claim are too restrictive?

Kerry said...

Anon 9:05, neither of your questions make sense as presented. Charter schools ARE public schools. Students in charter schools do not have public school "counterparts," because they are public school students themselves. Charter operators have only ever petitioned for the full, fair funding to which every public school in the state is entitled--and to which they have been systematically, repeatedly denied. Perhaps the real story here is not simply the remarkable accomplishments of a visionary institution like MASE--it is the fact that they have reached these accomplishments while having to make do with less than other schools in the district with lower test scores and college matriculation rates.

The idea that teachers' unions are imposing restrictive "accountability standards" on schools is, to put it very mildly, an interesting perspective. "Accountability" has not exactly been the watchword for the teachers' unions over the past several decades, to their obvious detriment and that of our public schools.

Zippy the giver said...

Charter schools, by the definition you gave at the end, are the polar opposite of the existing system, which is why people leave Memphis.
If you have a medical problem, you still receive indifference from MCS. If your child has a problem in class, wouldn't expect a call so you could nip it in the bud, no notes home either.
Just two of the things missing on the list are enough to drive people away, no positive culture and engaging families as partners. The opposite is what happens and people leave as they can afford, but, are never really happy with the schools.

victor said...

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victor
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