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Commentary: Charter school lobby seeks to restrict democratic control of schools

By Ron Whitehorne on Oct 5, 2012 08:34 AM

Gov. Corbett's administration, supported by the charter school lobby, is seeking to pass a change in the charter school law that would effectively remove control of charter schools from local communities in favor of a statewide commission of political appointees. The proposed law would also ease requirements for prospective charter school operators, increase the term for renewals from five to 10 years, and dramatically increase the ability of local school boards to convert existing public schools to charters.

Under the revisions, any district-run school, regardless of its performance, could be targeted for conversion to a charter, and the requirement that some parental and community support be demonstrated is dropped. The law would also exclude the records of some charter school vendors from the “right to know” law.

For much of the last year, the prospects for the law’s passage seemed dim. But now, proponents of the bill have adopted a new tactic, attaching the essentials of their bill to the stalled bill that would change the funding formula for special education. This is a cynical ploy meant to avoid a serious discussion of the issues concerning charter schools.

Public school advocates, and, for that matter, charter school advocates who share a commitment to special education ought to demand that this amendment be put in the trash where it belongs. 

While adopting the public posture that governance doesn’t matter, the legislative agenda of the charter school lobby is that governance very much does matter. Its view: The more it is removed from local communities, the better things will be.

Jonathan Cetel, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now, has said that "parents don't care about governance structures. They care about making sure their child attends a school that is safe, staffed with caring adults and preparing them for success.” 

But this notion that parents don’t care about governance provides an easy rationale for avoiding transparency and accountability.  It may well be that most people do not pay attention to governance in the abstract. But when it becomes clear that their interests are being ignored and they have no means for redress, they demand a voice. Like the parents at the Planet Abacus charter in Tacony, who at a recent School Reform Commission meeting called for sharing governance with a parent board at the school after a federal grand jury indictment of school administrators for fraud

Repeated corruption scandals and evidence that some charter schools operate as if they were private schools demand more, not less, democratic control.  

Public education has developed as an institution that is directly accountable to the citizenry thorough the election of local school boards (except in Philadelphia and, increasingly, in other communities that are taken over by the state). The corporate school reformers are at odds with this democratic tradition. Over the last decade, they have pushed mayoral control of schools, discarding hard-won democratic reforms like Chicago’s Local School Councils. They also have supported increasing state government intervention at the expense of local control. These developments have facilitated a greater role for business-friendly elites and are linked with a reform agenda that favors closing traditional schools in favor of charters.  

Prospects for passage at this point are unclear, but clearly the bill's proponents hope to peel off a few votes from legislators concerned about making changes in special education funding. Education Voters PA has some excellent talking points for influencing your legislator.



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Comments (15)

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on October 5, 2012 5:33 pm

For people who love parent trigger laws, you'd think they would conceal their contempt for parents better. You can always be agnostic about the inputs when you're children aren't in the school.

This is the same nonsense that lead to "pedagogy doesn't matter if schools make AYP". 

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 5, 2012 6:48 pm

Exactly! Not only is true public education under attack, so is democracy itself.

Ron, everything you write is so perceptive and so right on the mark. It has been a pleasure getting to know you and reading your work.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 5, 2012 8:18 pm

Republicans control the State House, State Senate, and the governorship. Their tactics should not come as a surprise.

It is union busting 101!

They have to piggy-back/ back door this legislation to fool the voters.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 7, 2012 5:09 pm

And what democracy is there for students and parents if there is only the district schools with no competition? It's obvious that the PFT does not want any competition or choice for students. Inded, their platform seems to ignore what is best for students, and focuses wholly on what is best for the union. Despicable.

Submitted by tom-104 on October 7, 2012 5:18 pm

Public schools provide a public service. They are funded by the public through taxes. They are supposed to provide an educated populace for the country if they are funded right.

Do you want competing fire companies so that only the private company you choose comes if your house is on fire?

Do you want competing police forces that only respond to your 911 call if you have signed up with their company?

The only reason there is so called choice in public education is because traditional public schools are being starved to force parents to put their children in privately run, but publicly funded charters.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 7, 2012 6:03 pm

First of all, fire companies used to be privately run. Given the technology at the time, the system worked well. Today, the vast majority of fire companies are volunteer. Are you suggesting a volunter education system? For police, we have competition in overlapping jurisdictions. Local police, State police, and the Feds. If the locals don't do their jobs, the state or feds step in.

The charters are PUBLICLY funded. The taxpayers who are footing the bill want choice for parents and competition among schools for the students. All the spin, lies and deceit coming out of the PFT isn't fooling anyone.

Submitted by tom-104 on October 7, 2012 8:38 pm

Charters are publicly funded, but privately owned and run. At the charter school in Chester Upland all the teachers are laid off in June, forced to go on unemployment for the summer, and then the charter chooses who can return. They return at the same pay with no step increase or cost of living increase. You can bet if they complain about the salary they are not called back and mention of the word union is automatic dismissal. At the same time, many charter CEO's are paid over $200,000 salary per year. This is the "competition" you are talking about.

As to your statement about volunteer fire companies. You obviously live in the boondocks. Such fire company would not work in a large town or urban area.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on October 7, 2012 9:36 pm

As many problems as there have been with the public system here in Philadelphia, the democratic purpose of education is under attack with the current trajectory of privatization. Charter schools as they were originally envisioned -- independent schools, often teacher or community run -- are not what charter schools have become in the present. When schools are run like a business, the most important factor becomes money and the bottom line, not democracy.

The decline in public institutions really started with President Reagan. There was corruption prior to the 1980s, of course, but there was also more of an ethic of public service. Now, it's all about, what's in it for me? This is what happens when money and the private sector run everything -- everything becomes dog eat dog.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 8, 2012 8:16 am

You and Tom always inspire me to add a contributing comment because you are both so sharp and right on the mark with crucial and probing insights and comments. Yes, the issues we speak of today go the "democratic purpose of education" and what a free appropriate public education means to a democracy.

The issue of whether charter schools are public schools or whether they are private businesses being run with public funds is a critical issue which has deeply meaningful implications.

Charter schools are supposed to be public schools, but it is obvious that many of them are being run as private businesses for the benefit of those who run them.

Just to lend a little Charter School law to help the discussion along, the Charter School Law of Pennsylvania states in Section 17-1703-A Definitions:

" 'Charter School' shall mean an independent public school established and operated under a charter from the local school board of school directors and in which students are enrolled or attend. A charter school must be organized as a public, non profit corporation. Charters may not be granted to any for-profit entity."

That is the exact language of the statute and it gives rise to a myriad of legal, political and ethical issues which we need to deal with for the sake of every student, parent and stakeholder in Our schools.

The legislation being proposed by Corbett which Ron Whitehorne discusses is intended to turn charter schools into private entities -- for profit. Corbett wants to take away the public's "right to know." Do people really understand the implications of such a policy which excludes the public from public school governance?

Do we fully understand what the means to freedom of thought and freedom of speech? Do we fully understand what that means to our rights as students, parents and taxpayers?

Do we fully understand what that means to students like Samantha Pawlucy, parents like Samantha's, and teachers like Lynette Gaymon who are fallible and have an inalienable right to "due process" as an American.

Why do we teach history in our schools? Do we really want the Constitution and Bill of Rights to stop at the schoolhouse door?

Submitted by tom-104 on October 8, 2012 8:20 am

Thank you for the compliment about my efforts Rich.

Today's Inquirer has an article which shows what we face if Corbett and the ALEC contingent in the legislature are successful in a state takeover of oversight of charter schools (as if they don't already have this through the SRC) and the shielding of their operations from transparency. Even before they get this change, there are signs of nepotism and corruption in many charters schools which bode ill for the future of our democracy.

World Communications charter awaits outcome of Philadelphia inquiry

For discussion on Corbett's ALEC inspired charter legislation see Pittsburgh based Yinzercation at:

Real Charter Reform

An alternative charter reform has been proposed by Rep. James Roebuck, head of the House Education Committee. Discussion is at Yinzercation at:

Now That’s More Like It

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 8, 2012 9:52 am

What happened at World Communications is a prime example of what happens when democracy and transparency are taken out of the governance of public schools. The crucial question, in the language of the Charter School Law, is how are the board of trustees "elected or appointed" at World Communications? It appears that the relationships over there are what Shakespeare would call, "incestuous."

I find it quite ironic that so many are calling for the head of a teacher who erred in her interactions with a student. Yet few are calling for the heads of those who steal from our schoolchildren, or at the very least, negligently mismanage the money intended to go to children.

Submitted by tom-104 on October 8, 2012 10:11 am

Shame on the Inquirer for sensationalizing the brouhaha at Carroll High School and saying nothing about the ALEC charter bill before the legislature. It's the tried and true method of all ruling elites, divide and conquer!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 8, 2012 5:04 pm

What's in it for me, indeed. You might want to take a look at the union for an answer to that question.

Submitted by johnrex (not verified) on November 7, 2012 11:08 pm
This is a controversial topic.There are much controversies on this issue. Austin car accident lawyer We should think more about this.
Submitted by Galahu34 (not verified) on November 9, 2012 4:08 am
Will it be effective?I am confused. i have to read and think more. hostel nyc

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