Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Charter School Double Standard

Because charter schools are seen as a threat to conventional public schools; because charter schools tend to outperform conventional schools; because charter schools offer an avenue out for families trapped in failing conventional schools; because charter schools break with public education convention; because there are lists of families waiting to get into the best of them. These are just a few reasons why charter schools have so many enemies in the public school establishment. And it explains why these enemies are so quick to pounce at the slightest evidence that a charter school is faltering or falling down on the job.

A dozen conventional public schools can be failing their students, and performing below standards. A dozen conventional schools can suffer from discipline problems, lousy teacher morale and poor financial management. But nobody says a word about those schools, because it's business as usual. But if one charter school fouls up, falls short or draws complaints, it suddenly becomes big news, generating the sort of coverage we've seen lately about The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs and the Cesar Chavez charter schools in Pueblo and the Springs. The sharks start circling, hoping to drag one of these charters off their pedestals. Doing so shows that they aren't really very different, they aren't really a cut above, after all.

We've seen a spate of stories in recent months, for instance, about some racially-tinged incidents at The Classical Academy, a well-regarded charter school in Colorado Springs. The school took quick action to address the situation. But I kept wondering, when reading the stories, whether similar incidents go on all the time at conventional public schools, without generating a peep from the media. Bullying incidents happen, racial incidents happen, sexual incidents happen and discipline cases occur regularly at conventional public schools, I'm sure, but it's unnoticed beyond school walls. But when The Classical Academy is involved, it becomes big local news. The double standard is in full effect.

Now we see a similar pattern with the Cesar Chavez charter school network in Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

From today's Pueblo Chieftain:

"The superintendent of Pueblo City Schools wants Colorado’s commissioner of education to launch an audit of the finances and testing practices at the Cesar Chavez School Network.John Covington sent the letter to Commissioner Dwight Jones last week, enclosing clippings from various newspapers regarding the salaries paid to network executives and issues surrounding state achievement tests . . .

. . .Pueblo City Schools charters Cesar Chavez Academy and Dolores Huerta Preparatory High in Pueblo, are under contracts expiring in 2012 and 2014, respectively. The charter school network operates two elementary schools in Colorado Springs and an online program under the Colorado State Charter Institute and plans to open a school in Denver later this year under a charter from Denver Public Schools.News reports, instigated by a growing number of parents and former employees, recently reported on the salaries paid to Chief Executive Officer Lawrence Hernandez, his wife and Chief Operating Officer Annette Hernandez, and Jason Guerrero, the school's chief financial officer.

IRS filings pegged Hernandez’s compensation at more than $261,732, his wife at nearly $135,000 and Guerrero’s pay at just under $248,000.Another story, in the Colorado Springs Independent last week, resurrected cheating allegations dating back to 2005. At that time, according to stories in The Pueblo Chieftain, the school district’s director of assessment charged that answers on Colorado Student Achievement Program tests given at Cesar Chavez Academy had been erased but district officials did not follow up on the charges and the tests were not thrown out. Had they been, the district’s overall scores would have dropped."

I'm not objecting to the scrutiny these schools are getting. I'm not apologizing for any shortcomings, irregularities or misdeeds that such examinations bring to light. I'm fully aware that some charter schools are in deeper trouble than many conventional schools are.

I'm simply asking whether a double standard isn't at work in how this scrutiny is applied. All I'm arguing is that public education would be a lot better off, across the board, if that same level of skepticism -- that same eagerness to highlight deficiencies and problems -- applied to all public schools, equally, not just schools that the public education establishment wants to discredit or destroy.

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