Charting disaster

As an antidote to the “grow grow grow” mentality of the elected officials and business leaders pushing charter schools, a recent report by University of Oregon professor and political economist Gordon Lafer outlines what’s wrong with privatization of public schools.

The report, titled Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, focuses on the model of Rocketship, a national charter elementary school organization that hopes to expand its Milwaukee footprint to eight schools by 2018.

City officials have even considered carving out the lowest-performing parts of the city’s schools for charters to operate, similar to the New Orleans “recovery district.” Milwaukee’s Chamber of Commerce and Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett are among the charter chain’s supporters, raising millions to help it grow.

Rocketship’s investors, who are tech industry heavyweights, claim altruistic intentions: they care about the kids! But they’re also profiting from the expansion of charter schools, a market for their own products and services.

Case in point: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, on the board of Rocketship, is also an investor in a company called Dream Box, which runs software the schools use for math applications. In the public sector this type of self-dealing is often prohibited, because schools should be choosing the service or product with the best track record, not the one that will enrich investors.

So it’s no surprise that businessmen like Hastings find investing in charters much more appealing than paying more taxes to support public schools.

Two-Tier Schools

Lafer points out that the charter companies’ self-proclaimed cutting-edge learning models offer anything but advanced instruction.

In Rocketship’s “blended learning,” for instance, students learn basic literacy and math with an emphasis on test preparation, receiving online instruction in the schools’ computer labs. Other academic subjects, arts, and music are left out of this education model.

The teachers at such schools are often inexperienced, with an average 30 percent teacher turnover from year to year—twice the Milwaukee school district average. A non-union workforce is part of the incentive for school districts to switch to charters, though some charter teachers have begun to unionize.

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