Charter Schools: The Hit Is Out (Part IVa)

And here I thought I was going to get a day off.

Well, not a “day off”, so much as a day of behind-the-scenes stuff.  I’m getting hold of charter school representatives and getting their responses to specific allegations in the MN2020 report.

But MN2020 came out with a response to the response that their report has gotten.

And I gotta tell you – it’s as rhetorically target-rich an environment as the original report.

The piece – by John Van Hecke – ends with an invocation of early-20th-century Brit poet Rupert Brooke:

The English poet Rupert Brooke wonderfully expressed Great Britain’s romantic embrace of the unfolding 1913 European war.  “If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England…Brooke, despite his poet’s skill, did not write from firsthand combat experience. He served, joining the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve shortly after hostilities commenced. He died in 1915, off Gallipoli, of a septic infection caused by a mosquito bite.

“The Soldier” is a marvelous sonnet. It carries a haunting quality precisely because of Brooke’s wartime death. His contemporaries, the “war poets,” however, quickly abandoned their early romanticism, writing, instead, somber themes of frustration, loss and absurdity.

Like Brooke and an increasingly war weary United Kingdom during WWI, early charter school romanticism is yielding to a larger educational reality. Charter schools are neither as great as their champions suggest nor as horrible as their critics insist.

Right – and I’m not aware of any charter school proponents claiming that charter schools are a panacaea.  They are an effort to bring some level of parental and educational choice to a segement of the population that couldn’t afford the traditional route to such choice, private or parochial schools.

And the fact that they are needed – desperately – in that role is proved by their success in the “market”, especially in the city.

But we’ll get back to that.  Because Van Hecke betrays an essential myopia and conceit next:

The difficult, rewarding business of teaching children must be improved by the charter school movement. If charter schools can’t deliver on their promises, they don’t merit public funds and, most critically, they don’t merit parents’ investment of their children’s futures.

Conceit:  So does MN2020 in its infinite (and self-declared) wisdom think we charter parents haven’t thoroughly considered what merits our investment?  Moreso than the imponderably vast majority of other parents?

Myopia: And if we need to make that decision, cutting loose public funds from institutions that don’t deliver on their promise, then why not take that same standard to public schools?

Let’s take Van Hecke’s piece from the top:

In the week and a half following Minnesota 2020’s report, Checking in on Charter Schools, conservative educational policy advocates attacking us barely paused between breaths.

Didja catch that?  “Conservative educational policy advocates”?

I don’t know who he’s referring to; besides myself, I know charter school advocate Al Fan has spoken out on the MN2020 report (and I’m in the process of interviewing Mr. Fan as I write this).

But does MN2020 believe that supporting charter schools is a “conservative” issue?

Tell it to the parents at Avalon, which both of my kids have attended; I can count maybe one other Republican among the parents there; you could wallpaper the classrooms with the Obama stickers in the parking lot with a few left over.

Is he referring to the parents at Skills for Tomorrow charter, or City Academy, whose parents are largely Afro-American and, if they care about politics at all, statistically vote 90+% DFL?

What exactly is the point to trying to polarize the charter school issue into  a conservative vs. liberal issue?

I was about to write something like “…other than to placate MN2020’s political masters, who want to see charters shown as an inferior product compared to public schools to further their Teachers-Union-driven agenda”, but I thought that might be inflammatory, so I’ll change it to “I’d really like to know, given that the political label doesn’t really match the constituency”.

But OK.  Politicization is one thing.  Trying to drop things down the memory hole is quite another:

Our rather limited financial accountability research scope, examining Minnesota charter school’s public audits, has drawn greater ire than I thought possible. We clearly swatted a hornet’s nest.

We totted auditor flags and concluded that, with four of five charter schools reporting at least one financial irregularity, greater financial oversight and accountability was overdue.

Well, no.  In John Fitzgerald’s original piece, after “totting” the auditor “flags” (of which much, much more next week), he concluded:

 The state should reconsider its agreements with the 121 charter schools that cannot successfully pass a financial audit. Further, taxpayers should not continue to fund the 50 percent of charter schools that do not resolve financial problems…Schools with finances that have been stunningly mismanaged for years should be cut off from public funds and closed.If charter schools can’t run their schools in a financially competent manner, Minnesota should reconsider whether charter schools are worthy of public funding at all

That was a clear call to shut down the 50% of schools that have had sequential problems with audits (of which much more next week), and to consider abandoning the entire charter school experiement, after declaring these audits to be a dispositive indicator of a school’s financial ethicality.

Read the paragraphs above – the italicized ones – and show me a different interpretation of MN2020’s original conclusion?

Now, if John Van Hecke is saying MN2020 is rolling back from its original point, that’d be fine, but it’d be even better if they were clear about it one way or the other.

We didn’t examine graduation rates, standardized test performance or curriculum.

True.  But in the same series of audits that jump-started MN2020’s “investigation”, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor did.  Oddly, that part of the Auditor’s report didn’t make it into John Fitzgerald’s report.

We’ll touch on that next week, too.

Van Hecke, with emphasis added by me:

We purposefully engaged a touchy public policy issue. While our report raises important questions, the harsh conservative attacks against us, mostly ad hominem, suggest that we’re examining public investments that some conservatives don’t wish examined.

I have to presume Van Hecke is referring to someone else; I have kept my reporting pretty scrupulously factual.  I do know that Van Hecke referred to a series of “ad-homina” in an op-ed by Al Fan in the Winona newspaper this past week.

Again – we’ll examine that  next week as well.

Van Hecke:

I would rather engage strident advocates than indifferent citizens. That being said, let me suggest to anyone contemplating entering this debate, finish your second cup of coffee first. This experience is not for the faint of heart.

Parents?  Especially charter school parents?  All together now:

Either is raising children.  I think we’re up to it.

Conservatives may raise legitimate traditional school system concerns but underfunding public schools only to prove their shortcomings is wrong.

Maybe, maybe not.  It’s not really at issue in this discussion – although inasmuch as charter schools spend less public money per student (counting district levies and bonding) than public schools do, and MN2020 seems not to have deigned to have examined their fiscal accountability, perhaps it should be.

A public school district must serve every enrolled child, sometimes at great expense.  Pedagogical experimenting is as old as learning but innovation is not cheap. Scaling up small or modestly sized systems doesn’t always work. In other words, the best parts of charter school education appear to fundamentally be their smallness.

That, again, is a tangent – but an interesting one.  If the public schools can learn one lesson from charters, perhaps it’s that smaller is better.  The industrial-age mania for consolidating public schools into bigger and bigger buildings (and into fewer and fewer towns in rural America) is as big a mistake as…well, as the past thirty years of education outcomes show it is!

The real question, though, concerns the future of public education. Because charter schools are publicly funded, they remain an educational lightning rod. Public investment accountability pressure will only increase. Consequently, the charter school movement must live up to its rhetoric.

I think we charter parents and supporters would agree wholeheartedly; its our kids we’ve entrusted to them!

But my point – and the point to many of the MN2020 report’s detractors – is that that MN2020 report demands a draconian response to a largely fictional, or at least overblown, problem.

How fictional and overblown?

Check back next week.

19 thoughts on “Charter Schools: The Hit Is Out (Part IVa)

  1. “inflammatory”

    Bring it on, Mitch, its better than dumbing and numbing it down or singing Kumbaya with MN2020. Don’t worry if the bright light makes them squint.

    Would you really call what they put out a “response”?

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Responding to this bunch of leftist hacks with anything other than ad hominem mockery lends a credibility that not even Mr. Lois Quam has enough cash to buy.

    By all means, Mitch, tot out the graduation rates for the districts that consume the lions share of the public investment we make in our kids futures.

    Tot out the scores for the BST (basic skills test) that set a new standard each year for the bottom of the barrel for academic achievement.

    Then tot out the cost per pupil for the schools that live at the bottom of the academic barrel…..and do not be shy about adding in all of the ancillary funds they receive from sources other than the state…oh, and please do compare those costs with the most elite private schools in the state.

    And while your totting out the financials, why not tot out a story about the district that spent it’s funds on paying for board member’s tickets to a leftist PAC’s victory dinner. Tot out the story of the district that paid a leftist PAC to teach district employees the art of campaigning. Tot out the substantiated civil complaint alleging campaign fraud by the same bunch that had just received tax payer financed training on how to do it.

    Then tot out the name of the board member that told a bald face lie about all that when the curtain got hoisted.

    If these lowlife EdMN sock puppets think they have already seen a hornet’s nest response I have news for them…..

  3. Oh, and by the way.

    I really hope the (Ed)MN2020 action team doesn’t have the slightest doubt that the details of their cynical, dishonest efforts on behalf of the teachers union won’t find their way into the political race Mr. Lois Quam is contemplating.

    Tossing struggling kids under the bus to gain political favor….I can’t think of anything lower.

  4. I think it is important work that must be done. Unfortunately , without a response, many people would readily give them the credit they obviously don’t deserve. Kudos to you, Mitch Berg!

  5. Boy, you MUST have struck a nerve. Geeze…

    I was very struck by the attempt by this guy to polarize this — NOT in a good way. Gut reaction – what is this guy so worried about from your criticism. I’m assuming your observations about parent political spectrum is correct (you wouldn’t fudge something like that, for those who don’t know you personally). That would suggest, absent any other information to the contrary, that you are who worries this guy, but for some reason he doesn’t want to address that directly.

    That impression was from what HE wrote, not what you wrote. All that focus on Rupert Brooke instead of hard, specific objective answers did not make a good impression. It suggested, at least to me, an attempt to shift the reader to an emotional basis and to avoid a logical one in reading.

    Agree? Disagree?

    Certainly I saw nothing in anything you have written so far to justify the assertion that criticism you made were in any way especially conservative – or represented any other political / cultural position.

    I did have only one question that Van Henke’s piece raised, and perhaps you would explain / comment:

    “Critics, on the other hand, are deeply suspicious of proponents’ student achievement claims and view charter schools as public-funded private schools that detract from rather than contribute to a school district’s mission.”

    “Public funded Private Schools”????????????????????????? WHAT THE (rude word of choice) IS THAT supposed to mean?????????

    Am I correct that this “public funded private schools” represents a shift in tactics and emphasis; a recognition that the arguments about accounting are failing? It seems to me to be one of those phrases that sounds like it means something dire, serious — but is meaningless on close examination.

    I’m also getting the sense that while superficially very civil and courteous, under that surface it is a bit… nastier, more of a ‘turf war’ for control of both decisions and funding?

    My impression – they’re in a weak position. Keep up the good work!

    Seriously Mitch; not investigative reporting – there’s solid potential for a whole book in this research you’re doing.

  6. Does anybody really believe that MN2020 wants the public schools to be held financially accountable by the taxpayers who fund them?
    They want the public schools to be responsible to a process controlled by public school advocates in government and by the public employees unions, by the people who distribute and consume tax dollars, not the people who pay them.

  7. Mn2020: “Conservatives may raise legitimate traditional school system concerns but underfunding public schools only to prove their shortcomings is wrong.” This is Obama-like, taking on a non-existent straw man rather than engage a real opponent’s argument. We’re not trying to prove a point.

    And we are not underfunding the public schools. You (liberals) cannot say something is underfunded until you say how much is enough. We’ve been asking that question for years, still no answer. The other problem is that school finance is (needlessly? deliberately?) too complex to understand. What is the point of keeping perfect books if you still don’t know where the money is going?

    Keep going, Mitch!

  8. A question I meant to ask earlier – what exactly do you mean by “pseudo catholic”?

  9. I’m trying to figure out how pointing out that MN2020’s attacks on charter schools are unrelated to the real business of education constitutes an “ad hominem” attack. Seems to me that the proper name for such an argument is that the claim is a non sequitur.

  10. DG

    There are a number of charter schools that operate like Catholic schools in every way except the religious education on school time. More or less like Tariq Ibn Ziyad Academy claims they do. (By the way, TIZA had no infractions…)

  11. Mitch, indulge me. I still don’t follow your meaning.

    What do you mean by schools operating “like Catholic schools”?

  12. I dno’t know how much more detail I can add! 🙂 I’ve never been involved wit one – although I had a friend whose kid attended one. They use school uniforms, very traditional curriculum, focus on discipline – all the things that traditional Catholic schools do without any actual Catholicism.

  13. Ahhhh so THAT’s what you mean. Ok.

    I wish you had used other descriptive terms than pseudo-Catholic to begin with; I haven’t been involved with one either. I dated someone who went to a Catholic school before transferring to and graduating from a public school back when I was in college. No uniforms, fewer than half the teachers or staff were nuns, not a particularly traditional uniform except for religion, and same discipline as public school (maybe less, actually).

    Your image seems very, well “Blues Brothers” caricature – Kathleen Freeman as Sister Mary Stigmata, in “full penguin”, wacking kids and adults alike at will, terrorizing them – for their own good and a higher purpose. (I LOVE that movie, but I can appreciate why that part may have offended a few people, although it appears to resonate for others.)

    What you describe seemed more typical of…oh…perhaps one of the military-based private schools? St. Paul Academy or St. Thomas, for example. I don’t know how well the image of what you had in mind came across to other readers; I may have been the only person left wondering.

    Please accept this humble alternative, to use or reject as you think best for those qualities. I think it conveys the notion of uniforms, an emphasis on discipline, perhaps a more rigorous and traditional curriculum with possibly excellence required, more formal structure, and…. religion optional?

  14. Every tag line brings up evil connotations.

    “Military school” such as St. Paul Academy brings up images of “Taps” with berserk Tom Cruise.

    “Catholic school” such as Convent of the Visitation brings up images of stern nuns and naughty schoolgirls.

    “Private school” such as Minnehaha Academy brings up images of wealth and privilege.

    Of course, they all bring up images of success, too, generally due to high standards and parent involvement.

  15. “Mpls Public school” brings up images of waste and uneducated kids…

    “Phoenix Woman” brings up images of the crazy cat lady…

    “AngryClown” brings up images of a father/son team of professional sphincter polishers…

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