Local Charter Schools Fail to Make the Grade

Will Rubenstein, Opinions Editor

I used to think it was just me, but education reform seems to have become Oberlin’s go-to topic of political dialogue over the last year or so. Maybe this has something to do with the overwhelming Democratic majority on campus, since Democrats are sharply divided on many education issues and attempting to engage this campus’s smattering of conservatives in heated debate on other issues of national importance could get a trifle one-sided — or perhaps a college like ours paying particular attention to education issues is only natural. Either way, support is widespread here for what I see as misguided reforms to public education, beginning with a well-intentioned measure that went sour in the implementation: the independently run but publicly funded schools known as charter schools.

While many charter schools are well-managed and successful, like many traditional public schools, some of the problems that stem from their overzealous proliferation can be found at a prominent nearby charter, the Lorain Arts Academy. The State Auditor’s office has accused Arts Academy head Alexis Rainbow of awarding five-figure contracts to companies she owned personally, and violating open records laws to cover it up, all while the school was in deep financial trouble and teachers’ paychecks were bouncing. If Rainbow’s name rings a bell, it may be because she was invited to Oberlin last April to participate in a panel discussion on education reform; apparently, even an institution like ours can’t weed out such people from those it chooses to represent charter schools before its students.

(Imagine, then, how much of the education money distributed by groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation must be going to characters like Rainbow — let alone law-abiding but incompetent charter operators whose only flaw is being better at impressing wealthy donors than at educating poor children.)

But alas, small-time misconduct like Rainbow’s doesn’t characterize the most dubious “educators” who take shelter under the reform movement’s ideological umbrella. Unfortunately, we still need not leave our corner of Ohio to find a good example: Akron-based industrialist David Brennan and his for-profit education company, White Hat Management. Several White Hat-managed schools in northeastern Ohio, including Cleveland’s HOPE Academies, recently filed a lawsuit against their parent company demanding the disclosure of White Hat’s financial information. The governing boards of the schools in question claim that the clash between their mission to educate children and White Hat’s mission to maximize corporate profit leaves them “virtually impotent to govern the schools.”

Since White Hat’s schools typically test lower than demographically similar public schools, the company’s continuing survival in Ohio likely stems from the campaign contributions Brennan has distributed to Ohio state legislators, particularly Republicans. But misdeeds like Brennan’s and Rainbow’s are just the type of problem that locally elected school boards are designed to prevent, shining a light on shady accounting and circumventing corruption at City Hall or the state capitol. Surely, then, some of the blame for such cases must rest on reformers who have embraced the unchecked spread of charters and top-down control of school districts, all while resisting the same sort of accountability for charters that they demand of public schools.

Given what the charter movement has become, it might be surprising that the original idea was supported and advanced by longtime teachers’ union leader Albert Shanker. Frustrated with the progress-slowing institutional baggage of public school districts, when Shanker came across a proposal to create semi-independent “charter schools” authorized by local school districts but run without central bureaucratic interference, he and others with an interest in public education saw it as an opportunity. The idea was that schools governed not by district administrators but by educators with on-the-ground knowledge of the problems facing their communities would be able to come up with innovative solutions, which could then be adopted by their districts and the public school system at large.

But progress-minded reformers like Shanker were soon shoved aside, and a different political bloc came to dominate the charter movement. It is the same bloc that advocates increased reliance on private school vouchers and homeschooling, even for students whom private schools wouldn’t accept and whose parents can’t teach them, and the same bloc that used No Child Left Behind to slap the label “failing” on any public school that can’t meet the Lake Wobegon standard of 100 percent student proficiency in every subject. In short, it is the far-Right movement that supports the general privatization of this country’s public resources, from schools to highways to prisons to Medicare and beyond.

Pro-privatization ideologues successfully modified the charter school idea to eliminate many of the elements Shanker initially found appealing. In many cases, state-authorized charters are even able to bypass local democracy entirely and annex classroom space from school districts without their approval. Policies like these have often fostered competition rather than cooperation between charters and their neighboring public schools: For instance, my old high school in San Francisco now plays host to a second, smaller public school that was created in part to prevent an opportunistic charter operator from swooping in from the state capitol and demanding a share of the campus’s resources. Such friction between local school communities and oblivious, fiat-issuing reformers at the city or state level (I’m looking at you, Professor Fenty) is a point of contention that frequently goes unaddressed in the broader reform debate.

Where Shanker and other honest reform advocates envisioned charter schools as a way to improve public education, right-wing reformers would use them as a way to eliminate it. Just as they would hire companies like Wackenhut to run our prisons and companies like Blackwater to take over for our military, so too would they hire companies like White Hat to assume management of our education system. And eventually, of course, endless rounds of further tax cuts would spur the same debate over “necessary” cuts to education subsidies that is now occurring over “necessary” cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The long-term goals of conservative reformers are no secret; the question is, how long will our current crop of pseudo-progressive Democratic politicians continue to play along with it?