By Dr. Gregory T. Graves, Associate Executive Secretary
Several months ago a report was released outlining the demographics of public school enrollment in America. Its findings were not surprising. Almost half of all public school students in the United States are low-income and qualify for free or reduced lunch. It is also no surprise that children of color make up a sizeable portion of the group. Things are no different in Alabama. Sadly, a much-needed debate about the challenges presented by these demographic realities, especially for Alabama’s schools, has not happened. In fact, there are those who foolishly believe that entrenched poverty has minimal or no impact on educational achievement. No one is blind to the fact that teacher effectiveness and high expectations for students are important elements in student achievement; yet, how can those who are vested with making the best decisions for Alabama’s school children continue to ignore the correlation between being poor and the lack of student achievement?
In Alabama, poverty serves as a direct proxy for various conditions and circumstances that shape the everyday lives of students. How well do we as adults perform our daily tasks during an eight hour work day while being hungry? How many adults excel at work operating on three or four hours of sleep? A child who is hungry or cannot see or hear well is likely to have problems concentrating in class. Children from low-income families don’t have the resources to obtain necessary medical treatment; they endure more acute illnesses that lead to chronic absenteeism which results in a loss of valuable instructional time. So, to those education “reformers” who refuse to accept the realities of poverty and its effect on learning, I say until this matter is addressed, there is absolutely no reason to expect that learning results for low-income children will improve. This is the case whether a child is enrolled in a public school or a for-profit charter school. However, to be honest, I must admit that proponents of charter schools do a great job of identifying students of poverty. They are identified and used as examples as to why charter schools are needed. Alabama’s poorest students are the reason why pro-business, pro-charter legislators say that parents need “options.” But that is where the compassion stops. Instead of creating dialogue about how to systematically reduce poverty, Alabama legislators want to talk about how poor children need separate schools in the form of charters. No one has yet to offer any data that justify how creating charter schools will help the problems that currently exist, the only thing we are being told is that there is a need for “choice.” The reality of the matter is that charter schools never have and never will address the needs of the poor; in fact they do the opposite. They isolate the poor and use them as proof that all children are not the same. Those who are in favor of creating charter schools make the perfect case as to why the poorest children should be separate and unequal. This makes no sense. I’m not afraid to say what corporate reformers and Alabama legislators are afraid to say …charter schools are created only for poor children, more particularly, poor children of color. Charter schools are not created to help, but only as a means to keep them isolated in specific areas. As I have said before children should not be used as rope in a political game of tug of war and they certainly should not be used as capital for corporate profits.
Income-related gaps in student achievement in Alabama exist from grade school to college and we refuse to devote enough time to figure out how to break the link between family income level and academic success. Thus, I would ask those in the Alabama Legislature who have already stated that the creation of for-profit charter schools is the number one goal in the 2015 legislative session: Are you sure that your corporate reform agenda, with its emphasis on standards, competition, and accountability, is adequate to the challenge of helping kids, especially the most vulnerable, learn and develop in ways that prepare them for the job market or other postsecondary opportunities? The answer is resoundingly no! Charter schools will do nothing to increase the odds that all kids, regardless of race, ethnicity, or family income, can take full advantage of all this country has to offer. Again, they will do the opposite.
Charter school proponents say that competition and choice are the two factors that will produce better test scores for our children. I would love to see corporate reformers such as Michelle Rhee, BAEO, the Koch brothers as well as Bill Gates take a step back and reflect on their assumptions that isolation, choice, and competition will better educate children especially the poor and thoroughly explain their rhetoric to those of us who actually teach and care for children without the expectation of making millions.
For those of you who think that charter schools are not profitable, you are sadly mistaken. Private investment in charter schools now totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars. While the best and most imaginative of these schools have shown good results, on average the bottom line results from the rest are not good at all. In fact, the data shows that we are being sold a bag of fool’s gold. School choice has not led to the broader, often-promised systemic changes in our school systems. The data shows that instead of focusing on what charter schools are not doing in terms of keeping promises, we need to closely examine what charter schools are actually doing to traditional schools; through diversion, charter schools drain resources and ultimately cripple traditional schools systems. Ask your local legislator if they’ve visited our neighbors in Tennessee or Louisiana lately. The creation of charter schools has all but destroyed the public school system in those states. The data also shows that we need better data on student enrollment, retention, mobility, and completion in charters to ensure that the most disadvantaged and most difficult to educate aren’t simply being dispatched to second-class alternatives. What does all of this data mean for education here in Alabama? It is common sense, we do not need two public school systems! We need one well-resourced, well-functioning system that produces positive outcomes for all children.
So here are a few points for legislators, reformers, and educational leaders to consider. First, let’s participate in a much-needed, non-partisan dialogue about the critical role public education plays in our democracy. For decades we have relied on public schools to teach our children an appreciation of American culture and history as well as an understanding of how our communities, democracy, and economy work. These foundational civic objectives are at risk in today’s reform environment, where the concepts of free markets and consumer choice dominate. Second, let’s support a much-needed effort to rethink and redesign our approach to accountability. School systems where there is little or no trust between teachers and administrators spend an enormous amount of energy and resources on test compliance instead of continuous academic improvement. And third, if we are to make a difference for the children who depend most on public education to thrive, we need to support a long-overdue effort to create new models of learning. Let’s start with the premise that time is one of the most important variables in the public education enterprise and explore the possibilities associated with using it in innovative ways. Let’s also open ourselves to the reality that kids are not widgets and consider ways of personalizing the learning experience.
If we stimulate and support work on all three of these fronts, we will begin to see an education improvement agenda that makes a significant difference for all students. Given the changing demographics of public school enrollment, that’s the real agenda we need. It’s just common sense.
As always, together we stand…