William Irvin: Charter schools: How 'private' becomes 'public'


PITTSFIELD >> A television advertisement promoting an increase in the number of Massachusetts charter schools repeats the word "public" several times, apparently to establish a connection in the mind of the viewers between charter schools and public education. But the only thing "public" about charter schools is the taxpayers' money that flows into their treasuries.

Public schools are agencies of the state, and are operated by publicly elected school boards. Charter schools, both for-profit and not-for-profit, are private corporations operated by boards selected by the corporations. Furthermore, some of the not-for-profit charter schools have developed a way to generate profits by leasing facilities from a parent for-profit corporation, a clever tie-in.

Doubly selective

A charter school does have to abide by state regulations, as does, for example, Dunkin' Donuts, but that requirement does not make either one a public corporation. And Dunkin' Donuts sells donuts to anyone who wants to buy them; it is not selective about its clientele. Charter schools, on the other hand, are selective; in fact, they are doubly selective.

The first selection occurs at enrollment, which attracts parents and students who value education more than average. It is to the credit of Massachusetts charter schools that they accept students reflecting demographics comparable to those of all of the schools. Nevertheless, the selectivity of the applicants affects the nature of the school's student body, providing students more likely to be successful than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

But there is also a second level of selectivity, which occurs as the student moves through the system. Here the selectivity is found in the rate of student attrition, that is, the number of students who leave the school before completing the program.

For the academic year of 2014-2015, the combined attrition rate of all of the charter schools was 8 percent, almost four times higher than that of the traditional public schools' rate of 2.4 percent. In contrast with the double selectivity of charter schools, traditional public schools are unselective, accepting any student who lives within the geographical district and making every effort to hold on to the student until completion of the program.

One of the means by which charter schools achieve an 8 percent attrition rate is through suspending students. In 2014-2015, charter schools disciplined 8.5 percent of students through in-school and out-of-school suspension, whereas the traditional public schools disciplined 3.9 percent of students. Even more telling is the percentage of students given out-of-school suspension. Traditional public schools suspended 2.1 percent of students, whereas the charter school total was 13.1 percent. One may assume that after a number of out-of-school suspensions and missed classes, a student would consider applying to another school, hence the high attrition rate.

Look at attrition rates

The attrition rate for African-American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Multi-race/Non-Hispanic/Latino students (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education categories) was much higher for charter schools than for the traditional public schools. For the African-American/Black students the charter school attrition rate in 2014-2015 was 7 percent, as opposed to 2.4 percent in traditional public schools. Similarly for the other two categories: charter schools, 6.7 percent and 7.1 percent, compared with 3 percent and 2.7 percent. Charter schools may enroll students in demographic percentages comparable to the state as a whole, but they do not hold on to them.

So why the big campaign to increase the number of charter schools in the state? Charter schools do not perform significantly better than the traditional schools, in spite of their double selectivity. Then why are political action committees spending $2.3 million, collected from hedge funds and financial institutions, to pay for the advertising? Companies do not usually spend so much money on advertising unless they expect a return on their investment. Privatizing public education, while claiming that private is really "public," suggests that I should check my wallet and count the silverware.

William Irvin has been involved in education for 51 years. having taught in colleges in Boston, Cleveland, and New York City, and in high schools in Brooklyn and Lenox. Before teaching in Lenox, he was the English curriculum coordinator and then the director of curriculum and testing for the Pittsfield Public Schools. He retired from the Lenox Public Schools in July.


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