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Charter School Advocates Pushing Policies That Won’t Help Kids

New report slams school privatization based on ‘no evidence’

Apr. 30, 2014
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Bigger class sizes, high teacher turnover, computer-based learning and “turnaround” districts won’t close the student achievement gap, according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute’s Gordon Lafer, a political economist and associate professor at the University of Oregon.

Yet those policies are being pushed by charter school advocates, who purport to help kids from low-income families who face the most educational barriers, Lafer argues in his report, Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids?.

“We know a lot about what works and what makes for good and bad schools, and this is not what’s being promoted,” Lafer said to a group of public school supporters in City Hall’s Rotunda last Thursday.

Lafer said poor kids need small classrooms and fully funded, transparent and publicly accountable schools—remedies that school privatization supporters ignore.

He slammed the education reform proposals pushed by lawmakers in Madison and in city government.

Lafer singled out a draft bill by Senate Education Committee Chair Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) that would have shut down low-performing traditional public schools and replaced them with independent charter schools.

The problem, Lafer said, is that charter schools generally don’t perform better than the public schools they would replace, and Olsen’s plan would have prohibited high-performing charter schools overseen by public school districts from taking over the shuttered schools.

“It’s an answer based on no evidence, either nationally or locally,” Lafer said.

Olsen’s proposal didn’t pass, but it’s expected to come up again in the next legislative session, Lafer warned.


Rocketship Charter Schools Under Fire

Milwaukee would have been hit hard if Olsen’s bill had passed: Up to 30 schools in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) would have been shut down, Lafer said.

“If 25 or so MPS schools were closed, the companies that are likely to come into that vacuum are the ones that have the financial backing to be able to expand quickly,” Lafer said.

Lafer pointed to Rocketship Education, a California-based, nonprofit charter school network that uses computer-based curriculum with some teacher oversight.

Rocketship has set up one school on the South Side and plans to add another one next year, on the North Side; the city has allowed it to launch up to eight schools in the city within five years.

It’s the first major national chain to set up shop in Milwaukee, and it has the backing of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), which raised $2.5 million to bring Rocketship to the city, Lafer noted. MMAC President Tim Sheehy serves as president of its board of directors.

Rocketship students spend roughly 25% of their day in front of a computer, where they are “taught by applications,” Lafer said, along with teacher aides.

Rocketship’s model doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. According to data collected by Lafer, Rocketship’s teacher turnover is twice as high as MPS’s; teachers are evaluated based on their students’ scores on math and English, which forces them to teach to the test; and almost 30% of its revenue goes to administration, compared to 8% in MPS.

Lafer said Rocketship has ambitious national growth plans, funded by taxpayer dollars.

What’s fueling this growth?

“Taxpayer dollars are going to venture capitalists in California,” Lafer said last week.

Lafer argues that Rocketship blurs the line between for-profit and nonprofit ventures. Rocketship is a nonprofit entity. But it uses math software developed by DreamBox Learning, a privately held, for-profit company.

Two of DreamBox’s major investors—Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and venture capitalist John Doerr—have ties to Rocketship. Hastings sits on Rocketship’s National Advisory Board, while Doerr is a board member of the New Schools Venture Fund, which has invested heavily in Rocketship.

Lafer says these financial ties provide Rocketship with an incentive to expand quickly.

“The more students Rocketship teaches, and the more schools it opens, the bigger the customer base and the larger licensing fees” for software companies like DreamBox, Lafer wrote in his report.

And Rocketship doesn’t have to gain approval from individual school boards; instead, it can make a purchasing decision at its central office.

In addition, Lafer argued that DreamBox’s math software doesn’t produce higher student achievement; the Department of Education only gave it a tepid “potentially positive rating.”

“This is not what parents deserve,” Lafer said.

In response to Lafer’s study, Rocketship released a statement, saying in part, “Rocketship has NEVER made instructional decisions to maximize revenue. We are a nonprofit public charter network, every dime we receive is invested to meet the needs of our Rocketeers and the legal requirements of our charters.”


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