Columns » Max Brantley

The end of the public school

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The Arkansas State Board of Education is the forum this week for another couple of rounds in the ongoing battle over upending the conventional system of public education.

The Board will review the performance of the Academics Plus charter school, established in Maumelle in 2001, and a proposal to start the Quest middle school in Chenal Valley.

The charter schools are products of the "reform" movement backed by the Billionaire Boys Club — Walton, Gates, Stephens, Hussman and others. "Choice" is the mantra. Though vouchers for private schools are not yet fully in vogue, a functional equivalent, the charter school, is. Private organizations — unanswerable to voters or full public accountability — are allowed to set up publicly funded "charter" schools with broad ability to exempt themselves from the laws that apply to conventional public schools.

These nominally public schools can set admission standards (disciplinary problems can prohibit you from attending Quest, for example). They can make requirements of parents and students that, if unmet, can cause a bum's rush of a student to the exit door. Truly public schools must take all comers. Charters may opt out of substantive requirements. Quest won't have a full-time school nurse, guidance counselor, gifted and talented program and library, to name a few.

Backers say charters allow parents to avoid "failing" schools. Failing schools are all too often failures less because of faculty effort than because of the proven difficulty of reliably advancing the performance of poor children from dysfunctional families with no exposure to children of middle class backgrounds. Studies show charter schools do little better and many do worse.

Academics Plus specifically vowed to recruit a diverse student body and to demonstrate that all children can learn. It is whiter now than it ever has been — only 15 percent black amid majority white Maumelle. Its middle school African-American students do far worse on math, literacy and other standard tests than those in neighboring public schools, with much higher percentages of poor and minority students.

How will Quest do better? Its application is full of the sort of education-speak that the reformers normally deride. Example: "The methodology places the student in a contained classroom with focused monitoring by an educator while also providing opportunity for individualized instruction through aligned curriculum and technology." Imagine. A classroom, a teacher, grades, individual attention and computers loaded with the proper curriculum. What innovation!

Then there is this troublesome sentence in the Quest application:

"The campus is dedicated to the idea that education, home, and family are closely connected. Though the atmosphere feels like a private school, there is no tuition to attend Quest."

So true. School results ARE so intertwined with home and family. That, of course, is one reason so many relatively better-off parents hope Quest will create a school for people like them in comfortable Chenal Valley so that they must not choose either expensive private school or one of the public schools heavily populated with the poor, minority students in nearby middle schools. I hope the state Board of Education probes what these charter schoolers mean when they say "feels like a private school."

Diane Ravitch, the former school reformer who's now the Waltons' most outspoken foe, has a clue. She says charter schools aren't really public schools, despite the tax dollars. No school boards. No way to pierce the corporate veil. Fewer rights for employees. Exclusionary enrollment practices. Racial, social and economic segregation. They have become an end-around of Brown v. Board of Education.

Quest's application actually argues that last point. It says the Pulaski desegregation case is all but over. Thus, no matter how many white students it leaches from the majority black and poor Little Rock School District, "Quest cannot be said to have a negative impact" on the three Pulaski school districts' ability to comply with court desegregation orders. There are no more court orders! Segregation is officially OK.

Points to Quest for candor, at least.

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