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Scathing Report Finds School Privatization Hurts Poor Kids

When venture capital and public education collide, the results are not pretty.
 
 
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Photo Credit: PBS NewsHour; Screenshot / YouTube.com

 

This article originally appeared at The Progressive, and is reprinted here with their permission. This report was made possible by a generous grant from the Voqal Fund.

Gordon Lafer, a political economist and University of Oregon professor who has advised Congress, state legislatures and the New York City mayor's office, landed at the airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, late last night bringing with him a briefing paper on school privatization and how it hurts poor kids.

Lafer's report, "Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin," released today by the Economic Policy Institute, documents the effects of both for-profit and non-profit charter schools that are taking over struggling public schools in Milwaukee.

"I hope people connect the dots," Lafer said by phone from the Milwaukee airport.

Lafer's research, commissioned by the Economic Policy Institute to evaluate the school-privatization push in Milwaukee, is a sweeping indictment of the growing private charter school industry — and other schemes backed by rightwing groups and big business — that siphon public funds out of public schools and enrich corporate investors at the expense of quality education for poor children.

Milwaukee is ground zero for school privatization, having pioneered the use of publicly funded private school vouchers in 1990.

In its last session, Wisconsin legislators pushed forward bills to close low-performing public schools and replace them with less accountable, privately run enterprises. The Economic Policy Institute asked Lafer to analyze the effects of privatization on the children these schools serve.

The results are not pretty.

A popular chain of charter schools called Rocketship, which originated in California and has spread to Wisconsin, with the enthusiastic support of state legislators and the local chamber of commerce in Milwaukee, is "a low-budget operation that relies on young and inexperienced teachers rather than more veteran and expensive faculty, that reduces curriculum to a near-exclusive focus on reading and math, and that replaces teachers with online learning and digital applications for a significant portion of the day," Lafer writes.

Rocketship is a pioneer of the "blended learning" model of schools that rely heavily on computers to cut staff costs. The fastest growing, and most profitable, sector of the charter school industry is online or virtual schools, with the "blended learning" model, which combines online learning with a reduced and low-paid staff, a close second.

With no gym, art class, librarians, or significant science or social studies, Rocketship provides a stripped-down program of study with a heavy focus on standardized tests.

"The education model of the Rocketship chain of schools, a company central to the education reform push in Milwaukee, is particularly ill suited to providing the city's children with a high-quality education," Lafer found.

Because of its extraordinarily high teacher turnover (the chain relies heavily on Teach for America volunteers), its large classes and reductive curriculum, Rocketship subjects kids most in need of consistent, nurturing, adult attention to low-quality instruction and neglect.

That model, which is also on display in Milwaukee's low-performing voucher schools, is demonstrably harmful to kids. But it has generated big profits for wealthy investors.

From 2010 to 2013, Rocketship increased it assets from $2.2 million to $15.8 million. And while it posted impressive test scores at its first schools in California, over the last four years, test scores have fallen at every Rocketship school. All seven Rocketship schools failed to make adequate yearly progress according to federal standards for the last school year.

"Given that Rocketship places such a strong emphasis on standardized testing, it is telling that, even by this measure, the company has faced struggles and disappointments," Lafer writes.