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ALEC-Backed Laws Promote Controversial Charter Schools

by Matthew Charles Cardinale

The right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and private education management firms are pushing for new “parent trigger” laws in states across the U.S. by lobbying many Republican and some Democratic legislators to make it easier to convert more traditional public schools to charter schools.

Conservative consultant and former Republican congressman Newt Gingrich visits charter school students in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo: American Solutions/cc by 2.0) Charter schools are a fairly new phenomenon in the U.S., with the first charter schools opening in the 1990s. The founders of a charter school are able to create a charter that defines the purpose and mission of the school, which does not have to necessarily follow the purpose and mission of a traditional public school.

Charter schools are considered public schools and typically receive some public funds. However, at the same time, they have a private charter and are not part of the public school system.

“The choice for parents is, are you going to trust a corporation where the CEO and the board are unaccountable, or are you going to trust the government?” said Kim Kahwach, an Atlanta parent who took an active role when the city’s public school system faced a recent accreditation crisis, and said she has concerns about the parent trigger proposal.

“Those are the choices that are being put in front of you. You go charter or you go government. You can have the red apple or you can have the green apple, and both of them are sour,” Kahwach told IPS.

In a traditional school, parents can voice their concerns to their school board members, who have some influence to potentially address their concerns. This is not always the case with charter schools.

“Some charter schools give parents a greater role, many do not. They let the parents work there or raise money,” said John Rogers, an associate professor at the University of California-Los Angeles’s (UCLA) Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

“That’s different than acting as civic agents to shape that school,” he told IPS. “There’s no promise that they will (engage parents).”

Charter schools are the latest scheme to privatize public education in the U.S., and are seen as more politically feasible than “voucher” proposals that would give students vouchers to purchase private schooling.

Many charter schools are operated by for-profit educational management firms, which receive sometimes lucrative contracts to operate the schools.

Critics note that one consequence of this is to shift teachers and other school employees away from being public sector, unioniszd workers who receive decent pay and benefits and who have some job protections, to being private, non-unionized workers who may not receive the same pay, benefits, and protections.

In recent years there has been increasing conversion of U.S. public schools to charter schools, as new charter schools have opened and traditional public schools have closed.

For example, Atlanta recently closed several public schools due to under-enrollment of students. However, the decrease in the student population of those schools was caused largely by the transfer of many students to new, nearby charter schools.

After Hurricane Katrina, pro-charter school advocates capitalised on the crisis to convert most of the schools in the Orleans Parish School System to charter schools.

The parent trigger legislation being pushed by ALEC and other pro-charter lobbyists creates a petition process, whereby a majority of dissatisfied parents at a school could force the school to take one of several actions. Often the preferred action is to convert to a charter school to be managed by a private company.

Another type of legislation being pushed by ALEC is to create a statewide charter school commission that could override the decisions of local school boards. Such a commission has been established in Georgia.

As of June 2012, seven U.S. states had enacted parent trigger legislation, beginning with California in 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The other six states are Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas.

In California, a group called Parent Revolution was founded with more than one million dollars from foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation to push for the parent trigger law.

“An integral part of improving education in Georgia is greater parent buy-in to their children’s education. The parent trigger proposal will assist parents with this,” State Rep. Ed Lindsey, a Republican from Atlanta, said in a statement.

According to Rogers, however, Parent Revolution has not been so revolutionary.

“The approach taken by Parent Revolution has been to send in paid organizers to local communities to try to gather parent petitions. Once the trigger is pulled so to speak – that is an unfortunate metaphor, I would add – and the traditional public school changes over to a charter school, parents arguably have less power than they did before,” Rogers told IPS.

That is because once the school system enters into a contract with the charter school, the school system – and the parents and students – are bound to the terms of the charter.

Rogers argues that Parent Revolution mobilizes, but does not organize, parents. An organizing approach would build capacity among parents and build relationships between parents, “versus a one-time single shot effort that tries to get signatures and is going to be on to the next campaign.”

Parents are often frustrated about the lack of quality of their child’s education, especially if their school does not receive enough support from local property taxes. However, converting the school to a charter school does not address the resource issue.

As a whole, charter schools perform little or no better than traditional public schools in terms of educating students, test scores and other data show.

In addition, charter schools often further segregation. A 2009 study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project showed that “charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.”

“Across the board, in many cases, charter schools are doing worse than some schools,” Kahwach said. “In some cases, they are better. It’s not such an overwhelming choice to jump ship over. You don’t have control over how the charter school spends its money – they are a business.

“People need to take a stand and make their schools what they want them to be,” she said.