Are Charter Schools Really 'Helping Poor Children'?

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Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

Are Charter Schools Really 'Helping Poor Children'?

Richard Cohen doesn't understand why people are so down on the rich.  The Washington Post columnist (3/18/14) writes:

The rich are incessantly accused of being slyly manipulative and self-serving. For instance, they support charter schools. Apparently, there is nothing worse.

I am mystified. Charter schools are not private schools. They are free public schools open to any student, usually by lottery. Some rich people support them, provide funds for special programs and, in return, get vilified for their efforts.

 "They're helping poor children," Cohen insists, while opponents of charter schools, he suspects, "would rather hurt the rich than help the poor."

 But are charter schools really helping poor students–or any sutudents? "Say what you will about New York or Washington charters, but by the usual measurements–test scores, etc.–they are succeeding, some of them stunningly so," the columnist writes–contrasting them with "the old system," in which "failure was a certainty."Harlem Success Academy (cc photo: Multitude)

The link on "test scores" goes to a Washington Post article (7/30/13) headlined "D.C. Students Reach New Heights in Annual Standardized Tests." Note that the subject of the headline is "D.C. students," because the story reports gains by students in both charter schools and the "old system" alike.

But not quite alike: If you look at test scores over the past seven years, you see that D.C. charter schools have raised  test scores by an average of 15.o percent–while the old system, where "failure was a certainty," has raised them by 17.2 percent. In other words, the "usual measurement" offered by Cohen as proof of the value of charter schools offers no evidence that charter school students are any better off at all.

But what about the "some" charter schools that are "succeeding…stunningly"? Cohen mentions Harlem Village Academies, which "has been raising test scores–in other words, giving student after student a better chance of succeeding." There's a special reason, though, that Harlem Village is able to raise scores:  Its classes have attrition rates of up to 75 percent. That's not so much "student after student" as it is "student but not student or student or student": It's not hard to have test scores go up and up if you get rid of any students who look they might bring the average down.

But what about the good intentions of the rich people who are funding charter schools–people like Carl Icahn, who went to Cohen's high school? Don't they count for anything? Cohen again:

When the rich insist that lower taxes would do wonders for the poor, the orphaned and the grievously widowed, I detect the faint aroma of self-interest. But when they plump for charter schools, the only ulterior motive you can find is that down the road, years from now, society will benefit and so, as night follows day, will they. I can live with that.

Maybe I'm not as familiar with rich people spending money just so "society will benefit," since I don't know Carl Icahn even "just casually." But it's not hard to find an alternative explanation (AlterNet, 2/15/13):

Thanks to a little discussed law passed in 2000, at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, banks and equity funds that invest in charter schools and other projects in underserved areas can take advantage of a very generous tax credit — as much as 39 percent — to help offset their expenditure in such projects. In essence, that credit amounts to doubling the amount of money they have invested within just seven years. Moreover, they are allowed to combine that tax credit with job creation credits and other types of credit, as well collect interest payments on the money they are lending out — all of which can add up to far more than double in returns. This is, no doubt, why many big banks and equity funds are so invested in the expansion of charter schools. There is big money being made here — because investment is nearly a sure thing.

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of EXTRA! Magazine at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website.

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