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Did You Know That Charter Schools “Bury Their Dead”?

September 16, 2016

On September 14, 2016, The New York City Coalition of Community Charter Schools (C3S) posted a piece by co-director, Steve Zimmerman, entitled, “The Summer of Our Discontent.”

The piece is a charter school lament; in it Zimmerman states that he is particularly concerned about “complaints against charter schools raised by civil rights advocates.” Zimmerman adds:

…We’ve pledged ourselves to improve educational options for the very people who now seem to be rejecting the means by which we’ve chosen to address that inequity.

Let’s stop for a second right here. Note the dripping condescension in Zimmerman’s message, *we pledged, we chose… and you rejected”– and the perched reasoning that *your* rejection is (of course) *wrong* regarding “our mission”:

Even if the paintbrush used by NAACP and BLM is overly broad we can’t dismiss this stuff out of hand. Even if the premise of the suit in Washington State against their charter law is based on a narrow interpretation of what constitutes a public entity, questions are being raised that cut to the heart of our mission. And these questions are not going to be resolved easily or soon. It is going to require a campaign of thoughtful engagement with leaders like Nelson Smith at the forefront. And it is going to take more introspection on the part of the charter movement in terms of where are we going and how we intend to get there. …

There is so much good that the movement for increased autonomy in public schools has brought to the national discourse on education. But careless presumption of bad motives on the part of those with whom we disagree has led us into a thicket. What will lead us out of the thicket is thoughtful engagement with those who find fault with us.

Zimmerman alludes to National Association of Charter School Authorizers senior advisor and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools former CEO Nelson Smith as being at the “forefront” of “a campaign of thoughtful engagement”; moreover, Zimmerman sees Smith as the “spot on” responder to the lives of entertainer John Oliver, who royally roasted the charter school brand on August 21, 2016:

It was not the best summer for the charter school brand. The NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives both drew up resolutions for a moratorium on new charter schools. The Washington State charter school law came under attack from a number of groups including a local affiliate of the National Council of La Raza. The Campaign to Save our Public Schools launched a fight against raising the charter cap in Massachusetts.

Then there was the endless stream of “shady charter” news stories, such as the impressive growth of a charter network aligned with Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government accuses of being the mastermind behind the coup attempt this summer. With the exception of the New York Post, it was hard to find favorable press, and that alone filled my sleepless summer nights with cold sweat.

So, if we weren’t ready for it, we should have been when John Oliver came and dumped all over us.

How we deal with adversity says more about our values and the character of our movement than all our marketing and policy statements. So, with that in mind, take a look at Nelson Smith’s response to Oliver. It’s measured, spot on and exactly what we’ve come to expect from one of our most thoughtful and steadfast advocates.

The Smith link above takes one to Campbell Brown’s The 74 website, where Smith’s response to John Oliver is posted.

Smith entitled his response, “A Few Thoughts About John Oliver’s Bleak, Unrepresentative Sample of Public Charter Schools.” It was posted on August 22, 2016, the day after John Oliver’s charter school episode.

What caught my immediate attention was Smith’s ready defense of school closure–and the words he selected to defend it:

To be clear, we shouldn’t—and don’t—apologize for closing schools when they fail their kids. It’s part of the model and it’s called defending the public interest. Researcher Paul Hill contrasts charter accountability with what happens in traditional school systems: “We bury our dead.”

First let me say, wow. What a narrow, sad, disconnected, sickening view of school– not as an institution that should be preserved and protected as a cornerstone of community health and stability– but as disposable and readily trashed with no thought to repercussions on the very community from which the school is yanked.

Smith cites Hill’s calling school closure “burying the dead.” However, anyone with sense knows that the impact of a death does not end with the funeral, as Rachel Cohen of the American Prospect (as posted in Alternet) notes in her April 2016 article, “The Devastating Impact of School Closures on Students and Communities”:

The Chicago Board of Education voted to close 49 elementary schools in 2013—the largest mass school closing in American history. The board assured the distressed community that not only would the district save hundreds of millions of dollars, but students would also receive an improved and more efficient public education.

Yet three years later, Chicago residents are still reeling from the devastating closures—a policy decision that has not only failed to bring about notable academic gains, but has also destabilized communities, crippled small businesses, and weakened local property values. With the city struggling to sell or repurpose most of the closed schools, dozens of large buildings remain vacant, becoming targets of crime and vandalism throughout poor neighborhoods. “These schools went from being community anchors into actual dangerous spaces,” says Pauline Lipman, an education policy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

I wonder how many school closures have happened in the community in which Smith lives.

I wonder how many school closures have affected his life directly.

I wonder what Chicago parents and students think of Smith’s light treatment of school closure. And, for the record, Smith and Hill, school closure happens to traditional public schools.

Second, with his “bury the dead” philosophy of the school “failing the kids,” Smith apparently presumes that the life of a school is captured in its test scores. Test scores are what matters.

Ignore that closing a school based on low test scores could well be burying a school alive.

Third, school closure is a sad excuse for “accountability.” Accountability in place throughout the chartering process should minimize/diminish school closure– and the mismanagement and fraud that provided the charter school fiasco fodder that Oliver tapped into in the first place. Indeed, if accountability were really the order of the chartering day, Smith would not have needed to write the following:

For instance, Florida was featured prominently in the show—but the state has now developed new professional standards for charter authorizing.

Just last year, Ohio passed a major overhaul of charter accountability, tightening conflict-of-interest rules and shining a light on management-company expenditures. And they’ve got a tough new authorizer evaluation program to weed out those that don’t understand the term “oversight.”

Finally, Smith is proud of this CREDO “cherry”:

Speaking of research, shall we say it was used with some…selectivity in the show. Oliver’s primary source was CREDO, the Stanford University shop known for comprehensive analyses of charter performance. One of the cherries he failed to pick was CREDO’s finding that the charter sector made strong gains between 2009 and 2013—due mostly to closures of low-performing schools.

Actually, according to the June 2013 CREDO press release, the closure of underperforming charter schools was “part” of the reason for charter school improvement:

STANFORD, Calif.—June 25, 2013—A new, independent national study finds improvement in the overall performance of charter schools, driven in part by the presence of more high-performing charters and closure of underperforming charter schools.

The CREDO press release also includes this admonition regarding charter accountability– and the suggestion to continue to close low-performing charters “absent a robust evidence base”:

Even More Diligence Needed

The report urges policymakers to raise performance and accountability standards for charter schools and to hold them to the higher standards. It calls on charter school authorizers and others to “get smart from the start” by being even more discerning about which organizations are allowed to form a charter school. The entire field needs to build its evidence base about “what plans, what models, what personnel attributes, and what internal systems provide the appropriate signals that lead to high-performing schools,” the report says.

The report also says that authorizers should continue to close low-performing schools. Absent a robust evidence base, shutting down these schools remains “the strongest tool available to ensure quality across the sector for the time being.”

“Absent a robust evidence base” means “we have no research to back this up, but we think school closure is the way to go until we get some research to back up what we’re suggesting.”

In short, it is not CREDO’s place to consider the “buried alive” aspect of school closure– or the impact that such closure has on anything but test scores.

Smith continues with what he calls “a big, bright-red Maraschino” of CREDO’s urban study of 41 regions and how many more theoretical “learning day gains” charter students have made.

What does not get discussed often enough about CREDO studies is another “Maraschino buster”– that students who leave a charter and return to a traditional public school are no longer part of the CREDO study– which could inadvertently provide an artificial boosting of charter school scores as lower-performing charter school students are removed from the CREDO study.

But enough about CREDO.

Here’s Smith’s closing:

As the great Jon Stewart once said, “The Internet is just a world passing notes around a classroom.” A day after its broadcast, there were already more than 600,000 views of the Oliver segment on YouTube. It was a pretty funny show, and said some things that should be said, but I sure worry about the viewers for whom this is their first impression of charter schools.

When their laughter subsides, I hope they remember that the parents of 3 million kids take public charter schools really seriously.

Except now, two noted organizations representing the black and brown community are “really seriously” rejecting those charters, as Zimmerman paternally notes in the opening piece to this post.

As of this writing, John Oliver’s charter video has had over 6 million views, and I will remember the parents of kids in charter schools–

–schools that Smith would be fine with declaring “dead” over two-dimensional, test score outcomes.



Released July 2016– Book Three:

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of both A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

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  1. Quote –
    “We’ve pledged ourselves to improve educational options for the very people who now seem to be rejecting the means by which we’ve chosen to address that inequity. ”

    “….the very people…”
    “….seem to be…”
    “….we’ve chosen…”

    The attitude is paternalistic. Maybe they could have been a part of the development of charter schools, not a “….we’ve chosen…”.

    • Thanks, Howard. I added your perspective to the original post.

    • Yes. In my experience, the educational reform game has been extremely top-down paternalistic; in many cases it is little more than patriarchy digging in.

  2. amerigus permalink

    Questions about the mission of charter schools are simple. Are you supposed to serve high need students or not? When NY passed its charter law, they said yes, in fact they would have a “special emphasis” on “at risk” students.

    Charters in reality do the opposite, excluding the highest need students by a pro-active application process, suspensions, expulsions and unrealistic discipline policies.

    Call it a bait and switch, but it’s more like class war – charters are a vehicle to privatize public money through sneaky tax credits, attack unions and promote standardized testing.

  3. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    In a variation of the bury the under performers, charter chains like KIPP just withdraw a school from the franchise and all of the support that the branding system provides. This is like vanishing the school, but with no formal burial. I discovered this vanishing process while reading USDE proposals for charter expansions. This process was portrayed as if a strength of “the system” and as a justification for charter expansions funded by all of us, via USDE.
    The discussion of charters is often about the system and the “sector,” not the wellbeing of students and the communities that host the schools.

  4. Abigail Shure permalink

    In a renew school in Newark where I worked, more than half the student population was special needs including classifications of nonverbal autism. In addition, there was a growing ELL presence. I failed to see any charters in town arriving to recruit our students.

  5. Jack permalink

    Another aspect of school closures they serve as a means for gentrification and real estate profiteering,

    There’s another part of the reason why, in the windy city of Chicago, Arne, Rahm, the unelected CPS school board, and others closed so many schools.

    Call this an epilogue of sorts to the 2013 school closings of 50 schools on the same day in Chicago: (free market capitalism marches on!). These closings helped drive out lower income residents — since there was no longer any neighborhood school for their children to attend — thereby gentrifying certain neighborhoods even quicker.

    Developers connected to Rahm Emanuel have been buying up the land and school buildings from CPS at cost.

    And the latest is, according to the article below, is that the school buildings — some a century old, many several decades old — are being renovated for residence condos to be sold at top dollar. Classrooms in the former schools are being turned into expensive Yuppie condo lofts for the new well-to-do residents:

    The new residents can brag, “I live in a school classroom, where I wake up every morning, then walk to and from work every day and night, up the former school steps, and through the hallways that Chicago school children used to walk for decades.”


    Those buds and campaign backers of Rahm & perhaps buds of Arne, too — have been creating these new condos after rehabbing those closed Chicago schools: (not that you could afford it on a CPS teacher salary)

    • What maybe hurts most is that in so many cases the land was bought up by reformers and reformer “friends” YEARS BEFORE THE SCHOOLS WERE CLOSED.

  6. Jack permalink

    Usually, the “view count” of a John Oliver
    video has a huge drop-off a couple days
    after it first airs.

    Not so with his “charter school” video, as
    it just surpassed 6,000,000 views, and climbing:

    One thing I’m wondering — and there’s no way to answer this
    question — how much did the charter industry’s silly “$100,000”
    “Strike-Back- At-John-Oliver’ contest help to keep that “View Count”
    from the usual ebbing away that his videos have?

    I would suspect that critics like Jeanne Allen and
    Robert Pondiscio just gave it more oxygen and exposure,
    as people who otherwise never would have seen it, are saying,

    “Hmmm. I wonder what Jeanne Allen’s (or whoever)
    is so upset about. I think that I’m gonna have to watch
    this for myself.”

    The other thing is that those that dismiss the impact of
    or importance of the Oliver video might want to re-think this.

    For example, Rick Hess initially dismissed Oliver by tweeting
    on August 22:

    “It’s hard to convey how little I worry about Oliver’s views.”

    Seriously, Rick. How many people outside the village of
    ed. policy — the mainstream, general public, that is —
    actually read your Education Week column
    “Rick Hess: Straight Up” ?

    I would guess what? About six or so?

    Compare that to six million that Oliver has gotten
    and the count still grows. You’re REALLY going to
    just blow this off?

    Indeed, Hess has changed his tune about Oliver,
    as just three days ago, (September 14), he’s devoting an
    entire “Rick Hess: Straight Up”column to Oliver.

    He starts the article by how surprised he is that he
    keeps getting emails from people wanting him to go
    after Oliver:
    “While I was on blog break in August finishing
    Letters to a Young Education Reformer, HBO host
    John Oliver did a segment making fun of charter schools.

    “The result?

    “A large swath of the education policy world lost it. It was
    like Bill Clinton and the Loch Ness Monster had crashed a
    Trump rally. Some folks were livid, others were elated
    (Robert Pondiscio had the best take on the whole thing here).

    “Given that I’m still getting emails about it, I thought the
    following conversation might be worth sharing.”

    The rest is behind a paywall, I ain’t payin’ Rick Hess
    of EdWeek one thin dime of my hard-earned bread:

    Here’s the link:

    • Jack permalink

      It’s interesting that Rick Hess re-tweeted — presumably approvingly — an ad hominum, xenophobic, name-calling tweet that reduced John Oliver to being just a “snooty Brit”, and thus not worth listening to. The tweeter, Max Eden, then added that “American parents care about their children’s education”… EXACTLY WHERE in the video did John Oliver say that the American parents did not care about their children’s education?

      Seriously, Rich & Max? Childish name-calling? Xenophobia? This is what qualifies as reasoned and civil discourse among corporate ed. reformers? Sheesh!

      Against here’s the John Oliver video:

  7. Zorba permalink

    Mercedes, very well reasoned and written.
    Many charter schools are not required to accept all-comers, including ELL students, special education students, and students with behavior problems.
    And the ones that do, seem to find ways to “counsel out” the students who give them any trouble or who might reduce their test scores. Including retaining them for one or more years, suspending them over and over again, calling their parents constantly to come and pick up their “misbehaving” children, and so on.

  8. stiegem permalink

    Ah… and there is the philosophy of truth.

    Emile Zola – “If you shut up the truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”

    And such it is with education reform today.

    You do a great job, Meercedes.

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