Evidence Suggests Proposed Charter School in District 89 Should Be Approached With Caution

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By Michael Romain

TUESDAY, MAYWOOD — The District 89 School Board will grant Dr. Elaine Lee’s charter school proposal another hearing at a meeting that will take place tonight at 6pm at the District’s headquarters, 906 Walton St., Melrose Park, IL. Dr. Lee, a former psychologist with District 89’s Roosevelt Elementary in Broadview, requested a charter from the board in 2011, but was denied. Efforts to appeal the District’s decision with the Illinois State Charter School Commission were withdrawn for unknown reasons.

Dr. Lee’s Mastery Academy would serve 90 fifth through eighth graders in Melrose Park, Maywood and Broadview. The budget for the charter that was presented at a November 8, 2012, school board meeting, allocated money for six teachers/staff members and $50,000 to renovate the former site of the H. McNelty School in Melrose Park, a now-defunct K-12 parochial institution operated by the First Baptist Church of Melrose Park.

H. McNelty School
The site of the former H. McNelty School in Melrose Park.

According to the minutes of that November meeting, Dr. Lee’s presentation was met with a barrage of questions from board members, an indication pointing to the Mastery proposal’s vagueness and general lack of specificity with respect to issues such as financial feasibility, academic outcomes, community need and proven curriculum success.

Then-Board President Regina Rivers pressed Dr. Lee from the outset to justify building a charter school in District 89 when, according to Rivers, data had demonstrated that “charter school performance has steadily been declining only three of 52 charter schools made AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress] or outperformed non-charter schools.”

Although it was not clear from the minutes precisely where Ms. Rivers got this information, her assertion is nonetheless consistent with a wave of recent research that suggests that charter schools have the tendency to drain resources from public schools and brush over socio-economic conditions that can’t be mitigated by what happens in the classroom alone. To say nothing of their most troubling aspects–their overwhelming reliance on a corporate model of education that places profits before most other considerations and the fact that they’re so loosely regulated. All of this, when charter schools may not be demonstrably better than non-charter schools.

This month, the Washington Post reported that Moody’s, the credit rating agency, has claimed that charters “pose a threat to district finances” in several urban areas throughout the country.

“While charters are everywhere — in at least 41 states,” the Post article states, “— they tend to make up a bigger share of total enrollment in urban areas. And some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines. It begins with people leaving the city or district. Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts. The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students. As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts. Rinse, repeat.”

Although one must be careful not to draw a false equivalence between large urban school districts and District 89, there are nonetheless some ways in which the financial drain experienced by urban districts can be used as a cautionary guide to the potential challenges charter(s) may pose for District 89–a school district that has racial, economic and social characteristics rather similar to many urban districts throughout the country.

Growth in charters concentrated in urban districts (The Washington Post via Moody's).
Growth in charters concentrated in urban districts (The Washington Post via Moody’s).

According to education historian Diane Ravitch, when charters were originally promoted in 1990, they were supposed to “collaborate with public schools, not to compete with them. They were supposed to recruit the weakest students, the dropouts, and identify methods to help public schools to do a better job with those who had lost interest in schooling. This should be their goal now.

“Instead, the charter industry is aggressive and entrepreneurial. Charters want high test scores, so many purposely enroll minimal numbers of English-language learners and students with disabilities. Some push out students who threaten their test averages. Last year, the federal General Accountability Office issued a report chastising charters for avoiding students with disabilities, and the ACLU is suing charters in New Orleans for that reason.”

It should be emphasized that, as far as we know (and as the minutes from that November meeting indicate), Dr. Lee has no corporate backers behind Mastery Academy. Indeed, it’s not very clear what funding Mastery has lined up outside of the portion it may receive from state and federal taxes. According to Dr. Lee, “Mastery Academy will receive the funds needed to secure quality programming […] through traditional routes for charter schools–grants, philanthropic donations and other methods.”

However, Dr. Lee’s statement implies that Mastery, although technically a non-profit institution, will be open to private funding sources and subject to the same private means and methods. It’s not a stretch to say that, in order to stay financially solvent, Mastery will have to be “aggressive and entrepreneurial” with how it operates if it wants to compete for revenue. And that means that it may very well have to resort to the same exclusionary market tactics that Ms. Ravitch pointed out above–tactics that seem to be rather common.

That this could turn out to be the case with Mastery was hinted at during the school board meeting in November. According to the minutes, board members pointed out a glaring discrepancy in Mastery’s proposed enrollment policy.

“On page 39 of the Mastery Academy proposal,” said Board Member Bonilla-Lopez, “it states that ‘Mastery Academy will advertise its ability to serve students with disabilities and homeless students. Services to these populations will be highlighted in Mastery Academy’s marketing materials during informational sessions.’ Please explain the discrepancy between this statement and the language in Appendix I which states Mastery [sic] Academy will not be able to accommodate severely disabled students nor is it feasible for them to do so and these students will be referred to District 89 and/or PAEC [Proviso Area for Exceptional Children].”

In her response, Dr. Lee did not refute Ms. Bonilla-Lopez’s assertion. “All students within District 89,” she said, “are eligible for the public lottery into Mastery […] After the lottery, during the applications process, the student will be evaluated and if it is determined that the student can not [sic] be serviced at Mastery […] the child will be directed to District 89 or PAEC.”

In another moment that may have betrayed Dr. Lee’s entrepreneurial approach in her proposal to administer a public good, when a board member asked if she’d conducted an assessment to determine whether the community needs a charter school, she shifted to referencing marketing strategy.

“Page 42 of the proposal provides a list of supporters,” said Board Member Robey, “but half of those listed are outside of the community served. Can you provide any additional data or research demonstrating the need for the proposed charter school in this community or evidence of support from within the community.”

When Dr. Lee mentioned that her marketing efforts were aimed at local churches, Dr. Robey said that the marketing strategy was not the focus of the question. The main focus should’ve been on families in District 89 and their interest level in a charter school. Dr. Lee then said that she’d gotten positive comments from families, but according to the minutes, nothing more specific was mentioned with respect to community need.

In another moment, when asked by Board Member Williams whether there was an objective basis to believe that the Mastery Academy will be economically sound, Dr. Lee said that Mastery’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum is in demand and schools similar to Mastery are in demand within the global economic marketplace. Dr. Lee also mentioned that there is an outcry for STEM education, although she offered no empirical evidence supporting this assertion at the community level.

As board members pointed out, STEM is an academically rigorous curriculum that, if used in a school-wide fashion (as opposed to being targeted toward certain advanced students or classes), may ignore the specific learning needs of students with academic and behavioral problems. If Dr. Lee intends to use STEM as a blanket curriculum, she may have difficulty persuading the community that Mastery would be a learning institution inclusive of all students–gifted, mediocre and low-performing.

As Board Member Urso mentioned, “How do you reconcile the fact that the STEM curriculum is a rigorous and demanding curriculum with the fact that your target population includes both gifted and underachieving students (Specifically page 27 [sic] acknowledges that the Academy will be serving in a student population which may have poor study skills […] lack of long-term goals setting [sic] […] in other words, wouldn’t that be setting the underachieving students up for failure[?] [T]o submerge them in a self-driven culture with difficult curriculum that they are not prepared to master?”

If it can’t sustain a uniform level of academic success, despite the fact that it serves a high volume of academically disadvantaged students, Mastery must be careful not to resort to selecting only high-performing students at the exclusion of lower-performing students. As a Reuters article demonstrates, although most charters ostensibly promote the principle of openness to all students and many adhere to random lotteries, some utilize subtle tactics that enforce exclusion in practice.

“Thousands of charter schools don’t provide subsidized lunches, putting them out of reach for families in poverty. Hundreds mandate that parents spend hours doing ‘volunteer’ work for the school or risk losing their child’s seat. In one extreme example the Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove, Illinois, mandates that each student’s family invest in the company that built the school – a practice the state said it would investigate after inquiries from Reuters.

“And from New Hampshire to California, charter schools large and small, honored and obscure, have developed complex application processes that can make it tough for students who struggle with disability, limited English skills, academic deficits or chaotic family lives to even get into the lottery. Among the barriers that Reuters documented: Applications that are made available just a few hours a year[;] [l]engthy application forms, often printed only in English, that require students and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, teacher recommendations and medical records[;] [d]emands that students present Social security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered, even though such documents cannot be required under federal law[;] [m]andatory family interviews […]”

What’s more, as one board member pointed out, it doesn’t necessarily take a charter school to implement the STEM curriculum, or similar advanced academic curricula that focus intensely on the core subjects of math, science, technology and engineering. These steps may also be implemented in public schools as well.

Of course, Dr. Lee’s proposal may have changed considerably since November 2012. Moreover, that the aforementioned practices may be prevalent among charter schools in other areas of the state and country doesn’t mean that they’ll be applied by Mastery Academy or that the Mastery doesn’t have legitimate reasons for opening–the most obvious of which being that it presents a potential solution to the District’s overcrowding problem.

The data produced above does, however, serve as a precautionary tale and a guide toward moving forward. When analyzed on a case-by-case basis, evidence seems to suggest that charters have the potential for performing just as badly, as well as, or even better than, public schools. But when considered in the aggregate, a much less benign warning seems in order.

As Ms. Ravitch writes, “As large as the gulf can be between charter cheerleading and charter reality, it doesn’t represent the greatest danger of these schools. They have become the leading edge of a long-cherished ideological crusade by the far right to turn education into a consumer choice rather than a civic obligation.

“Abandoning public schools for a free-market system eviscerates our basic obligation to support them whether our own children are in public schools, private schools or religious schools, and even if we have no children at all.

The campaign to ‘reform’ schools by turning public money over to private corporations is a great distraction from our system’s real problems: Academic performance is low where poverty and racial segregation are high. Sadly, the U.S. leads other advanced nations of the world in the proportion of children living in poverty. And income inequality in our nation is larger than at any point in the last century.” VFP

One thought on “Evidence Suggests Proposed Charter School in District 89 Should Be Approached With Caution

  1. The meeting was last night? What was the outcome? I don’t think a charter would resolve the flight of 5th- 8th graders from the D 209 high school district. I don’t see that aspect reflected anywhere in the previous Mastery proposal, but clearly Dr. Lee is talking about the elephant in the room.

    Since it’s D89, everything concerning this application needs scrutiny. Funding ersatz private schools with public money plagues the charter movement in urban districts. The well-funded charter movement continues to undermine public education, but D89 has its own issues in that regard.

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