A Final Thought
Follow the Money
- By Paul Abramson
- December 1st, 2016
When I conceived and
started this magazine, the
publisher suggested that I reserve
a place where I could comment on what was
happening in public education. It was called
“A Final Thought” and it has allowed me to
comment, praise, suggest and otherwise act
as an advocate for public education and for
children for more than 20 years. This is its final chapter.
Unfortunately, the column ends just as public education faces
its most serious challenge. The incoming president has nominated
a dedicated opponent of public education to serve as our nation’s
next Secretary of Education from which position, it appears, she
plans to push for more and more transfer of public tax dollars into
private hands by increasing charter schools.
Charter school origins
What’s wrong with charter schools? Well, nothing, if you go back
to origins. Joe Nathan and others were pushing for charter schools
way back in the 1960s. But the charter schools we were talking about
were public schools that were given the opportunity to experiment
with new approaches to education — approaches that were planned
by teachers, administrators and professors who were involved with
teaching children. In order to do that, sometimes they had to be
allowed to break rules and regulations that other schools had to
maintain. If their programs succeeded, the expectation was that
they would become models for other public schools to follow.
That was the idea — charter schools were public schools that
were introducing and trying out new ideas and techniques. When
they were successful, they would demonstrate and spread the idea
or program to other schools and teachers. The impetus was to find
better ways in which to reach and serve all children within the
public school system. There was no handing over of public funds
to private operators.
Today’s charter schools are, more often than not, simply a
vehicle to move public money into private hands. Few have claimed
any significant educational ideas. Many say that they are providing
parents with a choice, and that alone is a legitimate goal. Some use
public money to push religious or political agendas. None have improved
the way we educate children. Few have shown success, sustained
or otherwise, even using their favored standardized tests.
The one thing they have done is make their operators wealthy.
Problems of education
There are plenty of problems with public education. Underfunding
is one. Overcrowding is another. Failure to provide
early education, so that some children enter first grade already
three years behind is a serious one. There are districts where
union rules keep teachers from scheduling evening meetings
making it impossible for working families to be involved in
their children’s education. Lack of support for teachers makes
them spend most of their time on a few students who need extra
help is another. Poor leadership hurts. Stagnant curriculum is
a problem. Some problems are the result of bad laws that make
it difficult for good teachers to do their jobs. “Teaching to the
Test” becomes more important than providing an education in
The list can go on and on. But the key is that all of them are
solvable within the public schools and while taxpayers may have
to spend a little more to make their schools work better, that additional
money goes into education, not the pockets of the charter
school owners and advocates.
Ask yourself a question
What is it that charter school
advocates really want? Have they suggested a revolutionary new
approach to education that no one has previously considered? I
certainly have not seen that.
I do hear about back to the past ideas, more testing, more
hours, more sitting in a classroom, more expulsions if a child misbehaves.
I see selection of the best and brightest students to ensure
that test results are good. I see discrimination and separation of
children with special needs, whether those needs are physical,
mental or environmental.
Today’s charter schools are not a better way to provide education.
Rather they are a quick way to move tax dollars into private
hands. As many people have said, if you want to understand why
who is for what, follow the money.
Twenty years ago, I was working in a school district that
was mandated to provide $4 million to fund a new charter
school backed by local politicians. The following year, when
the accounting was done, $3 million had been spent on education
— teachers, books, facilities and the like. The students did
no better or worse than those from the same neighborhood who
had remained in the public schools. The operators did $1 million
better. Follow the money.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.
Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."