MY WORD: The real challenge to education

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By J. Howard Griffith

In response to my article titled (“Is public education at a crossroad?” My Word, April 10), Rev. Jerry Stephenson suggested that I had “left out some important points as it relates to charter schools and the value they could bring to Kentucky” (“In support charter schools,” My Word, April 17).

I agree with Rev. Stephenson that some additional points need to be made in this important discussion about the future of education. For that reason,  I would like to respond to his key question about the educational hopes and dreams of minority children.  First some personal background.

For the last 30 years of my ministry, I had the privilege of being the pastor of integrated congregations in three states. Martin Luther King once spoke from the steps of a church I served in Shaker Heights, Ohio.  During my tenure at that congregation, we built a $3 million, 8-story, high-rise apartment building with a loan from HUD.

Because we would not discriminate against African-Americans in favor of white applicants, the city of Shaker Heights sued our congregation in federal court. We won.

My own children first attended an inner-city school in Charleston, W.Va., for their first seven years. And through my 46-plus years of ministry, I have been a staunch civil rights advocate at every level.

Having said that, the question has to do with the value of charter schools. Although Rev.  Stephenson makes some general statements about the value of Charter Schools, he makes no reference to actual independent studies. According to recent research, only 1 in 5 charter schools get amazing results, according to Washington economist Dan Goldhaber.

In fact, he writes that 60 percent of achievement is explained by non-school factors, such as family income. It is true that teachers are an important factor within the school environment. However, the teacher's effect pales in comparison to the counter balancing weight of the student’s background and family. To the point, it is extremely difficult for teachers to undo the damage caused by poverty.

The most recent research on charter schools was the CREDO study by Stanford University completed just this past January. The study did a survey of charter schools nationwide over the past 5 years.

Their findings essentially was that there was no significant difference in the educational outcomes between charter schools and public schools. The one area in which charter schools excelled was in providing education for children in the inner city.

Those were in fact the schools where large sums of both corporate and private money plus public education tax dollars were spent to provide for a large array of services beyond the classroom for each student.

Again it is instructive to remember that in Shelby County we spend $9,782 a year for each student. To put that in some perspective, we spend more than $20,000 a year for each prisoner at the Luther Luckett prison here in Shelby County.

The charter school movement started in 1988 when Albert Shanker, who was then president of the American Federation of Teachers, had the idea that a group of teachers would ask permission to create  a small school that would focus on the neediest students and those students most likely to drop out of school.

Shanker promoted that idea until 1993 when he disavowed the charter school movement when he saw that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing his idea as a way to privatize public schools.

It would appear that Shanker's concerns were well-founded. Over the past several years The American Legislative Economic Council (ALEC) has pushed for charter schools in every statehouse across the U.S., including Frankfort.

At first glance it would appear that the push for charter schools is a grassroots movement. In fact it is a well-funded, coordinated nationwide effort ultimately to privatize our public school system.

ALEC is a shadowy organization that brings together corporate lobbyists with corporate politicians to pass corporate laws that benefit corporations at the expense of the public. Our own Republican state Rep. Brad Montell, according to the ALEC Web site,  is a member of  the ALEC Education Reform Task Force and has introduced ALEC-sponsored legislation promoting charter schools in Frankfort.

If you want to get a picture of what is wrong with privatizing charter schools, just look next door to our neighbors in Indiana. Ball State University recently revoked the charters of seven failing schools. The corporations running those schools have incurred a $12 million debt. Now they want the state to reimburse them for their corporate loss.

The corporate concept here is privatize the profit, socialize the loss. The Indiana regional director for charter schools explained why they failed: “Many of their students are either transient or come from low-income families....Kids will come to us far behind where they should be according to those standardized test...So that's obviously a big challenge for us.”

It certainly is a challenge. Just ask our own Commissioner of Education.

There has been a shift in our political focus on education since the mid 1980s. Before 1985, the emphasis was on improving teacher qualifications and changing for the better the general environment of the student. One example is Head Start. Since the 1980s the focus has shifted to blaming the teacher and testing the student while at the same time the student poverty level has increased.

Today charter schools are promoted not as a way to collaborate with public schools but as competitors that will force public schools to get better or go out of business. Charter schools have become the force that Shanker feared.

Finland's educational system is often held up as an outstanding example of how a school system should perform. Finland has succeeded, not by privatizing its schools or closing schools with low scores, but by strengthening their educational system and enhancing the image of the teaching profession.

In the Finland example there is one additional clue. In Finland, just less than 5 percent of their children live below the poverty level. Here in Kentucky, as indicated above, the rate is almost 30 percent. In fact, according to Stanford University, compared to 1970, today 60 percent more young people nationwide live in poverty.

University researcher Linda Darling-Hammond says that “nations that are outpacing the U.S. in education don't allow their children to live in poverty.”

You see, the real challenge to education is poverty. Fix that and test scores will rise.

As I wrote in my previous article, traditional education is both the cornerstone of our democracy and the touchstone of a strong middle class. Let's not mess it up with another gimmick.


J. Howard Griffith is a retired minister who lives in Shelbyville.