School reform doesn't work

In their commentary ("Six steps for post-Alonso school reform," May 14), Thomas Wilcox, Diane Bell-McKoy and Laura Gamble use many lofty and idealistic sounding words to promote their vision. However, it bears noting that education "reformers" are well-versed in using terms that have an appeal, yet bear little substance. It's part of the script to sell the public on a model for education that actually requires a deeper analysis and understanding. Words like "choice" and "accountability" have done for the corporate-model of education reform what buzz words like "whole grain" and "real fruit juice" have done for the food processing industry. Thus, commentaries such as this warrant a translation. My translation as follows is not grounded in empty rhetoric or phrases, but instead relies on facts and examples from other urban areas, to predict what such school, reform may indeed come to look like in Baltimore. The question will then remain: are we willing to buy this model? Or should we read the label more carefully?

Mr. Wilcox and company state that Baltimore City Public Schools should maintain a strict focus on school choice and "fair student funding," principles which "undergird a market-oriented approach." What does that mean? It means that advocates of this model for reform believe that public education should be run like corporations under a free-market framework. I'm not sure on what grounds they feel this will be a successful model for helping the most disenfranchised of our children. Is it the free market "success" of the housing and banking industries?


"Choice" is code for eliminating public schools and replacing them with "public" charter schools. There are several problems with this model. First of all, if other major urban centers can serve as cautionary tales, it is because "choice" via the free-market model and entrenchment of charter schools has led to greater racial segregation, fragmentation of the poorest neighborhoods and providing "choice" for only the "cream of the crop" students. Charters, no longer fettered by what Mr. Wilcox and others call "unnecessary compliance" can and have denied providing services to children with special needs, English-language learners and students with behavioral challenges. Thus, they can manufacture higher test scores, graduation success and operate at a lower budget.

What happens to those students? They fall in between the cracks, winding up perhaps at the dwindling community public school whose funding has been gutted by "fair student funding" which translates as an increased voucher system in which children with money attached to their foreheads have are siphoned off by charter schools. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found in a 2009 report that only 17 percent of charter schools outperformed their public school equivalents, while 37 percent of charter schools performed worse than regular local schools, and the rest were about the same. Nevertheless, charter school operators and investors reap enormous profits and six figure salaries.

The writers claim that "families are choosing" charter schools now that 50 of the 200 public schools are being shut down as if this were something to brag about. If Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York are any indication, the only ones hailing this as a good thing are the corporations and non-profits that have something ideological, financial, or political to gain from such reform. Parents and communities all across the country are up in arms, protesting by the thousands and rallying to save their public schools. Bait-and-switch corporate moves such as the "parent trigger act," which was the brain child of The American Legislative Exchange Commission, use parents to advocate for school closures, and then corporate model-run charter schools like KIPP move in a serve as replacements. When parents in Los Angeles discovered they had been had by this new legislation, they fought back. Perhaps Baltimore can learn for their cautionary tale?

Mr. Wilcox and his allies claim that "unions are cooperating on contracts that reward performance." There is absolutely no research to date anywhere that shows that merit pay boosts teacher performance or students' achievement. None.

They state that "private sector investment in public education" is on the rise. They are right. The Common Core standards, and new PARCC assessments among other things will create historic-level profits for Pearson publishing, database management companies, computer sales, e-learning companies, and private test preparation and tutoring companies. There has been a national buzz among hedge fund investors rallying for interest in charter school investments because of the potential for financial return.

They also state that the city's "population is beginning to grow." Correct again. Education reform matters greatly in the maelstrom of gentrification. To attract white upper middle-class families into the city, development magnates must also offer appealing alternatives to the crumbling under-funded city schools occupied largely by poor black and brown children.

The organization which Mr. Wilcox and his co-authors serve is the Baltimore Community Foundation (BCF), whose largest contributor is the Annie E. Casey Foundation which promotes charter schools, school choice, and public-private partnerships. The BCF serves as a liaison for philanthropic giving. The BCF advocates for increased charter schools. One might consider that as education reform seeks to privatize education serves, philanthropic "giving" might yield some profitable returns. For example, the New Market Tax Credits offered from the U.S. Department of Treasury's Community Development Financial Institution Fund allows investors who subsidize charter schools and other projects in inner-city communities to write-off their donations, dollar-for-dollar, on their taxes. By using the NMTC, investors can double their money in no time.

If you want to know what's going to happen in Baltimore using this free market approach to education reform, simply follow what's happening in Chicago, New Orleans, New York, or Philadelphia. While the think-tanks and corporations are laughing all the way to the bank, none of these reforms have actually benefited the children they claim to serve. Community members and parents need to learn how to translate and make an informed decision based on the evidence given to us from these other locations, rather than be spoon-fed lofty platitudes proffered by corporate-minded policy which has no research to support its success for our children.

Morna McDermott, Catonsville