The myth of US charter schools

Don’t buy the hype from Michael Gove – or Arne Duncan.

Arne Duncan, Barack Obama's education secretary and the man who invited the US military to run local schools during his controversial tenure as chief executive of the Chicago state school system, is in London visiting our very own Michael Gove.

The latter, of course, has been ultra-keen to push his agenda of academies and "free schools" since taking office in May, and has become fond of citing the Obama administration's support for so-called charter schools. (Interestingly, on a side note, Gove and the Tories have very little to say about Obama's position on deficit reduction, which is closer to the Labour Party's view than the coalition's.)

From the Guardian:

Gove said: "America is a bigger country and there are differences between us, but I have been impressed by what Race to the Top has done, and impressed by many of the things that President Obama and Arne Duncan have been fighting for."

It's worth noting the cynicism, however, of Gove's approach. At first, the Education Secretary championed free schools by pointing to the supposed successes of the Swedish version, which is said to have been the original inspiration for the Tories' education reforms. But, as empirical evidence emerged over the summer that challenged the Swedish model, Gove and his outriders began pointing instead to America's experiment with charter schools. Hence today's visit by Duncan to the UK.

As the Americans reject the Obama administration, the coalition embraces one of its worst ideas. Peer-reviewed academic research suggests charter schools ain't as good as their well-funded and high-profile advocates make them out to be. Here's what the CREDO National Charter Schools Study at Stanford University discovered last year:

While the report recognised a robust national demand for more charter schools from parents and local communities, it found that 17 per cent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 per cent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 per cent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.

Hmm.

It's also worth bearing in mind the view of Diane Ravitch, a leading historian of the US education system, former assistant secretary of education in the administration of George Bush Sr and one-time supporter of "school choice". Writing for the Wall Street Journal in March, in a piece entitled "Why I changed my mind about school reform", Ravitch observed:

Charter evaluations frequently note that as compared to neighboring public schools, charters enrol smaller proportions of students whose English is limited and students with disabilities. The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters often reflects the fact that they are able to "counsel out" the lowest-performing students; many charters have very high attrition rates (in some, 50-60 per cent of those who start fall away). Those who survive do well, but this is not a model for public education, which must educate all children.

So please don't buy the hype about charter schools – not from our Education Secretary or, for that matter, Obama's.

UPDATE:

If you're looking for more information on US charter schools, I highly recommend the website Charter School Scandals. My favourite story from that site is the Denver charter school which "broke a new state law by offering families $400 worth of gift cards if they brought new students to the school before the day the state takes a student census", because "state money follows students into the classroom – an average of about $6,600 per pupil across Colorado, according to the Colorado department of education".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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