In 2014, I was invited to speak to the Kentucky School Boards Association at its annual meeting. I had recently published a best-selling book about the dangers of privatizing public schools. In Louisville, I saw something I had never seen before and did something I had never done before.
Outside the Grand Ballroom of the hotel was a meeting area, and its walls were covered with banners made by the children in each school district. The banners celebrated the success of public schools. I was so impressed that I took out my cell phone and took pictures of some of these beautiful banners.
I came to Kentucky three years ago to warn about what the Legislature is considering right now: the authorization of privately managed charter schools.
The inevitable result of charter schools will be to harm Kentucky’s beloved community public schools and replace them with schools that are mostly run by out-of-state corporations.
Charter schools have existed since 1990. At first, their sponsors said they would get better results for less money. They would be accountable, they said. They would be innovative. And if they failed, they would close.
Now we know that charter schools do not get better results than public schools, unless they cherrypick their students and exclude children with disabilities and English language learners. They do not cost less money. They are not innovative.
After 27 years, we know that their promises are hollow. Milwaukee has had charters and vouchers for that entire period, and it remains one of the lowest-performing districts in the nation. Betsy DeVos’s state of Michigan turned to charter schools, and its scores on national tests plummeted.
Tennessee created a special district in 2012 for the state’s lowest performing public schools and gave them over to charter operators. The leader of the district said that within five years, the schools in the bottom 5 percent would be in the top 20 percent. The due date has arrived, and the schools in Tennessee’s Achievement School District are still among the lowest performing in the state.
It is important to remember that every dollar that goes to a charter school is subtracted from public schools. If charters are opened, Kentucky’s public schools will lose funding and have to cut back on teachers, increase class size, and perhaps lose the art teachers who helped to create those beautiful banners that I saw in Louisville three years ago.
We now know that charter schools are unwilling to serve all children. They want only the ones likely to get high scores to make the schools look good. Why would Kentucky want to establish a dual school system, one composed of schools that choose their students, and the other required to accept all children, including the ones the charters don’t want?
We now know that charter schools have less accountability and transparency than public schools. Charter operators have been convicted of stealing millions of dollars from taxpayers. In many states, the charter industry gives generously to legislators, which protects them from accountability and oversight.
If the Legislature authorizes charter schools, you can anticipate that in the future the charter lobby will demand more and more money, more and more schools. They will bus hundreds, thousands, of students and parents wearing identical T-shirts to legislative meetings and press their demands. The public schools will continue to serve most children in Kentucky, but the Legislature will talk about nothing but charters and choice, how much money to transfer to charters, how many more students should be handed over to charters. The public schools, the anchor of their communities, will become an afterthought.
Kentucky doesn’t need charter schools. It needs to hold a steady course and keep investing in its public schools. Kentucky outperforms Tennessee, which has embraced charters. Why copy a failed model?
Stand by your public schools, make them stronger, support them as the community institutions that they are. Public education is one of the foundation stones of our democracy. Don’t let the charter industry invade Kentucky. Keep your public schools public, transparent, accountable, and beholden only to the public and the local community.
Kentucky state legislators can be reached at 800-372-7181.
Diane Ravitch is a historian of American education who was in charge of education research in the George H.W. Bush administration. Her best-selling books include Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.