The public rationale for many of the efforts to dismantle traditional public education with various privatization schemes almost always includes the claim that it is all about helping students do better, most often low-income and minority kids.
Supporters of the sketchy North Carolina voucher program say that often, that it’s all about helping poor kids. The program, euphemistically called opportunity scholarships, currently has income eligibility limits, though they have already been increased once and the long term plan is to make vouchers available to thousands of more students.
The same is true of the state’s current experiment with unproven virtual charters, one run by K12, Inc., a company embroiled in scandals in other states and run out of Tennessee.
The online for profit charters will help kids who are struggling in traditional public schools. That’s the line anyway.
There’s no real evidence that any of the privatization plans actually help low-income kids achieve more academically, but it’s easier to build support for dismantling a popular and successful public institution talking about poor kids than it is making a purely anti-government ideological argument.
And it’s especially effective when low-income students are struggling in public schools whether it’s the schools fault or not.
The scene is playing out again in the latest school privatization battle in North Carolina, the debate over something called achievement school districts. The idea, proposed by Rep. Rob Bryan, is to convert a certain number of low-performing schools into charters which may be operated by for profit companies who keep popping up to capitalize on the school privatization frenzy.
Never mind that school turnaround efforts by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction are showing some promising results despite the lack of resources provided by the General Assembly that makes it impossible for DPI to focus on all the schools that need extra help.
Some lawmakers who seem to be warming up to Bryan’s proposal—which has failed miserably in neighboring Tennessee—are understandably frustrated that schools with a high percentage of low-income students are not performing as well as more affluent schools and are constantly branded as failing by the state’s absurd A-F grading system.
But there’s another way to address that problem, by helping the students and their families before the kids show up at school.
No one can deny the correlation between education and poverty. That doesn’t mean that low-income kids can’t learn. It means that they face extraordinary hurdles that most other students do not, and many of the problems are difficult for schools to solve.
But it’s not impossible. It just takes policymakers and education officials working together. They need to talk to Tiffany Anderson, the former head of the schools in Jennings, Missouri who recently accepted a job to run the schools in Topeka, Kansas.
As reported recently in the Washington Post, Anderson turned around the overwhelmingly poor schools in the Jennings School District not by supporting privatizing them or converting them to charters. She did it by helping the students and their families by setting up a food bank and medical clinic at the high school.
She installed washers and dryers that parents could use if they volunteered at the school. She even started a shelter for homeless teens. She started a Saturday school and reinstated arts programs.
The results were dramatic. The school was in danger of losing its accreditation but is now fully accredited and the students have made huge progress with many kids now considering college for the first time.
The lesson seems pretty obvious. One of the best ways to help poor kids do better in schools is to address the challenges they face because of their poverty.
If Rep. Bryan wants to help low-performing schools, maybe he should fight to make sure that all the at-risk four year olds have access to NC PreK so they show up at school ready to learn. Maybe he should support expanding Medicaid so the parents of low-income students can get regular medical care when they need it.
Maybe the real innovations lawmakers should consider are the things that Tiffany Anderson did, providing support services at the schools and help for students’ families in the community.
Converting a public school with lots of low-income students to a for-profit charter won’t make it any more likely that a third-grader with an abscessed tooth can afford to see a dentist.
We don’t need achievement school districts and for profit charters to help poor kids do better at school. And we don’t need vouchers either.
We need a commitment to help the students and their families with the things that make it harder for them to succeed. It may not accomplish the philosophical aims of the privatizers, but it would transform the lives of low-income kids in North Carolina.
Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch