by Alan R. Sadovnik — March 17, 2011
This commentary uses the documentaries "The Cartel" and "Waiting for Superman" to critique the current neo-liberal agenda of over-emphasizing the success of charter schools and painting traditional public schools for low-income children as dismal failures. The author provides empirical evidence to the contrary and argues that a more balanced agenda that supports the replication of excellent models of urban schools, both charter and traditional, be adopted.
In the Imperfect Panacea (1995), historian of education Henry Perkinson analyzed the neverending quest of Americans to use the schools to improve society and the limits and possibilities of these efforts. During the past year, charter schools have received significant attention as the latest solution in policy discussions of urban school reform. Documentaries such as “The Cartel” and “Waiting for Superman” have portrayed charter schools as successful alternatives to failing traditional urban public schools, whose failures are attributed to teacher unions and their support of teacher tenure and layoffs based on seniority. This critique has been part of an over twodecade conservative and neoliberal celebration of market based choice reforms, with reformers arguing that school choice through charters and vouchers are necessary to destroy the public school monopoly and to provide the competition required to improve urban schools. Borrowing from the logic of Diane Ravitch’s Left Back (2000), neo-liberals turned the progressive left’s argument about equity on its head, suggesting that traditional public schools rather than providing equality of opportunity for low-income children have systematically reproduced inequalities through failing schools for these students, a claim reminiscent of Bowles and Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America (1976).
This neo-liberal agenda has become an important feature of official federal, state, and local policy. At the federal level, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s signature program, Race to the Top (RTT), requires states to expand the number of charter schools and to implement Valued Added Models (VAM) of teacher evaluations based on student achievement to qualify for RTT funding. At the state level, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has pledged to eliminate teacher tenure and seniority based layoffs, increase the number of charter schools, and pass voucher legislation. At the local level, Democratic Newark Mayor, Cory Booker, with the influx of a $100 million dollar gift from Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg and another $100 million in matching funds, has initiated a school reform process that includes an expansion of charter schools. Also in Newark, the two-year-old Newark Charter School Fund, with over $20 million in funding from among others the Walton, Broad, and Gates Foundations, has embarked on increasing the number of charter schools in Newark.
A full copy of this article is available at here