George Joseph's "investigation" of the charter school movement in the Nation, "9 Billionaires Are About to Remake New York's Public Schools—Here's Their Story," is a useful compendium of all the head-scratching arguments commonly voiced by charter school critics. And Joseph articulates them in a spectacularly ludicrous fashion. (The article is also strangely riddled with spelling errors.)
Here are some of the biggest howlers:
- Joseph's main contention is that New York isn't spending enough on public education, but the article never actually looks at how much New York is spending! According to census data compiled by the Citizens Budget Commission, in 2012 New York schools led the nation in spending, doling out $19,553 per student as compared to the U.S. average of $10,608. And all of New York's 682 school districts spent more per pupil than the national average. From 2000 to 2010, New York's education spending exploded, as enrollment numbers stayed relatively flat. When facts don't fit the argument, leave them out!
- Struggling to show that New York is "underfunding" education, Joseph tells us that in 2010 and 2011 Albany "actually cut school funding, including $2.1 billion in classroom cuts." He provides no explanation for how he came up with the $2.1 billion number, but there were in fact proposed cuts to New York State's education budget during the financial crisis—and then a windfall of stimulus money from the federal government mostly erased those cuts. Since then, spending has grown to far exceed what it was pre-recession.
- Why can't charter school adversaries grant that these rich benefactors might genuinely want to help poor kids, and then explain why their efforts are misguided? Joseph feels the need to uncover the secret malevolent intentions of these ruthless billionaires. So what does he reveal? The whole thing is an effort to avoid having to pay higher taxes by staving off overall education spending increases. Joseph doesn't grapple with why these Scrooge McDucks also donate millions to charter schools every year.
- The charter school network Success Academy may be outperforming traditional public schools by a wide margin, but they're really all about "envelop[ing] students in hyper-disciplined and surveilled [SIC] school environments." How do we know? Because one anonymous parent quoted in the piece feels that her six-year-old daughter "can't be a kid there" because "there's too much discipline, too much grooming." Just a few months ago, anti-charter folks were claiming Success Academy routinely pushed out failing students. Then a report from the Independent Budget Office showed the opposite to be true. I guess this is what they're left with.
- I bet you didn't know that "billionaire hedge-fund managers continue to enjoy lower tax rates than the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers." If you're incredulous, just follow Joseph's hyperlink to a table that doesn't say anything about tax rates.
- Joseph cloyingly cites anonymous sources and "leaked" information that lead him only to banal revelations. For example, we learn from "e-mails leaked to the Nation" that two nonprofits have been "laying the groundword [SIC]" for the charter school movement "since at least 2010." All the way back to 2010? Or the same year The New York Times published this article about how hedge fund executives were laying the groundwork for a charter school movement? Killer leak!
I could go on. There are also some accurate details in Joseph's piece, most already reported to death, which tell the story of how New York's education reform movement has figured out in recent years how to counter the outsized political influence of organized labor in Albany. Buried in Joseph's purported horror story is a hopeful one.
There are a lot of things not to like about Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D-N.Y.) education agenda—Joseph doesn't get at them—but the governor is correct about one thing: Wild spending increases in education over the last few decades have demonstrated that money can't fix failing schools. And the tragedy isn't the wasted money; it's the wasted lives.
For more on that point, watch my recent video series on education reform in America's poorest city: