Thursday, April 24, 2014

Our students are NOT for sale!

A report issued today by the Economic Policy Institute raises serious questions about private companies running Wisconsin schools. Wisconsin legislators have repeatedly proposed that each year, 5% of schools with the lowest test scores should be declared failing and ultimately handed over to private charter school operators – the assumption being that somehow, improvement will follow.

The report, “Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” was authored by Gordon Lafer and can be viewed here.

A key conclusion: turnover schemes provide no guarantee of school improvement.  What’s worse, teaching and learning is threatened at privately run charter operators whose bottom line is expansion and turning a profit for investors. 

Some of the worst conflicts of interest were found at the Rocketship charter chain, which uses a “blended learning” model to cut down on costs – placing students in computer labs run by low-paid attendants for a significant part of the school day.

According to Lafer’s report, student achievement has not improved at Rocketship – in fact, seven of its schools failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress in 2012-13. And, a Department of Education study showed that one of Rocketship’s key software programs, DreamBox, had “no discernible effects on mathematics achievement for elementary school students.”

But Rocketship continues to use DreamBox software despite a lack of results. Lafer connects the dots: Two major investors in Rocketship, Reed Hastings and John Doerr, are also primary investors in the DreamBox software company.

Following the money is important when it comes to our tax dollars. When Wisconsin taxpayers fund charter operators to the tune of $7,925 per student, we expect the money to be used for the child’s education. At Rocketship, not only is the money going to for-profit software companies, it’s also being used to fund Rocketship’s extensive growth plan in other states. Rocketship’s business plan states that the charter operator will pay “relatively high facilities fees” to a sister company called LaunchPad, so that “the profit margin will be used to finance new facilities.”

Parents, educators, community leaders, and legislators would do well to read this report and question proposals that turn public schools over to Rocketship or any other charter operator. The Milwaukee Common Council, in particular, should stop the blanket authorization of Rocketship expansion in Milwaukee in light of the report’s findings.

The relationships between Rocketship’s investors, the software companies they own, and the way that the software is used at the school – despite the lack of student outcomes – should raise red flags for anyone concerned about how tax dollars are spent in Wisconsin.

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