Whistle Blower Teacher Says Charter Schools Draining Students, Resources from Public Education
In the third installment of TRNN’s investigation into the decline of public education another whistle blower teacher says Baltimore’s focus on charter schools is threatening the viability of public education – by Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
WHISTLE BLOWER: Well, I’ve been working in the school system for 20… over 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had, you know, all the materials and supplies and equipment that I need, or that I should have. There are just a lot of things that we don’t have. I mean, I’ve spent thousands… Over the last 10 years, I’ve probably spent over $10,000, in buying stuff for my classroom.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham for The Real News Network, in Baltimore City, Maryland. The Real News has been investigating the continuing controversy over the future of public education, here in Baltimore, and beyond. To do this, we have conducted a series of interviews with whistle-blower teachers, who have come forward to reveal the challenges they face, in a system that is chronically under-funded.
Today we have our third instalment in that series, another teacher who focuses on the impact of charter schools on his classroom, lack of money, basic supplies and shrinking curriculum. Here to discuss our latest interview and its implication, is investigative reporter, Stephen Janis.
Stephen, can you talk to us a little bit about the fiscal challenges that are facing Baltimore City schools, and public education in general?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, the Baltimore City school system is, right now, facing a $130 million structural deficit, which is not unusual for a major urban school system, to face deficits. This deficit has been particularly acute, and has caused quite an amount of controversy in Baltimore. And it’s caused problems for the Mayor and other city officials, to go to the state to try to find some sort of solution, or some sort of bailout, or other additional funding.
And it’s also raised a lot of questions about how we got here in the first place, which of course, is somewhat of a mystery at this point, as to how we’re going to handle it. Recently, Mayor Catherine Pugh announced that she was going to dip into the Rainy Day fund, shuffle around some money from snow removal to fund this, and to take care of this.
CATHERINE PUGH: In Baltimore City we have a shrinking school population. We’ve shrunk over the last three or four years. The population is going down in the school system. The good news is that the population in the elementary school level is growing. But the fact of the matter is that at the junior high school level, at the high school level, we have a shrinking population. And everybody’s clamoring for the same children — whether you’re a private school, public school, or charter public school — but the pool has shrunk.
But you’ve grown, for example in our city; charter schools have grown up to 40, more than the entire state. So, do the math. If the average school has about 50 people working there, including teachers, including administrators — that’s 2,000 people that could have been in the public school system that don’t have to be hired by the charter public school system.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, Stephen, do you feel like we really understand how we got here, and where we’re headed, in regard to our fiscal standing?
STEPHEN JANIS: No. I think that’s one of the great questions. I mean, you know, when the budget deficit was first announced; it was blamed on declining enrolment and a new teacher contract. But ultimately, there is a counter-argument that this is chronic state under-funding. The state had used the wrong formula over years, and had not funded the Baltimore City schools to the extent it should be.
We also have had the controversy about the fact that the Baltimore Police Department continues to get the majority of funding in this city — you know, close to half of the discretionary spending. And the education spending, or contribution by the city, is relatively minor, compared to other jurisdictions and hasn’t risen that much. So, obviously, like anything, it’s a culmination of factors, but the question is — what are the underlying political, sort of, trends that define this?
I would say, number one is the city’s emphasis on policing, criminal justice law enforcement. And secondly, you know, some of the question of how the state finances city schools. It does contribute almost a billion dollars of the $1.2 million budget, but the question is — is that really enough?
So, no we don’t really know the full concrete answer what’s happening; nor do we have a concrete answer on how this deficit is going to be addressed.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, what did this whistle-blower teacher focus on?
STEPHEN JANIS: This whistle-blower teacher focused on, I think, two very interesting things. How this chronic underfunding is affecting schools, in terms of his being forced to spend thousands and thousands of dollars of his own money. And how his classrooms are so poorly equipped, and falling apart — much of what the other teachers focused on about physical environment, and how the physical environment sends a message to the students.
And the other thing that was interesting was, the way that charter schools affect private, public schools in a way that we don’t think about. That the charter schools can create, sort of a brain drain, in public education in Baltimore, where they suck away the best students, and they take away the best students and leave, you know, schools… public schools pretty much having to deal with the students that are the least capable, or the least motivated, as you said.
Now, he said, and he makes se… I’ll let him make it, that you need both, right? And it is a task of public education to have both. But he focused a lot about that sort of, continuing deterioration, and how things continue to get worse. So, let’s take a listen to his interview.
STEPHEN JANIS: Tell us the impact the charter schools are having on your public school. What kind of impact are charter schools having on the public school that you work in?
WHISTLE BLOWER: So, over the last ten years or so, I mean, I’ve definitely noticed that each year, students leave our school and go to the nearest charter schools. We lose a lot of students this way, and a lot of times it’s the kids who are, you know, motivated and creative, and would participate in different activities outside of the normal, you know, curriculum.
So, we kind of lose some human capital in a sense, you know, because we’re losing some of the good kids that all everybody wants to teach. Not that you don’t want to teach the bad kids, but when you have a classroom, and you’ve got some high performing kids, and some low performing kids, you know, they all help to kind of bring each other up. But when you’re losing all the top performing kids, then you know, you’re left with more low performing kids, and it’s not the same dynamic in the classroom, you know?
Aside from the monetary issues, that you’re going to lose funding because you have fewer enrolled, lower enrolment, which is an issue. And some of that is not necessarily the fault of charter schools. I mean, some of it is just kids transfer out, they go to the county, or they go to another area in the city, because there is a lot of transient student population that they, just… I mean, we’ve had kids that leave and transfer, and then come back two weeks, or a month later, you know?
So… or they’re coming in, like this time of year in March or April, they’re coming into the school and finishing out the year, and they’ve been at another school the whole year, or vice versa. They leave our school and they go somewhere else this late in the year which, you know, is not good for their academic performance, because it’s not very much consistency.
STEPHEN JANIS: What do you think drives the transient nature of the Baltimore City student?
WHISTLE BLOWER: You know, that’s a good question. I think poverty has a lot to do with it, their family, whatever. You know, they’re moving because of their living situation, and so their parents, you know, a lot going on in their lives, and they just move based on what they can afford. Or where they are able to go, whatever their situation is.
And so, education is not really the main consideration when they’re thinking about where they’re going to live. And I think a lot of that probably just has to do with their economics. It’s not necessarily that they don’t want to send their kid to a good school. It’s just they have to consider other things.
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, so, you know we have declining enrolment, but they’re opening more charter schools. Is that a bad strategy, to continue to open charter schools when we have declining enrolment in schools in Baltimore in general?
WHISTLE BLOWER: Yeah, I mean, I really don’t favor the charter school model. I mean, I think that charter schools do some good things. But, I see no reason why, whatever… You know, if you have a successful charter school, whatever their model, whatever they’re doing, if it works, then why aren’t we doing it in the public schools?
You know, that’s what I feel. I feel like we need to make the public schools just as good as any charter school, or better. You know, and that whatever techniques are working, need to be implemented in all schools. So, if they have an extended school day, or if they have classes at night, or if they’re doing… You know, whatever it is that they’re doing that’s working, then maybe they should find a way to do that in all the public schools, or the public schools where it’s needed.
STEPHEN JANIS: Do they have more flexibility? I mean, what advantages do they have?
WHISTLE BLOWER: Well, they have flexibility in terms of they are able to, you know, like they don’t have to abide by the PTU contract. So, they can basically disrespect teachers, and not pay them the same, or not hold them — they’re not protected by the same rights that they would be, under the PTU contract.
So, you know, schools may look at that as a hindrance, but I don’t feel that. You know, I feel like the contract is there to protect teachers, and that’s important. But if, you know, if you’re talking about what kids need, in some cases it may mean that it’s going to cost more. You know, if they need psychologists in the school; if they need healthcare, they need additional staff members to help with whatever issues that they’re dealing with, then that’s what they need, you know?
Or, if they need to stay longer, then that means that they need to hire additional staff to run the after school, or the evening program. Not say, okay we’re going to pay these teachers less, you know, or make them work longer hours and violate the contract in various ways. You know, I just wouldn’t’ agree with that.
STEPHEN JANIS: But you’re saying that charter schools do seem to have… how do they…?
WHISTLE BLOWER: Well, they seem to have, yeah… I’m not an expert on charter schools, but they do seem to have some more flexibility, because they’re not required to follow all the same rules, or regulations that the typical public school has to follow.
STEPHEN JANIS: And they can be selective with their student populations.
WHISTLE BLOWER: They can be, I think, but a lot of them do like, some kind of lottery. But I think they do have the ability to, you know, deny kids, or expel them, if they’re not going along with the program. They have more liberty to suspend kids and things like that.
STEPHEN JANIS: Some teachers just think that it’s like a precursor to privatization, to have all these charter schools. I mean Baltimore has the most.
WHISTLE BLOWER: Right.
STEPHEN JANIS: How do you feel about that idea — that they are sort of a precursor to privatizing public education, to a certain extent?
WHISTLE BLOWER: I think that’s a fair assessment. They’re going to try to cut costs, and ultimately the kids are the ones that suffer. And the teachers, you know, suffer because they’re trying to provide the same level of education with less, or having to put in more time, to get the same result.
STEPHEN JANIS: Now, the school is facing huge cutbacks, but you… we were talking before — there are some resource challenges you’re dealing with already. What kind of challenges are you dealing with, in terms of resources at the moment? And what do you think is going to happen once they make these cuts?
WHISTLE BLOWER: Well, I’ve been working in this school system for over 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had all the materials and supplies and equipment that I need, or that I should have, when I compare my situation to, you know, say a parallel school in the county, let’s just say Baltimore County. I mean, of course, if I go to Montgomery County, or Howard County, you can’t even really compare, because they’re just way above where we are. But the county is sort of a fair comparison.
So, I mean, I’ve always talked to county teachers and, you know, gotten their feedback on what they’re dealing with and what it’s like out in the county. And just, from my experience in the city, we’ve never had… there are years I didn’t have textbooks — still don’t. You know, or I’ve had some textbooks, but then you know, they get worn out, torn up, and they’re not replaced. Or, I don’t have enough for every grade level, or all the levels that I’m supposed to have.
There’s just a lot of things that we don’t have. I mean, I spend thousands — over the last 10 years, I’ve probably spent over $10,000 in buying stuff for my classroom, fixing things that get broken. Teachers spend a lot of money. Now, not every teacher chooses to do that. But you know, if you’re… basically, the expectation is if you want to be a good teacher, and you want to do your job, you’re going to have to spend some money out of your pocket.
STEPHEN JANIS: That’s something the teachers expect to have to do in Baltimore City?
WHISTLE BLOWER: Pretty much, yeah, I mean, they… and the administration will even encourage you, you know?
Or, say things like, you know, give incentives to your kids, for example. You’ve got a lot of behavior issues; kids acting up. So, they’ll suggest, well, you know, give them incentives for doing a good job. And so, what does that mean? Well, you may have to go buy something to give them; whether it’s food, or candy, or pencils, or a sticker — whatever it is. I mean, they’re not giving you this stuff. You have to go buy it, unless you can come up with some creative way to give them an incentive that doesn’t cost anything — and that’s pretty hard to do.
There are ways to do it, but you know, it’s always that you’ve got to be MacGyver. You’ve got to figure out a way to get the job done with less than adequate supplies, or materials, and technology.
I mean, computers? We have them; not enough, and they’re always outdated. They’re always old. There are always issues — they’re not working. I have to call IT all the time to try to get my computer working right, and get it updated. Or, because of the way the network is and security and everything, you can’t change stuff on your computer, if it’s a school computer.
So, you’re trying to enter your grades and it takes, you know, a long time — hours, especially if you’re teaching in a non-tested area, and you have lots of classes. You have 30 classes to administrate, and try to grade, and try to keep track. There’s a lot of data to enter, and you have a window that you’re supposed to do it in, and you know, you don’t have a lot of planning time. So, of course, you’re expected to go home and do this at night. You know?
And I mean, that’s the unwritten expectation, is that you’re going to go home and spend your whole evening, you know, entering grades, or writing lesson plans; doing all these other things that you can’t get done during the regular day. Now, some of that is just, you know — comes with the territory being a teacher. But, I think it’s a little bit extreme. It’s more, you know, and then when they talk about the funding, and they try to blame the new teacher contract, and say, you know, it was too generous and they’re giving teachers too much pay.
They’re not recognizing the amount of work that teachers have to go through, with the stuff you’ve got to do, just to maintain. Just to be able to get through your year, let alone perform at a high level and move the kids to meet some standard that, you know, really is unreasonable. That’s not going to… you know?
You can say whatever you want, they’re not going to meet the standard that you’re expecting them to meet, until teachers are provided with more of the tools that they need, you know, the staffing supports that they need. You know, because you can’t, it’s just, you keep adding stuff to the teacher’s plate, and something’s not going to get done.
STEPHEN JANIS: Do you mean in terms of testing, or…?
WHISTLE BLOWER: Well, testing, grading, like I said, a lot of the administrative tasks that teachers are expected to do. They have the new thing, called SLOs, where you have to track kids and demonstrate that they made progress over the period of six months, or whatever. It’s just additional tracking, and data keeping, and analyzing, that you have to do. In addition to your regular teaching and testing, and everything else — just to demonstrate that you’re doing your job, so they can evaluate you. It’s part of your evaluation.
They keep putting more expectations on the teacher, but they’re not taking anything away, you know? In other words, the class sizes are getting bigger. So, if you have 30 kids instead of 25, right, and now you have to do all this — it’s just that much more data that you have to wrestle with, and if you’re teaching in a non-tested area, where you service the whole school.
I mean, you’re talking about 100s of kids that you have to grade and follow, and you know, if you want to do a good job, and really give the kids feedback and grade their work, it becomes very difficult. There’s not a lot of time to get it all done. So, somewhere, something gets cut, just like in the budget. You know it’s easier for them to say, “Oh well, we need to cut this out of the budget.” Well, it’s the same thing if you’re a teacher, and you’ve got 99 million tasks to do in a day, something’s going to get cut. Something’s not going to get done.
And so, there’s only… you can only push someone’s efficiency so far.
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, in terms of resources, has it gotten worse or better, or is it still the same as it’s been, let’s say 10, 15 years ago, since you’ve been there a while?
WHISTLE BLOWER: It’s not gotten any better. It’s gotten probably worse. I mean, there were a few years where I used to… I’d say maybe ten years ago, when I would actually get some money from the principle, to buy stuff that I needed for the classroom. That hasn’t happened in about five or six years. Really, not any money to speak off, not nothing, you know.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.
WHISTLE BLOWER: I mean we used to get, like, maybe once they’d give you a couple hundred dollars. I mean, I remember getting more than that, you know? The needs of my classroom are different than your average, typical classroom, but it’s still, you know… It’s like, you get nothing, and I’ve been very frustrated because it’s like, well, if I’m contributing money out of my pocket, you’d think that the least the school system could do is match — contribute something, assist me in my efforts, you know?
It seems like there ought to be some kind of budget for supplies, and things that are needed. And some of that is even outlined in the BTU contract. So, sometimes those things aren’t even honored when they’re contractually, already have been agreed upon. They’re running a program now, just to have kids save money, on… teachers and kids save money on electricity because obviously they have to pay that electric bill.
And so, they’re trying to cut costs by keeping the lights out in the classroom, which, you know, is good in the sense that you’re teaching the kids about being conservative and saving money. But it’s kind of sad that you’ve got to go to those lengths, you know, just to function normally.
The kids have to be concerned about, you know, turn the lights on/off. You know, there’s an old saying that I remember from the ’60s, that, you know, when the… It’ll be a great day when the Navy has to hold a bake sale, right, to buy a new aircraft carrier, and schools will have all the money they need. And you know, this is just a sign of the times that we have a President who’s now trying to cut, and really undermine public education altogether.
It gets frustrating. At some point, it’s like, there’s only so much I can do, you know? I’m not going to be able to work a miracle, and give the kids the education that I got. I got a great education, and I know what a good education is supposed to be, because I experienced it. And these kids aren’t getting it, and there’s nothing I can do. And that’s the thing that really frustrates me the most, you know, because I can only come out of my pockets so much. I can only give of myself so much.
You know, I can only spend so many hours of after school giving up my life to help these children, you know, which I don’t regret doing it. But when is the government, when is the school system, when is the city, when are the parents, you know, when are everybody else going to step up and do their part? The taxpayers, you know, who… I mean, I am a taxpayer, I would rather have my tax money go to education, than go to funding some war that we don’t need, you know, in Afghanistan, or wherever.
STEPHEN JANIS: Do you think the kids perceive the lack of resources as sort of a message to them?
WHISTLE BLOWER: Yeah, I think some of them do. I mean, they feel like, you know, that they’re not… they’re certainly not feeling like they’re a priority. It’s tough, because the kids have a lot of misperceptions about things.
STEPHEN JANIS: Like what?
WHISTLE BLOWER: But they understand, you know, that when they see the building falling apart; when the see trash and this… broken doors, and things, you know, just everything’s not working. The heat constantly needing to be fixed or repaired or… you know. Those kinds of things are disrespectful to the children. I mean, they shouldn’t have to put up with that, and a lot of it really is not even efficient. It’s not like the school system is actually costing themselves more money, by not addressing these things.
You know, like, there’s examples of schools where there was flooding in the school, and it went on for years, and they really would just come and have to remediate, and do construction, or whatever to fix the damage. But until they actually did the construction necessary to stop the problem from happening again, they kept coming in. And so they ended up spending way more money putting band-aides on it, than they would have if they’d have just done the work in the first place, and fixed it. And this is the same with the heat and with the… because all the buildings are all–
STEPHEN JANIS: What’s with the heat, it doesn’t work, or…?
WHISTLE BLOWER: Well, every year they have to get the boiler going and you know, things are, I don’t know, the unit in the classroom will be blown out, or it doesn’t work, or it needs a new fuse, or whatever it is, you know? And I’ve actually spoken to the contractors who come to fix the stuff, and they — this is the same thing they’re telling me, it’s like, well, it’s costing the school more money for us to come in here every year and have to do this, than if they just replaced the whole system.
You know, because then it would be done, and they wouldn’t have to do anything for a long time. So, when they talk about having a deficit, and not having any money, you know, you’ve got to keep that in mind. It’s that a lot of time they’re not spending the money intelligently.
STEPHEN JANIS: With these cuts coming, what do you think is going to happen? I mean, I know the Mayor announced sort of a plan, that doesn’t seem to be high in details. What do you think is going to happen with the cuts that they’re proposing now? Is it as bad as people are making it out to be? You know, what’s your sense of what could happen to, say, maybe your school for example?
WHISTLE BLOWER: If they actually were to cut as many teachers as they say they’re going to, you know, it would be very difficult. I don’t know how they’re going to, you know. I really don’t know because we already have, in a school with around 600 kids, we’ve got pre-K, Kindergarten, 1st grade classes with like, 30 kids in them. That’s a lot of kindergartners, you know, 25-30 kids; and they do have some aids, but they’re not with the kids all the time. That’s just a lot of kids.
So, if they’re going to now take away a teacher, you know, you’re talking about the class sizes could increase five or six more kids, or more than that. And I’ve talked to other teachers at other schools who have, they already have classes with 35-40 kids in them. So…
STEPHEN JANIS: 35-40?
WHISTLE BLOWER: I’ve spoken to a couple of teachers that have, yes. It’s going to have a huge impact on all teachers, and the schools in general, because we don’t have enough teachers now. You know, you used to have like three or four teachers at every grade level. And now they’re down to two. They pretty much have two teachers at every grade level. There might be one or two grades where they have three.
STEPHEN JANIS: They used to have four?
WHISTLE BLOWER: We used to have four, and in one or two grades, like they might have had… I remember years when they had like three teachers in every grade level, and then maybe one or two grades had four, you know? And so, that would get the classes down to like 18, 18 kids, or something like that, 15, you know, 18.
STEPHEN JANIS: Now what do they have?
WHISTLE BLOWER: Oh, now it’s like, most of the classes are over 20, easily over 20, 25, 30.