The Nation’s Strongest Charter School Regulations Are Under Attack

Loyola University’s associate dean of education, Rob Helfenbein, says corporate-backed forces have long targeted troubled school systems for privatization

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JAISAL NOOR: Here’s an example of how Project Baltimore makes the case that Baltimore Schools get enough funding. They correctly cite Baltimore Schools’ per pupil funding in a way that’s totally misleading.

NEWS REPORT: Baltimore City Schools spend about $16,000 per student every year, the fourth highest in the nation.

JAISAL NOOR: Which are repeated by Governor Hogan.

LARRY HOGAN: Baltimore City Schools funding is the fourth highest per-pupil funding of all of the 13,500 school systems in America.

JAISAL NOOR: The narrative put forth by Hogan in Project Baltimore dismissed the state’s own studies that have found Baltimore Schools need hundreds of millions of dollars a year in additional funding to reach adequacy.

We recently sat down with Rob Helfenbein, Associate Dean of the School of Education at Loyola University, for a wide-ranging conversation on public education.

ROB HELFENBEIN: Well, first of all, emphasizing the negative in public education isn’t unique to this project. That’s been a problem across media outlets and across the country for quite some time. As somebody who spends their time in working with teachers and schools and communities around issues of public education, it’s frustrating. ‘Cause every school that I’ve ever been in has at least a handful of really powerful educators that are really having a huge impact on the lives of young people, wherever that might be.

I’ve never been in a school where I can’t find that. Now, sometimes it’s a small handful. Sometimes it’s a handful that’s working against a structure that is making their job harder, but they’re still there. That is frustrating, and there are stories in Baltimore about some amazing educators. School leaders, classroom teachers, community engagement, parental engagement, that are really remarkable, and it would be very much welcome to have more of those stories out in the mix.

My first point is I don’t think they’re the only ones guilty of that, and I worry about the implications of that. I particularly worry about young people that are thinking about education as a career. We train teachers at the Loyola School of Education, and I worry about that 17, 18, 19, 20-year old who’s thinking, “Well, maybe,” but all they see in the news media are these negative stories. Of course, the idea of demonizing teachers is something I simply can’t abide.

I think the charter school law in Maryland is probably the strongest in the country, and we really need to defend it. What I mean by that is charter schools in Maryland are able to be what they were designed to be, which are really kind of innovation spaces. The idea is that we can loosen some of the regulation, we can give some greater autonomy, but we maintain their connection to the tradition school district. It’s not a union busting technique, which is often true in certain states, and then those ideas we can test some things out and say, “Wow. This is really working for the kids in these communities,” and those ideas come back to the traditional district.

That’s what they were designed to do. They’ve really in many cases because of weakening the law, have turned into something very different, and I think they are in many cases a stepping stone to some of the things that you alluded to, which are for-profit charter school providers, which was never the original intention, to union busting, to actually the privatization of public education. Which is something the American people don’t even believe in.

JAISAL NOOR: They don’t come out and say they support privatization. Talk about how the narrative around public schools helps feed into the end game of privatization. You’ve witnessed that in Indiana.

ROB HELFENBEIN: Right. I was faculty at Indiana University for 10 years, and it’s been quite interesting in move to Baltimore how some of the political rhetoric is literally word for word from what we heard 10 years ago in Indiana. I was able to not just watch it happen, but actually work against it with occasional successes over the years.

The general narrative is that public education is broken, and by the way, you hear that narrative in a bipartisan way. You may or may not remember, but Obama said that during his first election and during the debates, which gave me considerable pause, that something new was on the horizon when the Democratic candidate is basically using the same language as the Republican candidate. That’s new. That was, again, Obama.

You begin with the general narrative that public education is broken. Which I can contest if you’d like, but public education is broken. Then you have to create some alternatives that are digestible to the public. I think an important thing to note is there are opinion polls out there that are good sample size and bipartisan and generally good survey research, but those polls generally reflect that the American people still believe in public education, and they still feel strongly about their community school.

Now, what’s interesting is where the numbers have gone down is they often agree that public education itself, as a whole, isn’t doing well. “Oh, but our school’s doing great.” One, there’s something happening there, because both of those things can’t be true.

Then you create these alternatives. I think charter schools, while not designed to be this kind of tool or stepping stone, have been taken up in that way. The first step is often charter school legislation that opens up that innovation space, but then it can be co-opted, and by changing the charter school law, part of what happens is you open the door to who authorizes those charter schools, which by the way is a money making enterprise, and then perhaps opening the door to for-profit charter schools, so public tax money is then going to for-profit companies … I’m not sure, but I don’t think a lot of people know that Walmart is the largest manager of charter schools in this country … So public money is then being funneled into private businesses.

Then invariably, the next step is usually vouchers. Vouchers of public tax money can then go to parents to go toward private school tuition.

Then, again, as you say, rarely outright said, but there are folks that will say this. Milton Friedman, for example, said it in the 1950s, that we should just privatize the whole thing and let the market sort it out.

JAISAL NOOR: For people that are yearning for change, what is the track record from this project from vouchers and for-profit schools? Some people say “If it’s working somewhere else, let’s try it here.”

ROB HELFENBEIN: Well, I certainly understand how parents in certain communities might say, “Look. These schools haven’t served the needs of our children, in some cases for generations.” I understand that, and again, back to the urgency of the question of the importance of the public conversation around our schools, I can’t have a problem with that.

If you look at the research though, and there is an abundance of research that’s out there, what we see is that on the whole, charter schools are schools. Are there some that are doing a fantastic job in terms of educating children and having success? Yes. Are there a lot kind of in the middle ground? Yes. Are there some that are woefully underperforming in terms of how they meet the needs of kids? Also yes.

Then on top of that you’ve got an increasingly long list … In places where these laws have been loosened up, you’ve got cases of financial fraud. You’ve got negligence. You’ve got violation of civil rights, you’ve got serious inequity problems happening there, too.

But on the whole, charter schools are schools. Just like all kinds of schools, there’s a lot of factors that go into what is a successful school and how to meet the needs of the students that attend that school. If anybody tells you that this is the silver bullet, I’ll try to be nice, but they’re either naïve or they’re lying to you.

JAISAL NOOR: A number that is often cited in Project Baltimore, even in their opening press release, is that Baltimore has the fourth highest per-people funding in the country, and then they ask “Are students and parents getting their bang for their buck? Are they getting their money’s worth from the public school system?” How do you respond to that?

ROB HELFENBEIN: One, that’s kind of an interesting metric to trot out I understand that it’s rather easy … There’s a clear number that you can take a look at … But again, the issues of schools are much more complex.

If you take something like Baltimore City public schools, one, you’ve got an old and aging set of facilities. There are different costs related to upkeep of buildings that are in some cases fifty, a hundred years old.

Not to mention, you’ve got a long history of what I would argue is inequity and underfunding, so you’re starting, if we’re thinking about a racetrack, urban districts, Baltimore City Public Schools in general is already starting 20 feet behind the starting line.

If you want to talk about equity, the first thing we’ve gotta do is equalize what’s there in terms of facilities, resources, staffing, professional development, etc. We know that in Baltimore City Public School, the majority of these schools, and it might be all of them, don’t drink from the water fountains because of lead in the pipes. That’s a multimillion dollar fix that’s been put off for years. That’s not the case in the wealthier districts in the state of Maryland. You’re already starting behind that starting line.

To me, if you really want to talk about equity, you’ve got to talk about those kinds of costs. Same if you think about … In economics we talk about economies of scale. While you can look at per-pupil expenditure, and that’s the metric that folks are talking about, when you have a school building, you still have to heat the whole building. There are costs associated with the facilities that aren’t gonna change whether there’s 1100 students in that building or there’s 800. It’s a rather simplistic way to think about school funding just on its face.

JAISAL NOOR: Can you comment on the timing of this Project Baltimore? And there’s other initiatives similar to it. Why are people all of a sudden concerned about Baltimore Schools when they’ve been underfunded for generations?

ROB HELFENBEIN: Well, I can’t speak to the timing of how they have decided to start this series of projects and reporting initiatives. I can say that in Baltimore, that anyone who’s been here for a minute can certainly see that part of the big change is that downtown is desirable again. It’s not just the inner harbor. This is also a national trend. Cities are seeing this across the country, where in the postwar period into the ’60s, ’70s, even into the ’80s, it was the suburbs that were the desirable destinations, and there was lots of development. There was lots of money to be made by developers in those periods. What cities did is they created infrastructure to get those folks out into the suburban communities.

Now … This is my theory. Now what we’re seeing is the development is downtown. And again, not just the inner harbor, but apartments are being built, condos are being built. Spaces are being converted. But when you have a narrative that the public school system is broken, young families weigh that into their consideration as to where they’re going to live or where they’re going to stay. It’s interesting now that in some way the rhetoric has kicked up a notch or two in order to perhaps lay out some different kinds of alternatives that might be private schools, it could be vouchers, it could be changes to the charter school law, which we know is at least implied in Governor Hogan’s agenda, that the timing is a bit coincidental.

One thing I would add that we didn’t quite get to is when we talk about school funding and the differences between an urban district like Baltimore City Public Schools and other districts in the state of Maryland, I think it’s important for people to understand what happens when school funding is either stagnant or not increasing. Particularly to an equitable level.

A lot of times what folks don’t understand is that the first people to lose their jobs in a funding crisis are the support staff. It’s folks like school nurses, school psychologists, social workers. For example, in my neighborhood here in Baltimore, there’s a lot of concern about juveniles in the afternoons in the neighborhood, and it’s problematic, and the way it gets talked about in my neighborhood is problematic.

What’s interesting is there’s a lot of concern in that neighborhood, but what they don’t talk about is school funding. You know who’s job it is to go and track down the kid who isn’t in 5th, 6th, 7th period? It’s the social worker. If you don’t support school funding for Baltimore City Public Schools, you’re basically creating a situation where nobody can follow up on trying to reach that child, that kid, and perhaps get them back in school where they ought to be. Does that make sense?

These things are connected, so that’s another part about the conversation on public education that I think we could do a better job of. Of understanding how these pieces work.

The other piece of course is class size. What I’m hearing anecdotally from some young people that I work with in West Baltimore is classes are getting bigger. On its face, that’s not necessarily a driver of academic achievement. However, if you can lessen the class size, the teacher can teach differently, and hopefully do that in a way that builds relationships with young people that are engaging and motivating, and actually deeply impactful for those kids to kinda make the right decisions about education that we know pay off dividends in the future.

You put 41 kids in a class, or even 31. The opportunity for that teacher, no matter how well trained, to make that personal connection, is severely limited. The impact of school funding is broad and it’s deeply rooted in the lives of these children. I end where I started. We have never lived up to the promises of public education in this country, and I do think we need a broader and a more robust conversation in the City of Baltimore about these schools. Absolutely.

JAISAL NOOR: Following up on the question of school funding, county schools and city schools get very similar funding levels, but when you look at schools in the county, they look vastly different. They could have more resources. Why is that the case, where you can spend a similar amount of money but the outcomes can be so different? What are the factors that contribute to that?

ROB HELFENBEIN: Well, I’m not sure I’ve got a complete answer to that question, but a couple things that I would just reiterate, is again you’ve got an aging historic school district that’s going to cost a lot of money in order to get really up to code.

The other is the history of inequity. I’m surprised we’ve gone this long without talking about redlining and the history of systemic racism in the city of Baltimore. It’s critically tied to how we understand schooling and public education in this city.

Not saying that Baltimore County doesn’t have some struggles there as well, ’cause I believe they certainly do, but you’ve also got new development, new dynamics happening out in the county that are different from the urban dynamics that are here.

What that means? It’s a different set of challenges, in a lot of cases. A different set of challenges for urban schools, for Baltimore City in particular, that’s going to take different types of solutions. Some of that is funding.