Dr. Wayne Au is an Assistant Professor in the Education Program at the University of Washington in Bothell. Dr. Au is also editor of Rethinking Schools.

Dr. Au was a panelist  at the PTA forum on charter schools that was held on February 28, 2012. To follow are the opening remarks that he made.

Learning to Read: Charter Schools, Public Education, and the Politics of Educational Research

By Wayne Au

Good evening. Some of you might recall that about a month ago The Seattle Times published an Op-Ed that I wrote where I explained how some major studies found a lack of effectiveness of charter schools in raising the achievement of African American, Latino, and low-income students beyond regular public schools, and in many cases found that charters underperformed regular public schools. Soon after The Times published a letter to the editor that attacked of my credibility as a scholar, professional, and educator by suggesting that I didn’t know how to read educational research.

I want you to know that I took this suggestion to heart and really considered the possibility that maybe I didn’t know how to read. Perhaps, despite being a graduate of Garfield High School, getting my Master in Teaching degree from The Evergreen State College, being a public school teacher for several years, and earning my PhD from the top ranked department of curriculum & instruction in the nation, I hadn’t learned to properly read. Perhaps my multiple academic books, my long-time work as a writer and editor at a leading social justice education magazine, my articles appearing in the most prestigious, peer-reviewed scholarly journals in educational research, were simply a fluke.

Maybe I simply needed some more practice.

So I decided to read. I read reports about how amazing charter schools are at raising achievement. I mean, the accolades are EVERYWHERE: Researchers lauding New Orleans’ charter schools for raising reading scores; Columnists raving about how charter reforms in New York City have improved drop-out rates; Politicians crowing about how charter schools are THE cure for closing the achievement gap. Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, newspaper editors, pundits, CEOs, billionaires…It seemed like damned near everyone seems to love charter schools. Apparently we had already reached a commonsense consensus on charters, and I didn’t get the memo – or, rather, I probably misread the memo.

Soon I started reading things that made me question my reading skills even more. I read that after Hurricane Katrina some 17,000 students, mostly African American, poor, and many with disabilities, never returned to New Orleans, making pre-and-post Katrina comparisons of achievement more than questionable. I read about how the charters schools in New Orleans were regularly denying entry to students with disabilities. I read about how the suspension and expulsion rates in New Orleans have been astronomical compared to national averages and compared to the wealthier, whiter districts in surrounding areas. I read that most of the charters there rely on funding from foundations to work their supposed magic, and I read about New Orleans’ test score scandals.

And then I was reading about how this kind of stuff wasn’t only happening in New Orleans.

I read about how the lowered dropout rates in New York City were the product of district officials trying not to officially label for students who’ve left school as dropouts.

I read that some charters in Chicago are charging their students money for minor infractions like chewing gum, netting one charter management organization over $190,000 dollars in operating funds.

I read about how charter schools in Washington D.C. have disproportionately high suspension rates of 16%, over twice the national average, with some individual charters having rates of suspension as high as 51 and 64%.

I read about the extremely high annual turnover rates for charter school teachers, where up to 1 in 4 teachers leave each year.

I read about charters in Florida going without textbooks, charging illegal fees to students, faking student attendance, and creaming high performing students from public schools.

I read about how in Philadelphia 19 of the 74 charter schools in the district are under federal investigation for fraud, financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest.

I read about the 6,000 students in California who were given three weeks to find new schools after a charter management organization there went bankrupt.

I then read about how in California over $10 million dollars in state and federal start-up monies evaporated as charters went bankrupt soon after opening.

I read about how in New York, the leadership of some non-profit charter management organizations are pulling down salaries close to $400k dollars a year, and contracting services out to private industry by the truckload.

As I read this stuff, I started to see some patterns within the charter school model. Despite the claims of advocates, it looked to me like, charter schools lacked public oversight and accountability; It looked to me like charter schools were about the massive deregulation of a democratically run, public institution; It looked to me like the charter model viewed public education through the anarchy of free market competition, paying little regard to the human costs and consequences; It looked to me like parents were being treated as consumers, not as democratic citizens; It looked to me like charter school advocates had their eye on the $600 billion dollar business of public education.

With this in mind I revisited the much discussed CREDO study, and there I read that it came out of the Hoover Institute at Stanford. And then I read about how the Hoover Institute is a long-time right-wing think tank that believes in free market reforms and the privatization of public institutions.

And then I looked at the more recent Mathematica study, done in partnership with the Center for Reinventing Public Education. There I read that the study was commissioned by the NewSchools Venture Fund, as well as the both the Gates and Walton foundations. Come to find out, in reading the website for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, not only is their leadership connected to the conservative Hoover and Brookings Institutes, they have they also received money from the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations to support their work on charter schools.

I then read about how the Gates Foundation has given large sums of money to some organizations to aid in charter advocacy. So, for instance, the League of Education Voters shifted its policy agenda to charter school advocacy as well as the misuse of high-stakes tests in teacher evaluation, coincidentally getting money from Gates along the way. Or, as another instance, Gates has supported Stand For Children and their policy shifted towards charters and the improper use of tests in evaluation as well. One might even raise questions about how the WA State PTA got some money from Gates, and now its lobbyist and leadership has coincidentally taken up a pro-charter agenda.

As I continued to read, I came to find out that Gates, Broad, and Walton only support research that is pro-charters. These billionaires aren’t interested in honestly researching effective ways to close achievement gaps. In the case of charter schools, rather, they only fund research that tries to prove charter schools are effective. Apparently Gates, Broad, and Walton care about political advocacy, not actual research or real grassroots support.

As I read more about these billionaires, I also noticed that, not only do they exclusively support charters, they also use their vast wealth exclusively to support efforts to implement top-down, undemocratic business-like structures of school governance, to attack teachers’ rights to collective bargaining and due process, and to increase the improper use of high-stakes standardized tests to evaluate students and teachers. All of which are part and parcel of the free-market, corporate model of education reform.

And I wondered to myself, “Why, when their stated intent is to help kids, would charter advocates rely on a free-market model of reform when it has been clear, especially in these economic times, that recent rounds of deregulation and privatization have contributed to so much inequality?”

Finally, after all this reading, I came to few realizations:

My first realization was that I hadn’t misread the educational research in the first place. Charter schools are NOT the magic bullet for closing the achievement gap that advocates claim them to be.

Second, I came to the realization that I am not willing to risk the educational lives of our children based purely on someone’s promise that “Things are going to be different this time,” when that same promise hasn’t held up anywhere else.

Third, in a straight forward discussion about the effectiveness of charters, we should seriously question research and analysis of charter schools completed by people whose full time job is to advocate for charters, and who work for openly pro-charter organizations which themselves are funded by openly pro-charter billionaires. Isn’t that sort of like asking Howard Schultz his opinion on whether or not we should drink Starbucks coffee to wake us up in the morning?

But don’t trust me on all of this. Remember, I don’t know how to read. For that matter I would say don’t trust anyone’s word on this. When it comes to charter schools or any other aspect of school reform I encourage you to really interrogate the issue on your own and from every angle possible. Just make sure you are critical of everything, and certainly make sure that you read between the lines.

Thank You.

Wayne Au