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Beware of privatizing public education

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Beware of privatizing public education

Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood is a public/private school. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

News of a possible partnership between Burns Elementary School and the Meeting Street Schools group raises a number of questions.

Meeting Street is backed by Sherman Financial Group (a global investment company), and is therefore distinct from the traditional public school model. The creation of Meeting Street Schools and this group’s bid to take over Burns are both part of an ongoing move toward the privatization of schools.

This has become commonplace in Charleston and across the country in the form of “Achievement School Districts” and charters for autonomous or independent schools. There is a lot of support for this path toward reform among the business community and “pro-business” advocates in the Charleston County School District and its elected school board. Such advocates support business-model reforms and public-private “partnerships.”

This is part of a larger trend that leans toward privatization that includes granting charters to or “special agreements” with private, independent or autonomous people and entities not appointed or hired by the school district or state.

While public anxieties about “failing” schools should be taken seriously, there are reasons to question the wisdom of turning public schools over to non-public actors and entities.

The Quality Education Project (QEP), a community and research-based organization that seeks to implement a quality education for all students within the public school system, firmly stands against the further privatization of school governance in Charleston County. This is based upon our view that equity in education should be the responsibility of the state and the local school district to publicly govern equitably resourced schools.

Further, we believe that children within our community have an inherent right to quality, traditional, non-charter public schools. We are not opposed to private donations of resources and time, but turning over or chartering private entities or independent groups takes away public oversight of schools that continue to receive public funding.

When the state or school district authorizes others to run schools, they are washing their hands of “failing” schools. Moreover, the state Supreme Court of South Carolina found in the Abbeville v. South Carolina decision that schools in the “Corridor of Shame” were unconstitutional. This decision maintains that all district and elected officials are constitutionally expected to provide a quality education, not private organizations.

The current issue around the private arrangement for school governance as centered upon Burns Elementary is part of a 50-year-old trend to privatize a public school system that had been ordered to, first, desegregate and, second, provide a “minimally adequate education.”

The state has failed on both accounts. The modern form of privatization can be traced to whites who left the system in order to avoid desegregated public education in the 1960s.

For a time, the state even supported them despite the illegality of using public monies to support tuition at private schools. Private schools took on new meaning after the Brown (1954) decision and the fallout from that era still colors public discussion today.

Privatizing or chartering independent groups to govern schools rarely works for schools most in need of improvement. The charter school controversy makes this clear. While charter schools currently serve more than 5 percent of public school students nationwide and make up 7 percent of all U.S. public schools, they can be deeply polarizing to local communities creating wedges between key groups that should be working together for the betterment of the local public school system. This level of polarization can be a drain on policymakers’, educators’, and community members’ time, energy and resources, making it difficult to find effective solutions to improve schools for all children.

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Moreover, only 15 percent of charter schools outperform traditional public schools. In short, we believe that all available energy, time and resources need to be directly invested in preserving and strengthening our existing public school system.

We view the charter model as an unnecessary and problematic diversion of valuable resources away from our public school system.

The National Education Policy Center’s report “The Business of Charter Schooling,” published in December 2015, provides a critical look at charter school business typically found in “Achievement School Districts” (a separate school district of state-designated “failing schools” that the state turns over to private organizations). The report found that: 1) A substantial share of public school funds is being extracted inadvertently or intentionally for personal or business financial gain; 2) Public assets are being unnecessarily transferred to private hands, at public expense; and 3) Charter school operators frequently create self-serving private entities built on funds derived from lucrative management fees and rent extraction which risks the future provision of “public” education.

Too often a majority of school board members and district officials refuse to follow their constitutional responsibilities to provide a genuinely public and equitable education. By committing to a choice model with strong support for charters and charter districts, South Carolina is free to ignore the findings and the order of the state Supreme Court in Abbeville, which calls for an equitable public school system run by the state, not private entities.

District officials not only have the responsibility to ethically govern public schools, but they also have the tools and support to do so. Therefore, QEP calls upon all residents of Charleston County to support our public schools by:

First, asking that the School Board vote against the takeover of Burns Elementary School.

Second, supporting and reinvigorating local School Improvement Councils (SICs).

Third, identifying and supporting new candidates for the school board who are committed to keeping non-charter, non-magnet schools fully public.

In sum, there is little evidence that privatization benefits all students in the district. Therefore, we ask for an energized public to work cooperatively with the district to ensure a fully public, quality education for all students.

Millicent Brown and Jon Hale are co-directors of Charleston’s Quality Education Project.

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