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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Yep, I said it. Racist subtext.

So there’s this charter school in Newark called Robert Treat Academy. It’s run by this Democratic party boss called Steve Adubato Sr. The school is often cited by education reformy types as this giant success story proving that charter schools are better at teaching poor, minority kids than regular public schools are. (RTA is 17% African American, 78% Hispanic; interestingly, only 1% have limited English proficiency). Chris Christie loves the place so much, he’s visited twice.

Then there’s this editor at the Newark Star Ledger called Tom Moran, who drank the education-reformy Kool-Aid and regularly writes pieces about the super-awesome-coolness of school choice (code for school privatization, or at least a great way to divert funding from conventional public schools to other organizations like charter school operators, and very popular with the hedge fund-manager set).

Meanwhile, there’s this cheating scandal in New Jersey. State investigators found 15 schools had unusually high rates of wrong-to-right erasure marks on state standardized tests; one of those schools is Robert Treat Academy. The school says this is because students were taught the strategy of filling in two bubbles when they’re not sure of the answer, then erasing one (which would be a staggeringly stupid strategy on a machine-scored test). Students told investigators they were never taught that strategy. Three RTA officials were found to have breached the security of sixth-grade students' tests.

So this is what Tom Moran writes about the cheating scandal at Robert Treat Academy: “If you are winning a game fair and square, why would you cheat to run up the score?”

Winning the game fair and square? The school has been caught cheating, and yet Moran still thinks they were winning the game fair and square? That’s a rather gobsmacking statement, don’t you think? Now, Moran knows about the alleged test cheating, so he  must be thinking of something else that constitutes “winning the game fair and square.” What could that possibly be?

Keep reading, and you find this: “The school is a remarkable place full of respectful children in tidy uniforms who stay late during the week, then return on Saturdays for more. These kids are proving that poverty is not destiny.”

That right there? That is REALLY disturbing.

Apparently, Robert Treat Academy is winning the game fair and square because the kids aren’t running around like wild animals with too much free time on their hands, wearing sloppy clothes and hollering obscenities in the hallway.

Is that Moran’s idea of school success? Really?

More to the point, is this something one would have said about a low-performing school in a poor, rural, white community - that because the kids are respectful and tidy, the school proves that “poverty is not destiny?” I sure as hell don’t think so.

And therein lies a deeply troubling issue about the charter school movement: race. Like Robert Treat Academy, most charters take fewer of the poorest kids, fewer kids with disabilities, and fewer non-English speakers; produce similar results to public schools when adjusted for similar populations; maintain an environment where rigid discipline (of the kind elite private schools would never impose) creates the appearance of order; and then use these schools as “proof” that charters erase the educational effects of poverty. Meanwhile, it turns out that charter schools "are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation." While all the reformy hounds are barking up the charter-school tree, no one is noticing the forest: a segregated education system where schools that often emphasize rote test prep and strict discipline serve primarily minority students, while racial and socioeconomic school integration as a reform strategy is completely ignored.

RTA uses high test scores as proof of its success; when evidence emerges that the school did not come by those high test scores honestly, Tom Moran insists that the school is nevertheless a success story, and that the cheating is just Adubato “running up the score” to boost his legacy. His evidence? Black and Latino children who are “respectful” and wear “tidy uniforms.”

That right there is some racist subtext.

EDITED TO ADD: Education writer Dana Goldstein points out that charter operators who want to blunt criticism about segregation are seeking to open more racially and socioeconomically diverse schools. But in the process, they drop the harsh "no excuses" discipline model so common in urban charters, knowing it won't fly among more affluent whites who expect progressive education.