Saturday, August 28, 2004

Another Texas education tale

By way of Susan Ohanian, don't miss this sorry saga of a now-defunct charter school program in Texas. Credit journalist Cynthia Calvert for following this story.
The data shows fourth graders in charter schools are significantly behind their counterparts in public schools, a half year or more behind. Chester E. Finn Jr., a charter proponent and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, asked for the study. He was widely quoted as saying the scores are "low, dismayingly low" and interestingly added, "A little more tough love is needed for these schools. Somebody needs to be watching over their shoulders."

I couldn't agree more.

Four years ago, I began an odyssey. In July of 2000, an alert reader asked me to look into a school that had recently opened in Humble. The Prepared Table Charter School was leasing the old Humble Elementary School building. By October, when my first story appeared, I knew trouble was ahead. For nearly three years, I pestered the Texas Education Agency, drove to Austin for hearings, poured over documents, and visited the school's four locations numerous times. I had countless phone conversations with parents, students, former teachers and government officials, all the while trying to figure out how the state of Texas could continue giving millions of dollars a month to Harold W. Wilcox, minister of the Greater Progressive Baptist Tabernacle Church and the school's superintendent. From early on, the stories of chaotic classrooms, incompetent employees and suspicious activities were enough to convince anyone there was little education going on at the Prepared Table Charter School.
The gory details include a secret closet. What a metaphor.
Charters may be a good idea in theory but if you set up an entity that requires no acumen or experience and tell them they basically don't have to produce anything in the way of accountability, can we really be surprised when some take advantage? I wouldn't use a doctor who graduated from a charter medical school, or hire an electrician, a stock broker or a lawyer who was educated by people who did not have to know a single thing about these areas. Why do state legislators think that the talent for teaching and necessary knowledge are genetic and that everyone who wishes to can simply start their own school?

Wilcox, operating as the Double Portion, Inc. -- an almost laughable company name considering he was apparently putting dollars in both pockets, applied for and received a charter from the Texas Education Agency in 1998. From day one, the Wilcox family is accused of stealing from the federal school lunch program, the state education coffers, from federal pre-school and bus programs and using the money to gamble and to pay for a palatial half-million dollar home that is equipped with a secret closet. That's where the FBI found Wilcox hiding when they came to arrest him.
Granted some charter schools come with fantastic press (conveniently issued in the wake of the NYT charter school story fallout), stories such as this Texas tale only underlines the hypocrisy behind NCLB's push to charterize and voucherize our education system, under the guise of the code words, reform and choice. The same so-called 'standards' and 'accountability' rules when applied to charter schools probably will sink them as quickly as the public schools. Yet conservative think tank giants, such as Chester Finn (also connected with the behemoth Manhattan Institute) plead for allowance ( Yeah, right. Anyone need to be reminded of the definition for hypocrisy?

As an aside, if you're interested, check out the larger picture behind foundations like the Manhattan Institute.

One more OT: the Daily Howler analyzes Chester Finn's 'logic' behind the need for 'standards'.