Forget the Swedish model, it's the US system that Gove really wants to emulate

Mike Ion's picture
As well as being a fan of the Swedish 'Free School' initiative Michael Gove is also extremely keen on the US Charter school programme. In his speech to the Tory party faithful this week he yet again extolled the virtues of these schools whilst neglecting to tell his audience that many of these 'for-profit' schools have been a huge disaster for the children in the US cities where they were first imposed.

In 1997, the US Congress passed the Charter Schools Act – forcing local school districts to allow private enterprise to take over or set up schools. The justification for this was that the competition of “market pressures” would force both public schools and Charter schools to perform well and deliver a quality product. The record shows otherwise. For example, in Michigan, more than 75 per cent of Charter schools are run by for-profit companies. While these schools are funded with public money, the public does not control them. Since these schools are run by private companies, they don’t have to reveal how they have used their money or how much profit they have made. As far as local communities are concerned, the schools are no more than big holes into which money gets poured.

Companies such as Edison are adept at finding ways to make a profit. Schools set up shop in abandoned premises, including supermarkets, large office complexes and old school buildings. These buildings are often owned or leased by a management company that is owned by the for-profit Charter school company. The Charter school, run by the same firm, gets state education money for each student – some $9,000 a year in the state of Michigan. The school then pays the management company hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in rent. The educational quality in most cases is worse than in the public schools. In 2007, students at the Charter schools in the Detroit area scored lower than Detroit public school students in the Michigan statewide test.

How could it be otherwise? The profit taken out of these schools is money not spent on the education of students. So for-profit schools end up having a high number of unqualified teachers; a high turnover rate, with sometimes several teachers teaching the same class in a school year; and even classes taught by a string of temporary service employees. It was recently confirmed that in the 10 schools run by one company, Charter School Administrative Services, 62 per cent of teachers were unqualified. This is a private company which received more than $40 million from the state of Michigan in 2008. This is money that did not go to the public schools. And that is just one company, 10 schools. There are more than 200 Charter schools in Michigan alone.

Even more worryingly, a recent report from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California in Los Angeles found that nearly 80 per cent of Michigan’s black Charter school students attend intensely segregated minority schools. Why does this matter? Research shows that attending racially diverse schools significantly improves students’ academic achievement, graduation and college attendance rates. In 2007 the US Supreme Court held that, along with achieving diversity, reducing the racial isolation of students of colour in schools is a compelling state interest. Yet black and Latino students attending Charter schools are more often typically in schools where 90 cent or more students are non-white than are their counterparts in traditional public schools.

Some years ago, the now notorious Lehman Brothers issued a report predicting: “The education industry may replace healthcare as the focus industry.” In the US, that’s exactly what for-profit Charter schools are: private industry taking over public education, squeezing out all the profit they can and leaving children with a far worse education.

Is this really what “progressive” Tory education policy looks like?
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