Why Charter Schools are Billed as “Tuition Free”

Jerry Seinfeld

Charles Lussier is filling in for Linda Perlstein over at The Educated Reporter this week. Today’s rant is about the use of “tuition free” to describe charter schools. You can almost hear him channeling his inner-Seinfeld and asking the world, “So what’s the deal with tuition free?!?” Here we go:

“OK, Pet Peeve Time, readers of The Educated Reporter. Why is that so many charter schools in their promotional messages describe themselves as “tuition free”? I understand that people often are confused about what charter schools are or are not, but they are emphatically public schools, not private schools.”

That has nothing to do with the issue of why charter schools bill themselves as “tuition free.” He continues:

“At a recent meeting I attended where a new Baton Rouge charter school was selling itself, the school’s director used this “tuition free” phrase. He said he’d worked at private schools and public schools and that charter schools were in the middle, “the best of both worlds.” Now, I understand a bit of what he’s saying — they are open to everyone, but have more freedom than traditional public schools — but come on! These are public schools, no question. Yes, some raise private money on the side to supplement their budgets, but so do many traditional public schools.”

Again, that has nothing to do with the issue of why charter schools bill themselves as “tuition free.” The real whine:

“The best explanation for selling yourself in this way, to me, is to persuade parents interested in private schools, but who can’t afford them, that going to a charter school is equivalent to attending a private school and doing so for free! Charter schools, while given some freedom, still have loads of laws to abide by that put them in the same family as traditional public schools. To my mind, it’s purposely misleading.”

No, Charles. You’ve missed the point completely. Here’s what I wrote:


This is not a hard question, and it sure isn’t a mystery.

This is a simple PR issue.

Many parents – especially parents of children who can benefit most from charter schools – don’t realize that “charter school” means “at no cost to you.” So, a school bills itself in promotional literature/advertisements as “tuition free” to let parents know that they won’t have to pay a tuition bill to have their child attend.

Yes, it is that simple. End of story.

Perhaps the EWA blog should be renamed to “Educate A Reporter.” This time the lesson was tuition free.

Early College High Schools and Accelerated Students

National Journal’s education debate topic for last week was whether ‘Early College’ high school models – those that allow students to earn college credits, 2-year degrees or graduate early – are a positive development in education reform. It wasn’t much of a debate; pretty much everyone agreed that acceleration is a good thing.

And like so many other education reforms, we get more rhetoric than real action. Or, when we do get action, it’s dripping with social/political ideology rather than supporting a real commitment to education.

I weighed in and I’ve pasted my submission below – I’m interested in your thoughts. I pointed out that our Superintendents don’t seem to realize they’re in charge, government rhetoric doesn’t match well with evidence and there’s a lot more talking than action in this game.

So far, we’ve had school, government and business leaders agree that high school students ready for college work should be allowed – even encouraged and supported systematically – to do college work. We all seem to agree that such changes, whether on premises or in partnerships with external institutions, will be efficient for students, progressive for education and potentially cheaper for taxpayers. That this is noteworthy, and a viable topic for debate, illustrates the immaturity of our reform efforts and silently exposes a few high, broad hurdles faced by education reformers. One is reminded of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Ents, the thoughtful, learned shepherds of the forest who spent a full day of deliberation that amounted only to a lengthy exchange of greetings. After 3 days, they marched into action. Will the education reformers follow suit?

Superintendent Quon’s succinct conclusion – “So why wouldn’t we do this?” which refers to the Early College High School initiative and those combinations of secondary/post-secondary curricula like it – exposes a cleft in what seems to be armor of benevolent, common sense policy. We’ve got several giving it a thumbs up, but hardly anyone has actually done it. Superintendent Quon, for one, presides over an 18,000-student district that, to my knowledge, has not committed to such a model despite admitting it’s old hat in California. [His district has, however, committed to combating teacher retention problems by improving workplace ergonomics (PDF, pg. 3)]

Like Mr. Peha, I saw as a student a handful of motivated, capable peers pursuing college-level coursework that our rural district didn’t offer. I also lived down the street from Boston’s acclaimed MATCH school, a remarkable example cited by Mr. Lomax, during its formative years and saw it transform students into college-bound aspiring scholars who carried themselves with pride and a sense of purpose. Now I see kids embracing challenging distance-learning opportunities offered by post-secondary institutions before those same students are allowed to get behind a steering wheel.

But the reality in Superintendent Quon’s Cupertino is the same as the reality everywhere else – laying the groundwork for reform, and especially implementing it properly, is a slow, complex process. Opportunities for advanced coursework such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs have been around for decades. In the push to optimize the high school experience and bridge it with the college level, the AP program is an Eephus pitch waiting to be knocked out of the park. And in an embarrassingly high number of districts, administrators and school boards are still crowded in the dugout debating which bat to use.

Others still, despite solid evidence, aren’t even sure a baseball bat is the right tool. Professor Kirp is sensible to call for solid research, something of which we can’t have enough. And President Obama has famously committed to evidence-based decision making – presumably making use of good research to make policy decisions, a marriage of the academic and political – on many occasions. The rub is that such evidence loses luster when in the calloused hands of our nation’s elected sausage-makers. We’ve witnessed the coffer of the Head Start program swell through Representative Kildee’s Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act (2008′s Public Law 110-134) despite ever-mounting evidence of its inefficacy, including the quiet suppression of a Department of Health and Human Services study (PDF) showing Head Start’s glaring inefficiency and long-term inadequacy [Data collection complete, 2006; study shelved until 2010]. We need not look so far in the past to find ideology trumping evidence; just this week the Senate voted 55-42 against a measure that would re-open Washington, D.C.’s outstanding, and above all, successful, voucher program. The moral here: Rep. Kildee gets a grade of A from the National Education Association and 100% from the Association For Supervision and Curriculum Development; we get higher taxes and real education reform at a pace that would gobsmack a snail.

The ‘Early College’ model is promising in NY, CA, TX and twenty or so other states; AP/IB programs are accelerating large numbers of students; distance learning is bringing college to high schoolers’ desktops and schools like MATCH are executing properly that vision of public education that so many of us have had for decades. The question isn’t so much whether we think these ideas are good, but whether we’re willing to support their expansion with action and money – two terribly scarce resources. Mr. Vander Ark stated courageously, “Every student should graduate from high school having experienced college success” – and yes, in this ideology-driven sector it takes courage to commit to reform for low-income, first-generation college-goers, students of color and kids whose parents make $200,000/year – and he is right.

The Ents have finished saying, “Good morning.” Now it’s time to see whether they’ll march.

Of Interest….
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“I Don’t Want to Ruin My GPA”

Last week we found out via EdSector’s Chad Aldeman that the SAT/ACT are useless. The GPA, he says, as he clings to the coattails of the new book Crossing the Finish Line, is the best predictor of “college success.”

I pointed out in that writeup that “college success” being defined as “obtaining a degree” is problematic, as measuring whether someone has managed to leap over an abysmally-low bar doesn’t tell us much. But it’s the best we can do, said Aldeman:

“Matthew, you’re right that we can’t measure “college success” much better than “obtaining a degree.” That’s unfortunate, but you have to remember that almost all previous studies have defined “success” as “first-year college grades” or “one-year retention rate.” Surely you’d agree that success is closer to graduation than it is to those interim measures.”

Yes, it’s closer. And a foot is nearer to being a mile than an inch is, but they’re both awfully far.

I’m pleased that Aldeman has admitted that he and Education Sector can’t conceive of success in education as being more than showing up and paying the bill for 4 years. It certainly saves some of us a lot of work. But he’s wrong about what’s unfortunate. The unfortunate part is the inability to look at history – that longitudinal study of people, which includes their education and its purpose – and see in its richness something of more value than a degree.

I had the temerity to challenge Aldeman’s claim that GPA mattered all that much as an indicator of academic talent. I find that GPA is often a measure of one’s ability to function within a higher ed system as weak as a public high school from which they came – not what they know.

Aldeman spins the criticism because the truth is too damning:

“By mocking perseverance–which I tend to think is a pretty important trait for just about everything in life–you’re also shifting the discussion away from college admissions policies to college quality in general.”

Perseverance isn’t to be mocked – and an honest reading of my comment to Aldeman can’t suggest otherwise. But we should recognize what perseverance shows and what it doesn’t.

For example, one’s ability to persevere, and a GPA that reflects it, doesn’t necessarily show us that one can do basic algebra. 90% CUNY students dropped the ball on a recent measure of skills:

“During their first math class at one of CUNY’s four-year colleges, 90% of 200 students tested couldn’t solve a simple algebra problem, the report by the CUNY Council of Math Chairs found. Only a third could convert a fraction into a decimal.”

John Jay College sophomore Ahmed Elshafaie, 19, who graduated from Long Island City High School, said he avoids math classes.

“I don’t want to ruin my GPA,” he said. “High school standards were really low.”

What can the quantitative section of the SAT tell us? That a student can convert a fraction to a decimal, for one, and that they’ve got a handle on basic algebra.

What does a GPA and high school diploma hide? That for 13 years, Ahmed got shorted on math instruction. That as a 19 year old college freshman, Ahmed can’t do the most basic 9th grade math, which is not only at the heart of every academic discipline utilizing any numbers, but is also required to understand compound interest on his credit card bill. That Ahmed’s professors will be burdened by getting his skills up to speed at the expense of teaching him a class’s main content.

… and that he’s shut out of studying any math in college because he was never prepared for it.

Ahmed sounds like a decent kid – he’s more honest about his academic preparation, and the prospects it affords, than the folks at EdSector. I’m sure he’ll persevere, too, and earn a degree from CUNY. He just won’t be able to convert a fraction to a decimal, despite his likely 3.0 high school GPA matching up with his obtaining a degree.

Berlin Wall Anniversary and Happy 234th Birthday, United States Marine Corps

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction. It would’ve been easy to miss as coverage was scant.

One could talk for hours about the significance of men and women swinging sledgehammers against the Wall. If you’ve ever swung a sledge against something solid – gosh, I’m going to have to describe this for the soft-handed Ivory Tower types, aren’t I? – you know that there can be a tremendous amount of recoil. Swinging such a large hammer is hard work, both propelling it forward and controlling it on the bounceback. Swinging it against something that doesn’t give way is Sisyphean.

Yet we’ve got photo after photo of mustachioed Germans hammering the wall with every bit of energy they can muster, recoil and uselessness be damned. That’s a mix of conviction, hope, frustration and certainty of outcome that’s rare in history. And from Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” [and the lesser-remembered "Open this gate"] speech to photos of the downtrodden, hammer-swinging Germans, you heard and saw little about the anniversary relative to its importance. Maybe next year, but probably not. It just isn’t in intellectual fashion, I guess.

Head on over to Darren’s “Right on the Left Coast” for one of the more memorable, moving pieces I’ve ever read in the blogosphere. “Freedom Is a Little Piece of Concrete” offers a personal view of the Wall and its destruction. It was a must-read a year and a half ago; it still is.

Today, November 10th, is another anniversary – the 234th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. I viewed a solid Marine tribute video from an unlikely place –, the website host – that’s worth viewing.

They’ve never won the Nobel Peace Prize, but few organizations have done as much to facilitate good and stop evil in the world as the United States Marine Corps.

NY Senator David Valesky Will Be Challenged By Two

David Valesky, the Senator for New York State’s 49th District, is a “nice guy,” said one of his likely 2010 opponents:

New York State Senator David Valesky

“I will be the first to acknowledge that our incumbent senator is a nice guy.”

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I don’t much care if he’s a sweetheart – David Valesky is unashamedly weak on education.

Last year I gave Valesky a grade of C- on the education portion of his public candidate questionnaire. His opponent James DiStefano pulled an F – but that’s because DiStefano didn’t bother to submit a response. As always, no response constitutes failure.

Valesky made it clear last year that he had no interest in reforming education funding. When asked about funding, he pointed to cuts everywhere else, reconstructing government and reforming Medicaid:

“As the state faces an extreme fiscal crisis, my goal remains to reduce state government spending without impacting education. I have already voted for $1 billion in state spending cuts at the August special session. I anticipate we will do more in the upcoming special session, including efforts to consolidate state government and taking a hard look at the Medicaid system.”

Valesky seemed to believe then – as he does now – that an issue as serious as funding education can be resolved not by addressing it head-on, but by fixing every other serious issue around it. Common sense suggests that approach is overwhelming and ineffective.

I admire Valesky’s honesty on this issue as much now as I did then. He’s badly misguided, but he’s up front about it:

“While I have also supported capping property taxes, I believe cutting state education funding is the wrong answer, as this will only increase the burden on property tax payers and negatively impact education and its critical role in our economic recovery.”

Valesky doesn’t mention reforming education funding or even investigating any aspects of it to ensure that current expenditures are useful. It doesn’t even occur to him that funding can be cut at the state and local levels and not be replaced needlessly. I’d be more forgiving if this was a live interview; it wasn’t. He and his staff had plenty of time to think about this one – and this was the best they could do. No cuts, no examination, nothing – just spend, because, after all, it’s for the children.

That’s what a nice guy would say.

It was with great relief that I read Valesky will be challenged by at least two candidates come 2010. Andrew Russo, a well-regarded pianist who is also an artist-in-residence at Le Moyne College, has announced that he’ll stand in the GOP primary for Valesky’s seat. Jessica Crawford has also announced; she’s a young Upstate native whose background includes work with 40 Below, an organization dedicated to halting the “brain-drain” of intellectual and social capital that’s ravaging Upstate New York.

Russo is 34, Crawford is 31. If it’s one thing the Leatherstocking Region needs, it’s strong, young leadership. On that account, both challengers look good.

It’s still early. We’ll see how things play out with Russo, Crawford, Valesky and anyone else who tosses their name in the hat. Hopefully they’ll address public education a bit more fully – and with a bit more competence – than Valesky has, as evidenced by his weak performance and poor rhetoric. I don’t expect him to change; Valesky doesn’t even address public education with any gusto on his State Senate page. [Perhaps 2010 will bring Valesky's second Tweet, too.]

Good luck, Crawford and Russo – your heartbeats and warm bodies have already launched you both ahead of the flaccid Valesky. I’ll take a good Senator over a nice guy any day.

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