Former public school teacher and journalist Schorr gives a grim report of two California charter schools he observed for three years following their inception.
Oakland parents weren’t asking for much: they wanted their children to get a decent education in their neighborhood public schools. Exasperated by the local school board’s hostility to reform, a coalition of parents and churches known as the OCO proposed a charter school (an independent public school exempt from bureaucracy and mandated to get results or be shut down) in partnership with School Futures, a pro-voucher group financed with Wal-Mart money. In 1999, the Oakland Board of Education voted to approve five OCO-School Futures charters—for the school year beginning in less than five months. Three of the five schools never even reached the planning stages. The two that did open were beset with problems. Schorr carefully layers the views of teachers, parents, and students at the Dolores Huerta Learning Academy and the E.C. Reems Academy of Technology and Art (a facility with neither computers nor art classes). Both schools suffered most seriously from the fact that School Futures repeatedly hired unqualified principals without checking their credentials. E.C. Reems principal Laura Armstrong, a former fourth-grade teacher, had no experience as an administrator. Her lack of skills combined with a combative personality made her incapable of motivating her teachers, most of whom she recruited through word-of-mouth at the local beauty parlor. When Armstrong was fired, School Futures hired a man dismissed from previous posts because of charges of sexual harassment and misuse of funds. The principal of Dolores Huerta was also a poor choice: seemingly unstable and so sidetracked by minutiae like the color of the school floor tiles that she nearly failed to hire an adequate number of teachers. (She was also fired.) The children ultimately paid the price for this disaster: standardized tests showed only seven percent of E.C. Reems fourth-grade students reading at grade level.
A bittersweet tale of dreams unrealized.