Rick Hess, education guru at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says that the whole point of giving parents a choice between charters and traditional public schools is to create competition, which forces both to improve. One form this competition takes is in how they recruit new students. Charters don’t seem to have to jump through the same hoops as TPSs do. We witnessed this recently in Flatbush.
Many P.S. 217 parents probably didn’t know Saturday’s student performance of The Odyssey of Homer was about recruiting students, but it was. In the school’s darkened auditorium, an ethnic salad bowl audience was thoroughly enjoying the show, replete with giant Trojan Horse, impressive scenery and costumes, professional audio, a tightly-led instrumental ensemble, a scary adult Cyclops, eerie Sirens, and the cutest Circe and Penelope we’ve ever seen.
Reflecting the school’s population, the cast included whites, blacks, South Asians, Chinese, Latin Americans, a Georgian Odysseus, and at least one third-generation Italian-American. Their families, like many others at P.S. 217, had visited and carefully scrutinized the school before committing to send their children there. Two important factors in their decision: P.S.217’s “A” academic rating and its dozens of arts and letters enrichment clubs and workshops, made possible by a Federal Magnet Grant. Other families, some of whom had attended last year’s performances of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Peter Pan, made similar decisions. The stated purpose of Magnet is to attract underrepresented groups to a public school, to increase its diversity. Charter schools don’t seem to have the same concern.
The following Wednesday evening, about two blocks away, we attended a very different student recruitment event. Some 200 adults and children (including a 217 family) had gathered in the lower sanctuary at St. Rose of Lima, a local parish church, in response to a 10,000-piece mailing. They were there to hear a pitch from for-profit Michigan charter school operator National Heritage Academies, Inc., which intends to open the Brooklyn Dreams Charter School on church property in September.
Despite — or maybe because of — an upbeat but detail-scarce presentation by NHA’s Admissions Manager, Allison Wheeler (who couldn’t specify the school’s hours), and her acknowledgment that NHA has not yet identified the charter’s principal or hired its staff, many parents at the meeting decided to apply for their children’s admission. What did they base their decision on? Seemingly, not much more than a gauzy Powerpoint presentation, promises of a daily-drilled Greek-origin four-pillar moral code, and a vow that all visitors to the school would get their driver’s licenses scanned and instantly checked against a national data base of registered sex offenders. NHA was promising safety, order, and structure, as well as another, unstated, attraction: the comfort that parents would get from knowing that all children at Brooklyn Dreams would be like their own, privileged to come from families intrepid enough to seek a tuition-free private school alternative.
Otherwise, NHA kept its pitch vague enough to let parents see whatever they wanted in the school’s crystal ball. Wheeler left little time for questions. Any tough ones, such as how NHA expects to make a profit without scanting student services, were evaded. NHA apparently knew it didn’t need to sell its school with facts or a student dramatic performance, the way P.S. 217 did. As many as 150 parents signed up —some, even before the meeting started. Clearly, parents were pre-sold, even without knowing the school hours, the identity of the principal, the teachers, the curriculum, or what the school building would look like. How did this happen?
Since the launch of the Edison Project in 1992, the charter school movement has blanketed Americans with a massive propaganda campaign, which boosts charter schools and tears down traditional public schools.
Currently guided by think tanks such as AEI, funded by corporations and major foundations, and articulated by public figures such as Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, Michael Bloomberg, and Joel Klein, the campaign’s message has come to be validated by a media corps eager to believe that charters are crucial to the future of American education.
The campaign didn’t start with blanket indictments of America’s public education system — which devalue every traditional public school — but it depends on them. Wherever excellent schools like P.S. 217 threaten the negative stereotype, it ignores them, preferring to highlight those that fail. In New York, Bloomberg and Klein trumpet school closure as evidence of their good management, but the message each announcement conveys is that public schools stink. It’s hard for parents to resist that message; even at an excellent school such as P.S. 217, some families struggle with the inconsistency between their own experience and what they’re being told by the mayor, the schools chancellor, and the press.
The anti-TPS campaign blames teachers, ignores government’s complicity, and discourages efforts to strengthen traditional public schools and restore the public’s confidence in them. It tries to convince all of us that the charter school movement is unstoppable, so that public officials who don’t back charters will be bucking the tide. It validates parents’ apprehensions about marginal neighborhood schools and convinces them that efforts to improve those schools will fail.
The propaganda campaign mobilizes corporate and philanthropic resources to help charters to market themselves. It generates carefully-crafted op-ed pieces, scholarly articles, and academic studies. It produces Oscar-quality documentaries. It uses every implement in Madison Avenue’s free-market toolkit to win the battle for the hearts and minds of American parents and their elected representatives.
Up to now, the charter movement has been winning this propaganda battle because it has had the energetic backing of major business leaders — some, because charters embrace familiar corporate concepts, and others, because charters promise profit. While many charters receive foundation dollars they can use to win over parents, student recruitment at traditional public schools almost always depends on excellence, word of mouth, and dedicated volunteers.
Even the best traditional public schools don’t often get private public relations help. When philanthropies such as the Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation throw aid at the public schools, their money goes to “reform” them, further strengthening the public perception that traditional public schools have failed. The Broads and the Gates never have visited P.S. 217.
With all this might arrayed against traditional public schools, do they stand a chance in the public relations competition? Judy Brandwein, the Magnet Grant coordinator at Brooklyn’s P.S. 217, offers pragmatic advice and a ray of hope to TPS loyalists: “All you can do is keep on improving your school and getting the word out. Parents are smart. Once they see what a good public school can do for their child, they’ll make the right choice.”