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CHARTER SCHOOL DOWN! Bloomberg wants to create more charters. Our question: Will he supervise them? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, APRIL 7, 2006

THE STRAIGHT-SCHLOCK EXPRESS: In a February book event broadcast on C-SPAN, Paul Begala noted John McCain’s recent flips—and guessed that journalists would fail to challenge them. We thought that was the smart bet at the time—so we were surprised, as Paul may have been, when Tim Russert was fairly tough on McCain this past Sunday. But there’s one old habit this crowd just can’t break. At one point, Tim just couldn’t help it. Doggone it! He went and said this:
RUSSERT (4/2/06): There's going to be a big vote [on immigration] in the Senate. You need at least 18 Republican senators to join with you. Straight talk: Has the president shown the necessary leadership on this issue for you to win your battle?
Doggone it! When will hosts stop reciting McCain’s slogans for him? When pundits work “straight talk” into their questions, they’re vouching for McCain’s sainted answers. Others have played this game more egregiously (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/9/05). But this Sunday—though Russert played fairly rough—this habit proved hard to break.

THE JOYS OF FOX: Cynthia McKinney did the right thing; she went to the House and expressed her regrets. And then, hours later, a bonus obtained! Our analysts enjoyed a good solid laugh when Brian Wilson explained it on Special Report:

WILSON (4/6/06): McKinney was on the way to the House floor to make a statement about the security checkpoint scuffle last week in which she is alleged to have hit a capitol police officer with a cell phone. It was characterized as an apology, even though it followed several days in which she made appearances and accused the Capitol Police of racial profiling.
It was “characterized” as an apology? Why would anyone do that? It might be the way her statement ended. You know—when McKinney said this:
MCKINNEY (4/6/06): And I apologize. [END OF STATEMENT]
That may explain the “characterization.” Meanwhile, Wilson’s report explained something else—the odd joys of watching on Fox.

WE’RE GOOD, AND THEY’RE NOT—COLUMN FINISHED: Why do liberal and progressive ideas play so little role in our public debates? In part, because liberal pundits are often so goldarned lazy. Consider the complex immigration debate. We chuckled this week when the Post’s Ruth Marcus treated herself to an easy way out:

MARCUS (4/4/06): Perhaps the most intriguing, and gratifying, aspect of the Nebraska debate, though, is the suggestion that the rising tide of illegal immigration can produce rational policy rather than unthinking backlash. Granted, this isn't the majority reaction. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that at least 36 bills have been introduced in 20 states this year involving government benefits for illegal immigrants, most to restrict them. In addition, eight states are considering measures to prohibit in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants or to repeal those already in place. This includes Virginia, where then-Gov. Mark Warner vetoed such a bill in 2003. Only four states are weighing legislation that would go in the same direction as Nebraska.
Man, was that easy! To Marcus, her own ideas are “rational policy;” other ideas are “unthinking backlash.” (Needless to say, “the majority” is on the wrong side. That always helps the liberal cause.) My side is rational—yours is unthinking! It’s the oldest framework in the book; you’d think it couldn’t get much more pre-rational. But this morning, Gene Robinson tries:
ROBINSON (4/7/06): "We're the tip of the arrowhead," said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former [Arizona] state legislator who now hosts a Spanish-language radio talk show and helped lead the demonstration. Gutierrez and others predict that a second march planned for Monday will draw up to 100,000 people. This time organizers are asking protesters not to wave Mexican flags, because that gesture drives the anti-immigration crowd so berserk. Numbers alone will suffice to make the point.
Robinson moves from “unthinking” to “berserk” (and treats himself to the advantage of calling the other side “anti-immigrant.”) My side is rational—yours is berserk! Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t care about those Mexican flags; we’re inclined to think it’s pretty silly to focus on them so much. But sorry—this feeble attempt at framing couldn’t get much more ham-handed. Also note Robinson’s tired old use of the word “self-appointed.” Robby’s opponents are “self-appointed.” Robinson? Apparently, he’s here straight from God. (At least he eschewed “vigilante.”)

At the end of his column, Robinson laments the fact that “nuances aren’t allowed” in the immigration debate. Our young analysts chuckled mordantly. Robinson built the first half of his column around pointless name-calling, then complained about lack of nuance. And by the way—in the second half of his column, he tries to prove the complexity of this matter with an utterly silly example. Yes, this issue is complex. But is this the best example he could muster?

ROBINSON: But of course it isn't simple at all.

Mexican immigration, legal or not, didn't start yesterday. [Alfredo] Gutierrez, 60, is the son of Mexican immigrants; he grew up in a small Arizona town that practiced a "perhaps more benign" form of the apartheid that African Americans had to suffer in the South...

Within his own extended family, Gutierrez says, he counts immigrants who are American citizens, others who are permanent residents with green cards and still others who are here illegally. That is why there are no simple solutions: If you draw a sharp line between those who have proper documents and those who don't, you break up families.

In fact, the problem of “breaking up families” is one of this issue’s complexities. But this tale of a widely extended family is hardly a potent example. Gutierrez is an American citizen; like us, he has been his whole life. All his children are American citizens. All his grandkids are citizens too. How would his family be “broken up” if immigrants “who are here illegally” had to return to their country of origin? Presumably, a few of his nephews would have to return to Mexico; his extended family wouldn’t be in one place! It’s hard to believe that this is the problem which makes this matter so complex. But then, journalists who start by defining the other side as “berserk” rarely bother with careful thinking.

Marcus and Robinson make it sound very easy in these “us good them bad” columns. Why do liberal ideas fail to drive our debates? Just read the lazy frameworks we offer. What lib ideas, some will ask—in that unthinking majority.

Special report—Charter school down!

PART 4—THE FUTURE OF CHARTERS: Oh yes, one last question about the ReadNet Bronx Charter School (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/6/05). How are the New York charter school’s students making out in their actual studies? According to the Times’ Elissa Gootman, this is ReadNet’s third year of operation. And Gootman says, early in her front-page report, that ReadNet’s history “offers a stark lesson in the ways in which charter schools can go wrong.” But surely, there’s one clear way such a school can “go wrong;” it can fail to teach its children to read. So how are ReadNet’s students doing? Despite the length of her report, Gootman never quite answers that question—and never quite explains why she doesn’t.

For what it’s worth, this omission may not be all Gootman’s fault. Charter schools “are held accountable by being forced to shut down if they fail to perform,” Gootman writes. Indeed, in paragraph 2 she says that ReadNet is being shuttered “due to mounting money problems and scant evidence of academic success.” But we have to read all the way to paragraph 27 before we get a vague account of just how “scant” that evidence is. As elsewhere, Gootman is maddeningly vague on this subject. But if the following passage means what it seems, Gootman is describing one more bit of outrageous conduct on the part of ReadNet Bronx Charter:

GOOTMAN (4/3/06): The problems continued. Too many of ReadNet's teachers, six out of nine as of October 2005, according to the State Education Department, did not meet state certification requirements. The school also did not administer the tests necessary for a charter school to prove that it should be allowed to continue, the state found. And the school was bleeding money.
Say what? If we read that highlighted passage correctly, ReadNet was required to administer some sort of tests “to prove that it should be allowed to continue”—and the school failed to do so. (What sort of tests? Gootman doesn’t say.) In other words, we have “scant evidence of academic success” at the school because ReadNet—which has accepted $3 million in public funds—failed to perform this basic requirement. We wish we could say with certainty if this reading is accurate—but Gootman shows as little interest in nailing these facts as she does in the progress of ReadNet’s young students. In an 1800-word front-page report about “the ways in which charter schools can go wrong,” she never sticks her head inside ReadNet’s classrooms to tell us what seems to be happening there. Nor does she ever arrange to report ReadNet’s test scores—if there are such scores at all.

So let’s see. Reading carefully through Gootman’s report, we learn the following about ReadNet:

1) ReadNet got its charter in 2001, before it had a suitable building. As a result, it had to cancel its first year of operation—and when it finally opened in September 2003, it was still in an ill-suited facility.

2) The school can’t explain where its money has gone. A spokesman says that a planned forensic audit “will vindicate us completely.”

3) In the course of obtaining its charter, ReadNet told the state of New York that it would enjoy “a partnership with Columbia University's history department, one of whose most illustrious professors, Dr. Jackson, was listed as a board member.” But it seems that no such partnership ever existed, and Jackson never visited the school. Nor did he attend any board meetings.

4) The school was supposed to have computers in every classroom. But when it finally opened—an entire year late—there were no computers for at least three months.

5) The school was required to test its students—but apparently failed to do so.

It’s hard to know which parts of that story show the good intentions of Robin Hubbard, ReadNet’s founder. In fact, this parade of horribles sounds like the basis for an indictment of the way the state of New York has been running its charter school program. Why was ReadNet permitted to sign up kids before it had a suitable building? Did anyone check the school’s educational plan—parts of which, frankly, sound rather odd (to the extent that Gootman describes it) and parts of which turned out to be bogus? Incredibly, though, Gootman focuses on Hubbard’s good intentions, closing with a remarkable scene in which a state official—an official who was supposed to be monitoring this mess—weeps with Hubbard about the way the ReadNet founder “cared so much.” Meanwhile, we get no sign that Gootman ever stuck her head inside ReadNet’s actual classrooms. Is anything going on in this school at all? Are its students doing anything that is productive? And: Did Hubbard ever have a real educational plan? It’s hard not to wonder, given the rest of this mess. But Gootman doesn’t seem to have asked.

What can explain the puzzling focus of this front-page report? We’ll suggest two possible answers. First, low-income children don’t seem to count much. And oh yes—again, we cite this:

GOOTMAN: [ReadNet’s] reality is far from the dream laid out five years ago by Robin D. Hubbard, an Upper East Side architect known for her charm, enthusiasm and prominent friends like Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, and Kenneth T. Jackson, editor of ''The Encyclopedia of New York City.”
Hubbard is known for her prominent friends. Does that explain this report’s odd focus? We don’t have the slightest idea.

But we do carry a lingering concern from Gootman’s intriguing but maddening report. The ReadNet project sounds like a disgrace. So does the state’s apparently lax supervision, right from the time the school got its charter. But uh-oh! Gootman gives a pass to that apparently lax supervision—and we read this, midway along:

GOOTMAN: Of the more than 4,000 charter schools that have opened across the country since 1991, many are thriving. In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg views them as a cornerstone of his education policy. He and Gov. George E. Pataki are pressing to create more than the 100 currently allowed under state law.
Oh great! Mayor Bloomberg wants to have more such schools—and as we’ve noted in the past, he seems to be a “prominent friend” of the Times editorial board, at least when it comes to their public schools writing. Here at THE HOWLER, we’re inclined to support the notion of charter schools—if such projects are closely supervised. Do Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg plan to supervise future charters in a more careful manner? And will the Times jump their bones if they don’t? No, if we judge from this odd piece. “Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo.” So states that weeping assistant commissioner—the one who vouches for the founder who created this god-awful mess.

NEXT—EPILOGUE: Does anyone have any ideas around here? We’ll ask that next, in an epilogue.