There have recently been quite vociferous calls on this site for “evidence” to support criticism of the free schools and academies policy. With more news this morning
of a last minute education budget slash of £155m and fears that the impact will disproportionately hit the poorest parts of the country coming so soon after the DfE announced an allocation of £35m for free schools this year, many will view this as proof that launching the free school initiative with an austerity budget is reckless.
But what of the evidence that free schools will succeed over LA maintained schools?
In her brochure “The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools” Laura McInerney refers to the research of Seymour Saranson who for 25 years studied Charter Schools, the US version of Free Schools/Academies. Their advice, which Fiona Millar has summarised on her post about this excellent brochure, is not to underestimate the complexity of setting up and maintaining a new school since free schools have as much chance of failing as they do in succeeding. Since no Free Schools has yet opened, we should therefore look to the US for evidence of how they “succeed” in practice.
There has never been more political momentum from Washington in favour of charter schools. US state schools, like ours, are under enormous financial pressure to convert – the Obama administration has $4.3 billion in education aid to states that comply with administration goals.
But despite the injection of government funds, has so-called school reform in America worked? The movement has led to more testing and more charter schools. It has not, however, led to poor students getting a demonstrably better education. And the minority of charters that do work have proven impossible to scale up. A report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes reveals that “in the aggregate, Charter students are not faring as well as students in traditional schools.” It points to a successful minority of charter schools and these are the ones around which celebrities and philanthropists rally, where they can boast of backing academic winners, energized by their narrowing of the achievement gap between poor minority students and white students.
Research in the US also reveals that in 16 states, 83% of charter schools are doing no better than in traditional schools suggesting that such schools have not succeeded in overhauling educational standards data in poor and deprived areas. And mediocrity is widely tolerated. Because of the significant financial aid poured into Charters, many authorities are reluctant to close poor schools.
What have Americans thought of Charter Schools? Supporters have conceded that the intellectual premise behind school choice – that in a free market for education, parents will remove students from bad schools in favour of good ones – has not proved true. The education historian Diane Ravitch has told us that “Charters enrol 3% of kids. The system that educates 97% , no-ones paying attention to” and “We are likely to get lots of mediocre and very bad charters”. Many were duped into thinking that the Charter movement was interested in educating “poor black kids” but turned up at charter conventions to be greeted with “God Wants Bush” stickers.
As is the situation here, critics such as American Teacher’s Unions have been derided as backward thinking and a nuisance but the recent enforced resignation of Cathie Black (a well-connected millionaire publisher with no background whatsoever in education) after just three months in the job as New York City schools chancellor is heartening reminder that education is best taken out of the hands of “individuals” or “groups”and placed back into the care of professional and properly regulated educators.
City Hall aides were taken aback when Cathie Black mocked a crowd of parents protesting the closing of a school but we have become used to that kind of aggression here by free choice and Academy School advocators when we argue that “school choice” imposes cuts on the schools that can least take it, while costing taxpayers more. The budget crisis has created a window of opportunity for the Free School movement to defund maintained schools so that they become less effective and then use that ineffectiveness to argue for more Academies/Free Schools.
Is this enough evidence of the impoverished, narrow and socially divisive ethos of Free Schools ?