Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Myth of Choice in Charter Schools and A Cautionary Tale from Tapestry

Charter schools offer parents real choice that public schools don't. Your check is in the mail. I promise I won't... I think you can guess the rest of it.

Among the more popular and preposterous lies floated with Goebbelsean fervor by the ed reform caste is the notion that parents of students in charter schools are presented with a virtual Chinese take out menu of choices when it comes to their children's educational opportunities. Charter operators will tell you that they are free to operate without all of the Promethean shackles imposed by teacher's unions and that their charters lay out the course of instruction not the state or whatever people like Phil Rumore and Edie think will make their teacher's lives easier. It's important to demonize teacher's unions before anyone can point out the massive turnover rate of charters as well as the meager pay, endless demands put upon teachers and the incidence of burn out they encounter. It's all about the spin.

Recent tremors in the Tapestry Charter School's crust tell a different tale from the one of interminable choices enjoyed by parents. But before we get into the near coup that was foiled in the 11th hour by Trustees who managed to read the torches and pitchforks on the wall -- inlcuding a somewhat veiled remark by none other than Sam Hoyt on social media suggesting it might be time for a regime change -- a cursory glance at Tapestry's history is in order. For now the Board voted to delay an outrageously unpopular move to an empty East Side school but if anyone thinks the issue is settled they haven't been paying attention.

In its earliest days Tapestry flourished with small classes, a multi age model and what appeared to be a clear focus on elementary education. Before long though Principal Joy Pepper yearned to expand Tapestry into a high school as well. When parents who'd mistakenly bought into all the nonsense about the choices they'd have tried to object they were informed of their real choice: "If you don't like it you can leave." The plan was then pushed through the board and the state and somewhere in the mix Principal Pepper promoted herself to Executive Director Pepper. Not bad work if you can get it huh?  In one of those awful public schools you'd never see this as Principal appointments go through an interview process and board approval and Principals can't gather their pals around them and promote themselves to Executive Directors. Doesn't happen. It's called accountability. But Ms. Pepper wasn't the only one promoted. Her Tapestry co-founder Hannah Raiken-Schulman also enjoyed a bump from Art Teacher to "Director of Arts Education." Inquiring minds have asked to no avail what exactly a school of 700 kids needs with a Director of Arts Ed when it already employs multiple art, music and dance teachers.

In fact, why does a school of just 700+ students need two principals, two assistant principals, a director of curriculum, a director of administrative services, an athletic director, two deans of students a Chief Operating Officer and an ED? What is the ED’s job description? While Joy Pepper is constantly complaining about Tapestry’s financial problems, she is happy to take home a $104,000 salary to do a job that seems to be little more than a title. Again, the public schools would not get away with this as admin placement numbers are determined by student population with little flexibility. If there is an abundance of choice to be found in charter schools one would have to conclude the choices all belong to administrators and charter bureaucrats not to parents.

Well if parents had no choice in Tapestry's expansion into a high school surely there must have been some benefit for all, right? Actually, the expansion and the addition of so many new administrative posts required more money and the only way to get that was to add more kids. Which of course meant larger class sizes and an end to the multi-age model which doesn't work so well in classes of 27 or so kids. Parents were not included in either of these changes and were informed of them in a note inserted with their child's report card at the end of the term. Not long after these developments came the elimination of Spanish and Chinese from the K-4 curriculum. Knowing parents would be steamed with this move --the foreign languages were a huge selling point for the elementary program--  parents were once again kept in the dark and informed after 5 pm on the last day of school that Spanish and Chinese were getting the axe as well. This was done with an email. Summer vacation being in full swing and the Board being out of session, parents were left twisting in the wind wondering what happened to all those choices they were promised.

The 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years weren't any better. In both of these years the brain trust at Tapestry shortchanged students out of a total of 20 days of education time -- 10 in each year. The fact that Tapestry's own charter demands 176 days seemed to elude the Executive Director even though she helped draw up the the charter. When she was ordered to add the days she declined to do so which resulted two remedial orders one from the Charter School Institute and another from the Commissioner of  The New York State Education Department.

Unfortunately for Tapestry families, the changes at the school outlined above corresponded with major changes in Tapestry student performance. While the Tapestry elementary Business First ranking was a solid #14 in 2010, the school’s rank dropped to #140 in 2015. Did the changes to the school’s model, program and calendar contribute to a 126 place drop in rank? You decide. Tapestry students were performing 10 times worse after expansion than they were before. Seems pretty clear there's a cause and effect dynamic in play. And along with all of the above hijinx, shenanigans and tomfoolery let's not forget that Tapestry administrators promised parents they wouldn't make a move to grab Bennett High then went ahead and did so anyway. Probably the most scurrilous detail of that failed attempt was the revelation that no provision was to be made for Bennett students if the acquisition went through. They were going to be put to the curb with the recyclables as not to pollute the fine atmosphere of Tapestry's student body with the odious presence of Buffalo Public School kids. That my friends is some ugly shit.

So next time you hear some politician or ed reform loudmouth popping off about "school choice" please refer them to this article and keep in mind always that empty claims about "excellence" "grit" "college and career readiness" and "school choice" are just that. Talk is cheap. And nowhere is it cheaper than in the upside down and backwards world of ed reform. 


  1. What can they do the five year sweetheart deal with lower rents they sign with Paladino has run out. I'm sure plan A was to get free rent at a Buffalo Public School, plan B buy a school all with the idea of needing more students to fund the administration costs pointed out by you.

    1. Surely uncle Carl has a dilapidated warehouse lying dormant somewhere that he'd sell them for a song and throw in an educators discount to boot.

  2. I effen love your writing.

  3. Glad to have you along A Dawggg!