In the reportage following the rejection of the Global Garden Public Charter School, the comment that leapt out to me was one made by Superintendent Jerry Weast on the issue of “choice.” I wanted to be sure it was transmitted correctly, so I dug around to find his actual words. [Note: the MCPS website's Watch Meeting by Agenda Item feature continues to be an utter fail for this Mac/Firefox/Safari user. Thank you Parents Coalition, for independently recording board meetings and putting them up on YouTube.]
So what did he say? (Watch the video here.)
As you know, you are charged with providing an education to students throughout the county, one of the things charter schools are charged to do…I’ve been a proponent of charter schools…in fact I tried to start a KIPP school, if you remember, back when, even to helping furnish the facility and training Alison Serino (sp.?) as the “Kippster” and that didn’t …you know so it isn’t, ah…but it’s business. And you are in very lean budget times. And in very lean budget times you have to share your revenues with other schools. So we look at things about school choice and there’s over 150 private schools in our community, and so there’s choices, and there are our 200 schools with all their thematic approaches. Choice is something that is in abundant supply in Montgomery County.
Wow. I call bullshit. The trying to start a KIPP school? According to someone closely involved with the earlier Jaime Escalante charter school effort, “There was a verbal agreement that MCPS would honestly move towards bringing a KIPP school to the county. One of the Escalante organizers even traveled to New York City with Superintendent Weast to visit a KIPP school. A lot of talking took place, but nothing concrete ever developed. End of story.” Other sources report that the effort failed because Weast insisted on having the power to appoint the KIPP charter’s principal, rather than the KIPP organization. Understandably, they demurred. But in the Gazette the other day, an MCPS spokesperson is quoted as saying
“This idea that we’re anti-charter is just not reality; that’s not the case,” said Dana Tofig, a spokesman with the Montgomery County school system.
Tofig also said Superintendent Jerry D. Weast supported a “Knowledge is Power” Program that intended to start a charter school in the county in 2004. But the deal fell through when KIPP, a national network of nonprofit charter schools, decided against moving forward with the plan, Tofig said.
Show me a news story, press release, memo, letter, speech, comment in the media, board minutes, anything, that shows Jerry Weast forthrightly supporting a KIPP charter school in the county. Show me one example of him exerting his considerable national starpower and local arm-twisting clout to make known his desire for a charter school to happen in MoCo, let alone initiating a concrete step. Please. Because I have done The Google and there’s nothing there. If he really wanted it to get done, we would have heard about it, no? [Note: To read posts from last year about starting a charter, click So You Want to Start a Charter - Part 1 and Part 2.]
But I didn’t even mean to get hung up on the KIPP thing. What really grabbed me was the claim that the presence of 150 private schools in the county constitutes “choice,” as do all the “thematic choices” of MCPS’s 200 schools. I heard that and thought, “Did he really just say that?” What kind of choice, I have to ask, is Holton-Arms, tuition $29,450? Oneness Family School, tuition $19,175? Grace Episcopal Day School, tuition $20,000? Georgetown Day School, tuition $29,830? If you can even get in. If the schools are even in your vicinity. Assuming you don’t have a deep commitment to the idea of pubic education. The idea that these schools present a “choice” for the average MoCo family is breathtaking in its arrogance.
So let’s move onto the Montgomery County “choices.” Certainly MCPS offers more choice than my little town in New England did, which was two elementary schools depending on where you lived, one middle and one high school. What are the “choices” in MCPS? (I’ll focus on elementary, as that’s where the charter applications are aimed.) Well at the early elementary level, there is one GT magnet for the entire county, Takoma Park ES. Assuming your child makes the GT cut and you are outside of the TPES boundary, it is then a lottery for a tiny number of seats at this waaay down county school. So choice? Not much. Then there are the language immersion programs–yes those pesky “boutique programs” that Mr. Weast either loves or threatens depending on the audience. Check DCUM for the angst surrounding the odds of getting into those, and again, whether they are geographically accessible to families who want to attend (Sorry Olney). Finally, the Centers for the Highly Gifted which serve small numbers of a special population. And that’s it at the elementary level. With the exception of the Centers, what do they all have in common? Wait for it: the exact same, to-the-letter MCPS test-test-test curriculum. Where’s the choice in that?
“But wait!” I hear the MCPS PR person say. “Each MCPS schools offers a comprehensive program of instruction to challenge and meet the needs of all students. Some schools also offer special programs for students attending the school. These are called local school programs.” (I confess, I got that straight off the MCPS website.) I get it. That would be things like the whole school communications arts magnet at my neighborhood school, the arts integration program at another area school, the technology focus at another, etc.
- Problem number one is, that not every school has them, and in these budget times, those that do have them are under threat. (My local school saved its special program teacher by cutting the math content specialist position.)
- Problem number two is that these programs are super secret. The MCPS website instructs parents to “contact each local school for details.” (Just what parents want to spend their abundant free time on, right? You have to be really switched on to ferret out the details.)
- Problem number three is access. Nice for me if I have an artsy kid and I live in the arts integration school’s catchment area. But if I don’t, if it’s the next school over, too bad. MCPS is not going to let me transfer just to access that program. Transfers are only for extreme hardship. Which means that “choice” in MCPS boils down to moving houses and hoping for the best. Really no choice at all.
At middle school you’ve heard my rant. Where I live, if you don’t get into a GT magnet, and you don’t win the middle school consortium lottery, well sucks for you. You’re stuck. You literally have to move, which people do. Or homeschool, a choice that families back into as a least worst option. I guess that’s Jerry Weast’s version of choice.
So what is his game? One theory is that he’s trying to trying to link charter schools to private schools in the minds of people who don’t really get the charter school concept and who already think that charters can select students, don’t follow certification and union requirements and take money from public schools like vouchers. Not a bad theory. Mine? The desire for absolute control.
P.S. You can read an op-ed by the Global Gardens Public Charter School founders in Sunday’s Washington Post.
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