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Education Montana Politics

Charter School Law Would Hurt Montana’s Students

On Wednesday, the House Education Committee will hear HB 315, a proposal to establish public800px-FEMA_-_45056_-_School_Bus_with_children_leaves_Rocky_Boy^^39,s_Indian_Reservation_in_Montana charter schools in Montana. The bill is an ill-advised. ALEC-funded attempt to undermine Montana’s excellent system of public education—and should be rejected.

I came to the charter school debate from a different perspective than many of my colleagues, I suspect. I used to think they might offer a way to improve educational outcomes and shake up a system that can be too complacent. The research, however, simply doesn’t bear those claims out.


The best reason to reject the charter school movement is simple: it doesn’t work. Researchers at Stanford University conducted a thorough study of the nation’s charter schools and found that “students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.” Specifically, their research showed that

17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 percent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.

A Mathematica study of 2,300 students across 15 states confirmed the Staford study, finding that “charter schools did not significantly affect most of the other outcomes examined, including attendance, student behavior, and survey-based measures of student effort in school.”

Despite claims of increased accountability, a study by proponents of charter schools found that few are ever closed for poor performance.

They even spend more money on administration than traditional public schools.

Unfortunately, it’s not just that charter schools would be ineffective and waste money. The kind of unregulated charter school/school choice Montana Republicans are pursuing would be a disaster for Montana students.


Perhaps most troublingly, private companies are likely to put profits ahead of actually educating children.  In Michigan, 80% of charter schools are run by for-profit corporations and the experience of Florida demonstrates what that can mean for students. The Miami Herald reports:

By design, charter schools are unshackled from many of the bureaucratic rules of traditional public schools….

While this freewheeling system has minimized the oversight of school districts, it has given rise to a cottage industry of professional charter school management companies that — along with the landlords and developers who own and build schools — control the lion’s share of charter schools’ money.

At some financially weak schools, tight budgets have forced administrators to cut corners. The cash-strapped Balere Language Academy in South Miami Heights taught its seventh-grade students in a toolshed, records show. The Academy of Arts and Minds in Coconut Grove went weeks without textbooks. Schools have also been accused of using illegal tactics to bring in more money—charging students illegal fees for standard classes, or faking attendance records to earn more tax dollars, court records show.”


Even if private corporations won’t come to Montana, their terrible online schools certainly will. How about having your for-profit charter school conducted online with 60:1 student teacher ratios? The New York Times explored this model, exposing the very profitable K12Inc, which is “educating” 200,000 children nationwide.  Unfortunately, that’s not working out too well for the states paying for this model or the students taking the classes:

Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.


Another danger is that the kind of privatization Montana Republicans are calling for will lead to direct religious instruction at taxpayer expense.

Talking Points Memo offered an instructive example of what kind of education Montanans might receive if they fall for this scheme in its discussion of the Shekinah Learning Institute, which took $17 million to educate “at-risk children,” but spending a great deal of money on religious instruction and church expenses.

That Jeff Laszloffy is behind the movement for privatized education in Montana should make it clear that we can expect that kind of instruction in Montana, too, if Hill’s plan comes to fruition. Taxpayer dollars simply should not be spent to promote a particular religion or teach that evolution didn’t happen. Mr. Laszloffy’s children can call themselves “valedictorians” of the Laszloffy School all they want; Montana taxpayers just shouldn’t have to pay for the damage that’s being done.


Even when charter schools seem successful, the results are often illusory. How can a school or corporation inflate the academic results of their students? With a good old-fashioned combination of segregation, exclusion of students with disabilities, and misreporting data.

Professor Myron Orfield says that “ charters are an engine of racial segregation. They are more segregated than public schools and cause public schools to be more segregated than they otherwise would be,” and the available data support his claim.

Charter schools also have fewer students with disabilities, which is one of the ways they can do the most damage to public schools. Students with disabilities require greater resources, and if charter schools are allowed to restrict their admittance, pressure will increase on public schools.

Charter schools are more likely to being involved in dishonest test scores,


Even former proponents of school choice have acknowledged that the movement seems based far more on over-promising results than actually achieving results for students.

“If evidence mattered, they would tone down their rhetoric.” Harvard professor and iconic school-voucher proponent Paul Peterson has characterized the voucher movement as “stalled,” in part by the fact that many “new voucher schools were badly run, both fiscally and educationally,” and in part because results in Milwaukee were not “as startlingly positive as advocates originally hoped.” Likewise, Peterson argues, “the jury on charter schools is still out.”

As Frederick Hess notes, school choice programs probably do improve educational outcomes in urban neighborhoods blighted with terrible schools and decades of mismanagement. That’s simply not the reality in Montana, where despite Republican efforts to demonize teachers and public education, our students outperform the nation as a whole on every measure of educational outcomes, while spending less per student than many states.

There are certainly areas of improvement for Montana schools, but defunding them to pay for unaccredited, unaccountable institutions who are quite likely to put profitability and/or ideology ahead of education certainly isn’t a way to achieve better results.

It’s time for Montana Republicans to offer serious proposals for educational reform. Imagining that charter schools will solve the needs of Montana’s students requires ignoring the evidence about their efficacy and the unique conditions faced by Montana students.

Reject this bad bill.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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    • The evidence just doesn’t support the investment by the Gates Foundation. Six-seven years ago, they were investing heavily in smaller learning communities (SLCs) before having to admit that the research didn’t support continued investment.

      • In terms of ROI, look at the KIPP results.

        Today, 30.6 percent of all Americans aged 25 to 29 have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. For students from low-income families, the college completion rate is even lower: only 8.3 percent have earned a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s.1
        These low college completion rates are diminishing the United States’ promise and economic competitiveness worldwide. While America is first in the world in the percentage of adults aged 55 to 65 with a two- or four-year degree, our ranking slips to eighth in the percentage of 25- to 34-year olds who have completed college.
        As a baseline for measuring college completion, KIPP tracks students who complete eighth grade, rather than 12th grade graduates. The two founding KIPP academies in Houston and New York have existed long enough for their early alumni to be college graduates. As a result, we can track the trajectories of these students all the way through their undergraduate years.
        As of March 2011, 33 percent of students who completed a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college.2 This means the original KIPP students – who are 95 percent African American or Latino, with more than 85 percent qualifying for federal free or reduced price meals – have a higher college completion rate than the average of all students across all income levels nationwide. And KIPP’s college completion rate is four times the rate of comparable students from low-income communities across the country.
        While the college graduation rate of our earliest students is a significant achievement, it is far short of our goal. We aspire for 75 percent of our students to earn four year degrees and all of our students to have the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in college if they so choose. This percentage is similar to the graduation rate of students from the highest-income families.

    • This story from Forbes shows how the Gates Foundation spends money before they know if results will follow:

      Funded by Gates, some 2,600 new small high schools opened in 45 states and the District of Columbia. New York City alone has more than 200 such schools, with high schools devoted to such themes as leadership, the sports professions, technology, health professions, the media, diversity, peace and social justice.

      On Nov. 11, the Gates Foundation convened a meeting of leading figures in American education to admit candidly that the new small high schools had not fulfilled their promise. The foundation acknowledged that “we have not seen dramatic improvements in the number of students who leave high school adequately prepared to enroll in and complete a two- or four-year postsecondary degree or credential.”

  • It’s worth noting that in addition to pressure from ALEC, the Obama administration, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, continue to tout more charter schools as a key element to education reform. Federal funding remains a strong lever most states will find hard to ignore.

  • From the legal note:

    “LC 0007, as drafted, may raise potential constitutional issues associated with Article X of the Montana Constitution.”

    The fiscal note was not available at 1230 MST today.

    The common sense note:

    Not required. But Pogie’s post is a fine unofficial common sense note.

  • the private sector has no solutions to education, as the market model forces stratify ing and fencing off the better product for wealthier clientele. Since education is a utility, the model does to work as a general remedy.

    That said, and knowing the nice people who teach for a living and their caring and concern for kids, the product of public education is not going to set our world on fire. The kids mostly come out ready the become office workers or join the service industry, or of course soldiers, but I’ve not seen anything subversive or original as a result of American schools. It is up to the parents to teach rebellion, and the schools to knock it out of them? if so, schools are winn… oops!! Bell rang. time for line-forming and another subject.

      • Your link, Craig, is to words and more words and many good intentions, no doubt sincere. But just as dogs bark and do not speak words, markets can only behave as markets. The profit motive drives the bus and investors will insist that they constantly cut costs, increase profits, and seek out the higher end markets. It can be no other way. Just as the “free market” cannot deliver health care to everyone, so too can it not deliver education. It just sucks in the public utility area.

        • Mark, the Gates foundation has put over 4 billion in its education system improvement efforts. I don’t know how many words $4 billion buys but it does get peoples attention. Now, charter schools are no panacea by themselves. It takes continuous improvement and incorporation of lessons learned and examples of success by all educational institutions sharing what works and shedding the boat anchors of failure.

          • they need heavy regulation and there can be no profit motive. Otherwise, it’s a million Enron’s run amok. It would be best just to fund public education and leave the acquisitive class out of it. Improvement is needed, but cannot be achieved via the charter route. Investors seek immediate and direct payback. Education is a long-term wealth creation activity for general benefit, and not for specific investors.

            Charter schools won’t work, cannot work due to perverse incentives, just like health care.

            • Mark, can we just declare you the “winner” here and now so that the conversation can proceed by those that wish to discuss the topic?

              • Fine. I suggest, however, that if you cannot justify charter schools on philosophical grounds, that you resign and declare yourself the “loser” so that others can discuss the topic.

                • Actually I have to agree with Mark here Craig. Your the one wearing the albatross of stupidity for the day!

                  Charter schools have been around long enough for countless studies by real researchers to say… they are not the answer.

                  Pogie is right free up more cash per student in public schools. Secondly, the Gates foundation said they were wrong about charter schools!

                • It must be emphasized that while charter schools are just old wine in new bottles (vouchers), public education is not getting the job done either. this type of debate forces people to one side or the other without thinking that everyone is missing the point. The current system of education came about during the industrial revolution, and was designed to train factory workers, seamstresses, bookkeepers and bus drivers. The kids are shuffled all day long from class to class, answering the bell, punching in and out – it’s all an anachronism. Tardiness is a huge offense. That is behavior control coupled with thought control. I challenge PW and Pogie to reach out to the kids that don’t answer the bell, don’t achieve the grades, as these are the best students. They don’t regurgitate well, and so don’t test well, and that is a strength that your system says is weakness.

                  Charter schools are nothing more than another attempt to divert school money to private pockets. But public schools don’t get it done either.

                • I don’t think teaching is mysterious or terribly complicated, though all of us have had really great teachers who influenced us at some point. I’ve not been so enamored of either of you as to imagine that you could have had an exceptional influence on me at any time. You’re both rote and by-the-book thinkers’ utterly predictable.

                  You’re right, I don’t know who you teach, but I’m not feeling out of my depth.

                • “You’re right, I don’t know who you teach, but I’m not feeling out of my depth.”

                  You can never feel the bottom when you’re about to drown, Mark. Your assumptions about my professional life are about as off as they can possibly be. I’ll enlighten you over email. I don’t talk extensively about my job or my students publicly as a rule. My students rank just a hair below my family in importance to me, and I’m not going to use them to win an argument. But I’ll send you a quick message so you’ll maybe stop talking nonsense. I’d appreciate if upon receiving that, you recant what you just said here.

                • If I had a nickel for every time I encountered this attitude in the teaching profession, I’d have several dollars. This is an exhibition of hubris. I triggered it, opened the door to a huge gust of wind. Now you want an apology? We can go to confession together, and you get to go first. Then we can talk.

                • No, you repetitive, insipid troll, this is just another example of bloviating on another subject you have no understanding of.

                  Stick to regurgitating half-understood articles you read in some radical ‘zine. No one is having their feelings hurt by your ill-informed, bourgeois radicalism about education here. It’s just kind of sad.

                • Little background for the rest of y’all – Mark actually knows exactly who I teach. He says

                  ” I challenge PW and Pogie to reach out to the kids that don’t answer the bell, don’t achieve the grades, as these are the best students. They don’t regurgitate well, and so don’t test well, and that is a strength that your system says is weakness. ”

                  But he knows, and he knows full well at this point, that those are in fact exclusively the students I teach, and yet he does not retract his statement. That leads me to believe that Mr. Tokarski is not just an arrogant commentator, but indeed not a human being for whom honesty or fair play hold now weight. But more telling indeed is this:

                  “there seems to be an attitude around that people are not knowable by their words.”

                  Indeed. Because they are not. I’m uncomfortable comparing lifestyles or ‘bragging’ about my own actions. But actions are far more important than words. Mark is an expert in words, impotently throwing words into the internet that are indeed quite strong – words about corruption, about the futility of elections, words calling for a revolution in all but name.

                  But actions have a place too. And in many cases, fixing the problem will get you further than bitching about it. I don’t just bitch about corporations, I try to avoid enriching them. I don’t just bitch about our resource based foreign policy, I try to consume less to make it less relevant. And then we come to education:

                  I don’t bitch that the education system isn’t inspiring, or that it didn’t inspire me. First of all, because although Don has done his share of complaining about the stifling nature of the education system, he backed it up by wading into it and pulling a few dozen lucky kids out of the muck at a time. They are all over this site, many of them turned out a lot more like you than like him in their beliefs. But it’s quite clear that they didn’t get there by listening to someone bitch about the system. And so rather than complain that the public education system is broken (a public education system which you’ve never actually been in), I followed the example of the guy who picked me out of it the muck, waded back in to try to help out a few more kids. You dismiss my efforts as providing only self-validation (they do not provide that, by the way – they provide merely anxiety and perpetual self-doubt. Ask my wife how this job has affected my sleep). But honestly, I couldn’t give less of a damn what you have to say, Mark, because you don’t know any of the kids.

                  You don’t know names, you don’t know stories, but you know enough about them because your theories tell you everything you need to know about the world. So high are you above me that you know more about my students and their potential merely from knowing the most basic information about them than I have learned from being in constant contact with them for hundreds of hours over three years. I’m glad we had this little talk, Mark, because I was looking for the perfect expression of your supreme arrogance, and I think I finally found it:

                  You honestly believe that your right-thinking theories lend you insight into my student’s lives and their potential, more insight than I could have gotten learning with them, feeding them and eating with them, arguing with them, reconciling with them, laughing with them, crying with them, seeing them get arrested and trying to keep them out of jail, watching them fall into addiction, watching them withdraw, watching them relapse, watching them recover, talking to them as they bleed, waiting with their friends in emergency rooms when they’ve no families to wait for them, teaching them while their scars are healing, both physically and metaphorically, and being blessed enough to see them grow into some of the most incredible humans I’ve met.

                  Because Mark, if I could have gained the insight into life and humanity I’ve gotten from the last three years with my kids from reading a goddamn book or believing the right things about politics or bitching about the world from behind a computer screen, then I’ve wasted three years of my life and experienced a lot of unnecessary heartbreak. But it’s clear that this is not the case – because my students periodically, in their beautifully clumsy and sincere teenage ways, make it clear how much they appreciate someone going through all that to get to know them and be there for them rather than labeling them and moving on. Rather, it is abundantly clear that I instead wasted the far smaller but still embarrassingly large amount of time I spent thinking you were still a human being worth interacting with. Come back when you can cut through your arrogance enough to learn a little.

                • The Polish Wolf, I am going a little out my way to say “I told you so”. Tokarski is not to be trusted, because, for him, all arguments are about him. I am most most certainly not trying to be mean to you, but it would be helpful to your efforts online to listen to others before assuming personal bias over rational warning. I write again, Tokarski is not to be trusted, especially with information you don’t want public.

  • Mark, it’s not about philosophy, your playground, but results. Just look at what was accomplished in Harlem, DC, and Chicago. Look it up yourself. BUT there is no one size fits all model that works everywhere given cultural, social, and geographic differences. However, incorporating accountability at the institutional and professional level seems to be key.

    • It simply cannot succeed, is doomed to fail, in a for-profit system due to perverse incentives. Contained within this horrible system is the standardized testing regime, holding everyone to artificial and doctrinaire standards and goals, meaning that success or failure is undefined except in hard science, and even there subject to manipulation due to teaching to tests, etc. The testing regime is also a problem with public schools.

  • There is some brand new research results from Standford that simply don’t agree with your categorical condemnation of charter schools especially those organized as education management organizations.

    The average student in an Education Management Organizations (EMOs) posted significantly more positive learning gains than either CMOs, independent charter schools or the traditional public schools comparisons. Their results were also relatively more positive for black and Hispanic students and English Language Learners.

    • Kevin Drum has some thoughts on this:

      Here’s a sample of Drum’s observations:

      Short time frame: “Using the broad range of data that CREDO has developed in partnership with 25 state education agencies, we follow student-level performance in schools from their opening through their fifth year.”

      Small sample size: “While the available data does not extend into the past, far enough to observe the birth of all [charter management organizations], a limited number of CMO ‘births’ are evident in the data window at our disposal and it is possible to observe their flagship school’s performance before and after replication.”

      Confirms own biases: “Interviews with school staff along with our own observations of school activities and operations have formed the impression that the ‘rules’ of a school get set early on in the life of the school….If our admittedly limited, qualitatively-based conjecture is true and more generally supported, we conjectured that it should be possible to observe the phenomenon quantitatively and test the hypothesis statistically.”

  • I think that we should have a kristyeean madrassa in EVERY small town in Montana! On this point, I agree with Joe Bullalot, TRULY one of the biggest horse’s asses to emerge from the orifice of pubbie education reform! Mr. Bullalot calls himself a “national merit scholar”, which could and probably will make your morning coffee come RIGHT outta your nose and all over your computer screen as it did mine. If you can get the link, it’s in today’s GF Spitoon and well worth the read, for if you’ve ever wanted to see what bullshit looks like in print, this is it! Amazing that any newspaper would print such crap without an instant rebuttal. But then again, we’re talking the Spitoon here, whose OWN hardhitting editorial was another one about making the seat belt laws stronger! What journalistic asselence! At its finest! One wonders how long before the paper’s irrelevancy translates to insolvency!

  • If ever I met a man who ia reservoir of the thoughts of others, it is you. I am yet to hear from you an original opinion, but I do get that when you write something, derivative, of course, and someone disagrees, you get pissed. If someone stays in Paty boundaries, you think them a great thinker. You are a replica, perhaps an avatar.

    FYI, I don’t read radical zines. We take the New Yorker. It’s got great movie reviews. I also take the Handyman. In all other matters, I look for one true thing. If I find one true thing, I build on it. Things that are true are rare., but once I know that something is true, like Newton’s third law, I can easily see that others things are false. That is how I go through life. You, I can easily see, have an entire philosophy built on false premises, and so are not of any intellectual value.

    • I feel like you need to get outdoors, Mark.

      Since you’re so fond of psychoanalyzing and evaluating people you don’t know at all, I’d like to return the favor.

      Breathe some clean air. Walk away from the computer. Turn that insightful eye on to yourself. It might do you some good.

  • What are you so nervous about Pogie ?

    You tenured teachers cannot be fired no matter how poorly you perform.

    Are you worried that MEA-supporting teachers jobs are at stake or something?

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