Fleece Academy

Here's a get-rich-quick scheme: Open a charter school.

MY WIFE, WHO IS EVEN more intelligent than she is beautiful, turned to me the other day and said, "You know, it's great that you stayed home with the kids all these years. They've turned out great. And I appreciate the fact that you've worked in enough writing and basketball stuff around my schedule to eke out the equivalent of one-sixth of a living. But the kids are in their teens; maybe it's time for ..."

Off on the horizon, I saw the word "JOB" heading straight for me. There were only a few superfluous words between it and me, and Ana was on a roll. I had to act quickly, so I summoned up all the maturity I had available. Then I threw myself on the floor and pretended I was having a seizure.

Deep down, I knew she was right. But I still didn't want to get one of those job things. If I have to make money, I want to do it all at once, like that guy in Finding Forrester. But even he had to write an entire book; I'm usually spent after 975 words or so. I know; so are you.

No, if I have to make a lot of money, I'll do it in such a way that it will require almost no intelligence or common sense, no long-term planning, no accountability, and absolutely no chance of running afoul of the law. I'm going to open a charter school.

I'll come up with a catchy slogan, run a couple radio commercials, sucker a few parents, and then the government will give me a wheelbarrow full of money. Then, when my school goes under, I'll wait a couple months to see if anybody noticed, then I'll start another one. All I'll need is a new slogan and the ability to say the word "Academy" without snickering.

I got the idea when I heard a radio commercial touting this soon-to-open charter school called (ahem) "Children Reach for the Stars" Academy. Might as well be Taxpayers Reach for the Stars because we're all getting robbed here. Not by this new school, necessarily. Heck, it hasn't even had the chance to fail yet. But lots of others have, and the costs from those failures have been high in money, time and the horrible impact on children's lives.

And yet nobody seems to care. For a while, it seemed that the New Times in Phoenix was running a Charter School Fiasco Story of the Week until the subject reached the danger level on the Readers' Shrug Index. It happened so often, people got bored. Nevertheless, some of the failures were colossal and several bordered on the criminal. Needless to say, if banks were failing at the rate that charter schools are, people in three-piece suits would be rioting in the streets.

Unfortunately we're living in an era (and a state) that will be known for a misguided policy of government by bulimia. It's all binge-and-purge. Some legislator comes up with an idea, they use imagery and buzzwords to puff it all up as the greatest thing ever for consumers/voters/contributors, and then they throw it at us without thinking about any possible long-term effects.

That's how we got the alt-fuels mess that was supposed to cost $10 million and may end up costing a billion or more. Binge on the positive vibe of helping to clean the air while giving your big contributors a huge tax break at the same time. But when it spirals out of control, you have to jump back in, gut the offensive law, and purge the landslide of the negative effects the original poorly planned bill created. Sometimes, but not always, we get lucky and the perpetrator(s) get thrown out with the bath water. This is called Grosscosting, an almost frighteningly appropriate name.

Along those same lines, how many of you believe that George W. Bush's feel-good, 11-year "tax cut" is going to survive more than a couple years before Congress has to go back to plug all the leaks, fill in all the loopholes, and shore up the governmental dam against a floodtide of red ink? People on both sides of the aisle cynically voted for this monstrosity knowing full well that when Dubya is discarded on History's Trash Heap, that God-awful tax bill will be part of what cushions his fall, having beaten him there by several years.

But all that is just money. Charter schools involve something infinitely more precious--our children. And that's why we should be outraged when even one charter school falters. We should be ready to go to war when they fail by the dozens, which is exactly what is happening. It's like what Stalin said: "The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of a million people is a statistic."

I'm willing to concede that a few charter-school backers actually believe that nonsense about applying free-market principles to education. Some misguided souls believe you can apply free-market principles to just about anything. Why, in California, they applied them to the power industry, and look how well that turned out.

Republican lawmakers embrace the charter schools as a screw-you to the teachers' unions, which generally back Democrats. Still other people have been whipped into an anti-public school frenzy by Limbaugh and O'Reilly. It's a recipe for disaster.

Several states that embraced the "movement" are already backtracking. Test scores at charter schools in Michigan and Texas are abysmal. Texas has passed a two-year moratorium on the creation of any new charter schools. California, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have called for more legislative oversight of charter schools.

And here in Arizona, we have one that was recently featured in a national magazine. Run by a shoe repairman with no college degree, the place started out as a music charter school, but in the middle of the semester, the music teacher quit over a salary dispute, so the entire school switched over to a curriculum involving 4-H and agriculture.