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Training tomorrow's low-wage workforce

EduShyster, who blogs about corporate education reform out of Massachusetts, had an amusing post this week describing how the Walmart-funded reform movement is designed to create future Walmart workers.

At least, it seemed amusing until I started reading up on Carpe Diem, the latest charter school company laying claim to Indiana tax dollars. A real estate deal cleverly wrapped up in a charter school, this school has the added bonus of training the next generation of call center employees.

Don't believe me? Check out this story and photo from the Hechinger Report.

"Professor Michael Barbour, of Wayne State University in Detroit, says that Carpe Diem's online curriculum is specifically designed to get kids to do well on standardized tests and graduate from high school, which it does well, but that it falls short on fostering critical thinking skills.

"The nature of the curriculum and the way in which they try and provide support to the student, it's designed to get these students through the system," says Barbour. "It's designed to achieve that false belief that no child should be left behind."

Aside from its very troubling resemblance to a call center in Bangalore, a Carpe Diem school offers nothing to foster a well-rounded student. There is no gymnasium, library, art studio, theater or even a cafeteria.

Who would want to send their children or grandchildren to such a school? Certainly not the wealthy corporate reform supporters like the Walton heirs and Bill Gates. Same with the politicians and the bureaucrats beholden to them for their six-figure salaries.

But they are perfectly happy to consign a poor Hispanic family in Yuma, Ariz., or Indianapolis to such a school. The benefits are practically endless: The cost of educating poor children is driven down, leaving more money for vouchers for upper-middle class parents who would have sent their children to private schools even without government support.

Then there's the benefit of discouraging union participation – always a good thing if you operate a Walmart. Then there are the handsome campaign contributions that flow from the anti-union forces and the education industry entrepreneurs eager to sell you a standardized test or the latest computer program to teach p.e.

Then there's the real estate deal – with bonus points if it can be sealed with a company operated by the father of a high-ranking state official.

And, yes, EduShyster is right: There's the benefit of instilling certain work habits in large numbers of low-income kids – showing up on time, working independently, sitting long hours in front of a computer, performing tasks for rewards while expecting few benefits or amenities.

How does it inspire children to study and explore worlds and ideas outside of their own? How does it even encourage the critical thinking skills most employers call for?

It doesn't, but those can be met with the children and grandchildren of those who support a Carpe Diem model.

Granted, there are students who aren't well-served by the traditional high school model. They have physical, emotional or family issues that can make it painful to be in such a school. But traditional school districts, given adequate resources, are serving those students now. In Fort Wayne Community Schools, Marc Outlaw at the Youth Life Skills program has been doing that work for many years, serving not just FWCS students, but kids from suburban districts that don't fit in at their home schools.

The Carpe Diem model, however, is based on volume, not on serving a small, specialized group. The more low-income students Carpe Diem can draw, the more it can drive down per-student operating costs. That's good for the bottom line, but it's bad for children and it's bad for our state's long-term economic, cultural and civic prospects.

Here's a question for Indiana policymakers and lawmakers, including Gov. Mike Pence: Would you send your child to Carpe Diem?

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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