No vendor left behind

A Seussian circus descended on Sacramento last week, but center ring wasn't the state's infamously rancorous capitol building. It was the convention center, where more than 3,000 charter school leaders and supporters arrived for four days of panels, meet-and-greets, and keynote addresses-including one by The Terminator, who dropped by on Wednesday morning.

"Oh, the places you'll go" was the theme. And there was evidence aplenty that charter schools are going places. The meeting rooms that surround the more than 130,000 square feet of exhibition space were overflowing with valuable discussions of charter financing, multiple authorizers, reviving New Orleans education, and high-performing high schools-to name only a few of the topics on tap.

But the mammoth exhibit hall said as much, if not more, about the charter movement than the sessions. After several hours spent walking and talking with those displaying their wares, this observer thought a conference sub-theme was in order-"No Vendor Left Behind."

This much is clear-charter schools may be hurting for money, but lots of people still think there's a buck to be made selling products to them. How else does one explain five architect and facilities design firms, sixteen financial service groups, five insurance groups, seventeen management and consultant groups, and nearly thirty professional development/teacher training groups showing up? (And if charters need more dollars to afford these necessities, the eleven fundraising groups on hand would be happy to assist.)

These services are valuable, and one can draw from this strong showing that people with money to invest, and companies that need to make money, still see charters as a growth industry.

But couple this showing with the abundance of curriculum groups (too many to count), educational software companies (over 25), and technology instruction groups (almost 50), and one can be forgiven for not knowing if he's at a meeting of renegade charter leaders, or mainstream public educators.

To be sure, the creativity that charter schools are supposed to spur was on display, though not always in encouraging ways. One curriculum person explained to me that her personal curricula for teaching social studies grew from her frustrations as a teacher unable to find good materials focused on "higher level thinking skills." Her own creation, she assured me, does.

Perhaps, but a cursory review wasn't promising. Less promising was her admission that she had no background in history.

But no worries, she's simply finding ways to present materials. Her next topic? Science.

And all these groups, it seemed, had their work "scientifically" verified. In fact, "science" was the word du jour, with everyone from textbook sellers to software sellers to food sellers ready to prove that their products bore the Good Science seal of approval. 

The Blob-as Secretary of Education William Bennett once called the education establishment-may continue to make frontal assaults on charter schools (see here, for instance), but infiltration might be a greater concern. Why attack charters head-on when you can lull them to complacency with fancy displays and snake-oil sales pitches? Perhaps consumerism is not just the opiate of the masses, but the opiate of charter schools too. Oh, the places you'll go, indeed.

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