At a community meeting at my kids’ high school last week, a parent asked the principal about the possibility of becoming a charter school. The principal’s answer was respectful and noncommittal.
I was sitting next to a friend who’s well aware of my skeptical views about charter schools – not that she necessarily shares them – and whispered semi-jokingly that I’d have to transfer my daughter out if that happened. Another mom commented to me that she’s uninformed about what charter schools are and about why they might be controversial, and in that setting, all I could say was, “It’s a long story.” Well, here's an outline of that long story.
As to finding out what charter schools are, that’s pretty easy, since they are being pushed by the nation’s most powerful and bountifully funded forces and get reams of glowing PR (at the expense of non-charter public schools). Much of the mainstream press (or what remains of it) is also big on promoting charter schools – sometimes due to close connections with those same powerful forces and sometimes due to, in my opinion, naivete, insufficient research and excessive susceptibility to that glowing PR.
The Wikipedia entry on charter schools is undoubtedly groomed regularly by the many people paid by the well-funded charter forces, and there is no corresponding paid force that would edit from the skeptics' viewpoint -- but it’s a place to start.
As to why charter schools, which sound so fantastic in concept, would provoke any objection or controversy, I’m going to quote another source that offers some eloquent insights. In my view, charter schools are something like Communism – they sound really good in theory, but human nature corrupts the concept and causes the good intentions to go awry.
The following excerpts are from the introduction to the March 2008 book Keeping the Promise? The debate over charter schools, a collection of essays published by Rethinking Schools in collaboration with the Center for Community Change. These are the points that raise concerns from my own philosophical/political perspective. Someone who believes that the free market and privatization are the solution for our schools would not have the same reaction.
The introduction was written by education researcher/commentators Leigh Dingerson, Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson and Stephanie Walters.
"The charter school movement has roots in a progressive agenda that, as educator Joe Nathan wrote in Rethinking Schools in 1996, viewed charters as “an important opportunity for educators to fulfill their dreams, to empower the powerless, and to help encourage a bureaucratic system to be more responsive and effective.
"...Unfortunately, the charter concept also appealed to conservatives wedded to a free-market, privatization agenda. And it is they who, over the past decade, have taken advantage of the conservative domination of national politics to seize the upper hand in the charter school movement.
"… Virtually all segments of the charter school movement have targeted urban areas. Some hope to counteract inequity, spur innovation and better meet the needs of marginalized students. Others, taking advantage of the frustration that inevitably follows when districts are allowed to deteriorate, seek fame and fortune. … [T]here are those who view charters as a way to get rid of public schools altogether.
"The elixir of an individualized bailout from a struggling system has serious side effects, however. It can create a painful wedge in many communities, especially among African-Americans. It can weaken the political will for a collective solution to the problems in public education; and it can promote the deterioration of traditional schools. As highly motivated and engaged families pull their children from traditional public schools, urban districts have fewer resources – both financial and human – to address their many problems. The worse the schools get, the more appealing the escape to charters and private schools, all of which feeds into the conservative dream of replacing public education with a free-market system of everyone for themselves, the common good be damned."
[The text addresses the original progressive vision of charter schools.]
" … At the same time, one cannot deny that the charter school concept, as a movement, has been hijacked by individuals, groups, and corporations who are guided by free-market principles, often with a hostility to unions, and who do not necessarily embrace core values of equity, access, public purpose, and public ownership."
This summary brings up some other issues:
Charter schools “too often … prefer, in practice if not in rhetoric, to educate “the deserving poor.” There is far less inclination to serve students whose parents are absent or uninvolved, or who have severe physical or emotional educational needs, or who have run afoul of the juvenile justice system, or who don’t speak English as their first language. Perhaps the most glaring example involves students with special education needs. Such students are increasingly overrepresented in traditional public schools.
"… Overall, studies have shown that charter schools perform either worse or just as well as comparable public schools.
"… Even if it is shown that certain bureaucratic rules, union requirements, or state and federal mandates stifle innovation and suffocate higher achievement, shouldn’t they be thrown out or modified for all schools, not just charters?"
[In reference to the fact that some charter schools, famously including the highly praised KIPP chain, require teachers to work crushingly long hours and, unsurprisingly, experience high teacher turnover:]
“Reforms are bound to fail if they rely on the voluntarism of idealistic, overworked teachers who burn out and leave the school once they decide to have a family or want any semblance of a meaningful personal life.”
It’s often noted that the late teachers’ union leader Al Shanker was one of the early proponents of charter schools. Education activist/blogger Mike Klonsky, reviewing “Tough Liberal,” Richard Kahlenberg's biography of Al Shanker, described Shanker’s vision:
"In a speech to the National Press Club in 1988, he proposed the idea of teacher-led 'charter schools' where rules could be bent if the great majority of teachers in a small school approved. He called on districts to 'create joint school board-union panels that would review preliminary proposals and help find seed money for the teachers to develop final proposals.' "
Klonsky quotes from the book:
Shanker "watched with alarm as the concept he put forward began to move away from a public-school reform effort to look more like a private-school voucher plan..Shanker came to believe that the charter school movement was largely hijacked by conservatives who made many charter schools vulnerable to the same groups that made voucher schools so dangerous: for-profit corporations, racial separatists, the religious right, and anti-union activists...Shanker watched with dismay as 'those who had tremendous contempt for public education' jumped on to the charter school bandwagon.'