On the back page of Education Week this week is my essay about charter schools, including a trip down memory lane back to the meeting in Minnesota in 1988 where the dream took shape. I hope all of you will go over to Ed Week’s website to read it (subscription required), but, before you do, bear with me because the ground keeps shifting under this movement, even as many things remain the same.
I’d like to raise two issues: 1) quality control and 2) persistent opposition.
For one thing, the Obama Administration is embracing charter schools (or ‘chartered schools’) with great enthusiasm. Now, it’s true that Education Secretary Arne Duncan adds a qualification, saying that they support ‘good charter schools,’ but that strikes me as, for the moment anyway, an empty distinction, largely because of an absence of ways of measuring quality.
It’s true that egregiously bad charters get shut down, but mediocre ones keep plugging along, doing just as much damage to kids as mediocre public schools. But what the charter school proponents don’t seem to realize is that these mediocre institutions are also damaging ‘the movement.’ I’ve heard them (and you know who you are!) say that mediocre public schools aren’t punished, as if that justifies not closing mediocre charter schools! It doesn’t, precisely because the charter school advocates are claiming to be different.
I think that charter schools risk becoming like schools of education if they aren’t careful. How many of the 1400 or so schools and colleges of education are excellent? I’d say 50 but, if you want to argue for 100, I’ll go along with that. But are the 100 excellent ones doing anything to get rid of the 500-700 that are dreadful? If they are, it hasn’t made my radar screen.
I think that, for the charter movement to succeed, it must take the lead on setting high standards and then enforcing them.
Is that realistic? Is it happening somewhere?
A second issue I didn’t cover thoroughly in my Ed Week piece is the issue of opposition to charter schools. Everyone knows that unions have fought against charter schools because they’ve seen it in their self-interest (teachers in charter schools don’t have to belong to unions). But, guess what, local school boards have been as great a roadblock, and in some cases, even fiercer opponents. They go to court to keep charter schools from opening or expanding. Why? It’s about money and control, as far as I can tell. But if the demand exists for charter schools, why wouldn’t elected officials whose mandate is education be supportive?
Just yesterday in the neighboring town of Los Altos, California a county judge ruled against a charter school and in favor of the local school board. The charter school had sued because it wanted to expand to include 7th grade and needed space. Forget for a minute the particulars of that case and ask yourselves why it wanted a 7th grade? Could it be that parents of 6th graders wanted to keep their children in the charter school? And why is it that school boards are so hostile to success? Shouldn’t they be trying to figure out what that successful school was doing, so they could copy it? That was the hope of charter schools, that they’d be incubators.
If you and I both operate restaurants, and my restaurant is drawing a crowd and yours isn’t, wouldn’t you want to know why? Wouldn’t you think seriously about changing some aspect of what you are doing? Or would you sue me?
What can be done to change school board behavior? Is it all about money and power? What am I missing? Share your thoughts in the comments.
When Roads Diverge: Tracking the Charter Movement [Education Week, 12/2009]
How New York City’s Charter Schools Affect Achievement [The NYC Charter Schools Evaluation Project, 09/2009]