I have been hanging around charter school operators for the past few days, and the experience has left me with some complicated — and perhaps contradictory — thoughts about a movement that I have been following since 1988.
I love the energy, intelligence and dedication of the people I spent time with, but I left the annual meeting of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Minneapolis with some concerns. I think they need to do a better job of choosing their friends and of refining their message, among other issues.
For what it’s worth, here’s my thinking.
Remember: the “charter movement’ is a still blip on the screen. It consists of 5,000 charter schools and 2.4 million students. But America has more than 100,000 schools and more than 55 million students, making it not all that much bigger than the homeschooling movement, which encompasses close to 1.5 million students. This is not Hertz and Avis, more like Hertz and Acme Rent-a-Car of Poughkeepsie. (I made that company up, so don’t bother taking me to task about it.)
I left Minneapolis with the sense that the leadership believes that Charter Management Organizations and Charter Networks are the future. Stand-alone charter schools are put down as ‘Mom and Pop’ schools, and only the biggies are eligible for the newly established Broad Prize for Charter Schools of $250,000 (which went to Houston’s YES Prep Network).
Much of the talk was about “going to scale,” the notion of mass replication of apparently successful strategies. Just what would ‘going to scale’ mean, anyway, in the charter school world? Tripling or quadrupling in size? Big deal! (Go back to the numbers in the fourth paragraph above, and do the math.)
And what is it that they want to take to scale? Seems like it’s all about test scores, and that sounds like school district talk, like Washington’s “Race to the Top” talk.
Another problem with embracing “replication” is the stifling effect on innovation. If I were going to apply for a charter school, I wouldn’t stand a chance, because the school I would want to create would not have ‘senior year’ as you recognize it. I might even eliminate ‘junior year.’ Instead, I would spend those dollars on the early years, enrolling three- and four-year-olds. My ‘juniors’ and ‘seniors’ would be taking college courses and would finish school with high school diplomas and Associates Degrees or Career Certification.
I will wager that there are lots more wild ideas like that out there, but, with the dollars flowing to networks and schools that can supposedly ‘go to scale,’ what chance do they have? Perhaps the guiding spirit of the charter movement ought to be “Let one hundred flowers bloom.”
The Broad Foundation could help here, by establishing a “Rookie of the Year” award, a la Major League Baseball. It wouldn’t have to be $250,000, but it should be substantial. Eli Broad got where he is by taking chances, as his recent autobiography makes clear. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation ought not to be creating disincentives to future risk-takers.
Another problem for me: From day one, charter schools have had problems getting their message across, and even now I will wager that most Americans have no real clue as to what charter schools actually are. I think that charter schools ought to be saying — often and loudly — “We are public education!” Let that sink in, and then go into the weeds with an explanation. Because, after all, charter schools are public schools.
And that’s why I think the charter movement has to do a better job of choosing its friends. I believe that its natural allies are the other men and women who work elsewhere in public education, the 3.2 million public school teachers. I know all about the narrow-mindedness and selfishness of many leaders of school boards and unions, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s within the army of teachers that charter school people are most likely to find understanding and support.
In the keynote panel I moderated, Howard Fuller, the legendary firebrand and former superintendent of schools in Milwaukee, pointed out that charter schools were supported across the spectrum by folks who don’t agree on much else: pro- and anti-vouchers, for profit and not for profit, liberals and conservatives, and so on. Well and good, but those who believe (as I do) that charter schools represent an opportunity to provide unprecedented educational opportunity for millions of children ought to be examining the motives of those who embrace charter schools.
Some offer their support — and their money — because they see charter schools as a necessary step toward their ultimate goal of dismantling (destruction) of the public school system. Privatizing is their end game. They don’t want any public schools! So wake up and recognize that a permanent network/system/movement of public charter schools does not figure into the plans of those particular ‘friends’ of yours.
To me, that means charter folks, and their associations, ought to be denying entrance to the tent to those whose end game is inimical to their own health. Reject their support and their money, difficult as that may be to do. Like Othello, you think you know who your friends and enemies are. Like Othello, you are wrong. Unlike Othello, you can do something about it before it’s too late.
Another concern: I believe in going to scale, but what has to get to scale is not one brand of charter school, or even charter schools more broadly. What needs to go to scale are effective ways of educating children. Let’s recognize that this can be done in charter-like public schools. It can be done in any public district that renounces “command and control” as its MO.
That’s why I think the charter movement must be reaching out to create alliances with superintendents who have embraced charter schools and with school boards that support authorization of, or provide facilities for, charter schools. How about a third Broad Prize here?
And finally, if you’ve heard me speak about charter schools, you know I compare them to restaurants. To wit, the name ‘restaurant’ tells you nothing about the quality or even the kind of food being served, just as ‘charter school’ tells you nothing about the education being offered inside. You have to have a meal to even begin to know anything. It’s not enough to read the menu (or the course syllabus and mission statement).
The analogy is apt in another way. We inspect our restaurants because it’s in the public interest to make sure they are following appropriate health procedures. And we close down ones that fail to comply, to keep ourselves from being poisoned.
One thing we have learned from New Orleans and its largely successful system of charter schools is that some form of central authority is essential. Someone must police even the finest ‘system of schools,’ whether charter schools or not. Someone must assure that every school’s behavior code is made public, that protections are in place against arbitrary action against students and teachers, that children with special needs are not discouraged from enrolling, and that the application process is fair for all.
“Trust but verify” is a useful mantra going forward, on many levels.
The charter school movement is the most promising development of my reporting career (which began in 1974). It’s painfully ironic that the dream of innovation is being challenged by the impulse to centralize, replicate and ‘go to scale.’ Maybe someday we will have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to schooling, but right now we are not even close. Charter schools are a vital work in progress, nothing more. There’s a lot of work ahead.