“The great state of Minnesota, home of 10,000 lakes and birthplace of the charter school movement, proudly casts its vote in favor of the resolution.”
The cheers echoed across the meeting room of the Ravel Hotel in Long Island City, New York. It resembled a political convention with lots of sign-waving and cheering, but in fact it was a gathering of close to 300 men and women who are deeply involved in running independent charter public schools in about half of our country’s 50 states. They were participating in the 3-day gathering‘s final event, a town hall meeting (that I was moderating). At that moment, they were voting on the following resolution:
Students, families, educators (and indeed the entire country) need a national, independent, democratically organized group to advocate for independently managed, financially transparent, community oriented public charter schools as articulated in our Statement of Principles.
(And, in case you’re wondering, it passed unanimously.)
The ambitious goal of the 3-day meeting was to begin the process of rescuing the charter school movement from a deepening identity crisis. Can they succeed? That we won’t know for some time, but they got off to a good start.
You may be surprised to learn that about 60 percent of the country’s 6,000 or so public charter schools are independent, meaning they are not part of either a non-profit Charter Management Organization (CMO) or a for-profit Education Management Organization (EMO). These independent charter schools are often disparaged as ‘Mom and Pop’ schools, but in my experience most are centers of innovation, openness, and collegiality. However, CMO’s like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Success Academies and EMO’s like K-12 get most of grant money and the public attention, sometimes for their test scores but just as often for their exclusionary policies or profiteering.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has brought new attention to the charter school movement–and new controversy. She’s declared her support for charter schools, vouchers, and ‘choice’ for all students, a mixed bag that many charter school people would prefer not to be in. DeVos has also made things harder for charter people because, while her budget sets aside dollars specifically for charter schools, it calls for big cuts in overall spending for public schools—which charters are, of course.
As I see it, the term ‘charter school’ is so overused and misused that it now borders on being meaningless. Just as the word ‘restaurant’ tells you only that it serves food, the term ‘charter school’ means little more today than ‘a place with children and teachers that’s somehow different from most district schools.’ Is it innovative, warm and welcoming, or is it a drill-and-kill factory? Does it have certified teachers, or is it staffed by untrained but energetic young people who will leave within a year or two? Does it welcome children with special needs, or do its leaders find ways to discourage them from enrolling? You cannot tell by the name ‘charter school;’ As with a restaurant, you have to go inside. Given that, it’s no wonder that public support for charter schools is falling, according to the most recent Phi Delta Kappan poll. Why would the public support what it cannot understand?
That’s one reason The Coalition of Community Charter Schools convened what it proudly declared to be ‘the first ever Independent Charter School Symposium.’ Its goals were ambitious: 1) Explore the tough issues that national charter groups would rather not discuss, especially the treatment of special needs kids and the issues of racism and segregation; 2) Develop and agree upon a set of guiding principles; and 3) Adopt a binding resolution that would start the group down the road to recovery.
When Steve Zimmerman, the educator/energizer bunny behind the meeting, asked me for ideas, I suggested inviting the surviving participants from the historic 1988 meeting at Itasca, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It was there that the notion of chartering, which had been floated by union leader Albert Shanker, educator Ray Budde and others, was developed in some detail. That 1988 meeting led to Minnesota’s first-ever charter law in 1990 and the first charter school, in Saint Paul in 1992.
Steve invited five men and women to gather for a conversation, which I would moderate (I had been the moderator of that 1988 meeting): Sy Fliegel, Joe Nathan, Elaine Salinas, Ted Kolderie and Ember Reichgott Junge. It was Ember, then a State Senator, who became fascinated by the idea of chartering and subsequently took it upon herself to craft a law. She tells the fascinating story in her book, “Zero Chance of Passage.”
(In the end, Sy could not participate because of a family conflict, but I interviewed him before he had to leave and did my best to incorporate his answers into the discussion.)
The conversation is a glimpse into history, the story of chartering told by those who were (and are) in the arena. They have some valuable insights into the current situation too, of course. You will soon be able to watch the conversation on the website, where you can also see other sessions (such as racism in chartering and special needs and chartering) and read the Statement of Principles.
Before long, the organizers and participants will announce the creation of a new group, an Association of Independent, Community-Based Chartered Public Schools. It will stand for TRANSPARENCY in admission, retention, discipline and spending. (As a journalist, I know how important it is to ‘follow the money.’ Many charter schools are secretive about spending, often because they are playing fast and loose with public dollars. This group insists that has to stop.)
The original charter school law (1990) called for creating ‘different and innovative forms of measuring outcomes,’ and this new organization is enthusiastically behind that concept. Independent chartered schools want multiple measures of achievement as well as an end to the tyranny of testing.
(If you’re wondering about ‘chartered’ versus ‘charter,’ many of the original documents used the longer word, and this new group wants to signal that it is intent on going back to first principles.)
What will happen next? I’m betting on this determined group and hope you will join me in paying attention.