You Shoulda Been There

“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.

14 thoughts on “You Shoulda Been There

  1. Independent or chain, either way, charter schools take money from the public schools that the vast majority of American students attend. Also, even independent schools are not necessarily community-run. If parents and other community members don’t have the ability to sit in on board meetings, pop in to see and talk to the principal, tour the school, meet the teachers and otherwise have input, it’s not a public school and it is antithetical to democracy.

    In any case, what’s so “innovative” about any of these schools, even the independent ones? Progressive education? Nothing new there – Dewey and Piaget and Montessori have been around a while, y’know. The only “innovations” I’ve seen from charter schools is the ability to cream.


    • The best way for school districts to end the threat of charter schools is to create lots of variety within the district system and to empower neighborhood schools to be responsive to constituents. If educators could (with community and families) agree on the goals of schooling, they could leave the specifics to the local school community. Say “Here’s where you are expected to get to, but how you do it is up to you (assuming legal behavior).”
      But we haven’t had that discussion about the goals of schooling. I tackle this in my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” by the way, and hope you will take a look.


      • How can you expect public schools to offer *more* choice when they aren’t funded well enough to offer choices to begin with? And the reason (well, one of the big reasons anyway) is that their funding is being sucked away by charter schools.

        If you look back historically, you’ll see that public schools traditionally *have* offered vast choices. They used to have very comprehensive curricula at the elementary level. By high school, most public schools offered vocational options, college options, alternative programs, extracurricular activities, etc. But ever since “reform” entered the scene (which, incidentally, you supported in your early support for Michelle Rhee), testing and budget cuts have narrowed the curriculum down to math and reading (and, if it’s tested, science).

        If you really want choices, get rid of testing, get rid of charters, drastically reduce tech, get non-experts out of education (no more “consultants”), fully fund schools and let teachers teach.


    • As a charter school principal in New Mexico, I have to disagree with most of the above. We take students in through a lottery and have a huge diversity of students – 70% Hispanic and non-white and 50% students of poverty this year. We are known as the school to go to if you want to be challenged and supported at the same time, and known to every staff member. Parents are invited to come, to visit classes, are on the Board and anyone can show up at any time without an appointment.
      What makes our school work is the ability to have smaller classes and teachers who are treated as professionals and not as pawns on a chess board, and who can actually grade and comment on homework, demand high standards and offer help if needed. We also use our money to hire and have available all day tutors who can help students with any of their work.
      I agree that charters should not be able to choose the best students, and I agree that parents should be free to visit, ask questions or attend classes to know what they have chosen.


      • “We are known as the school to go to if you want to be challenged and supported at the same time….”

        What about the students who don’t want to be” challenged”? Do you show them the door?

        What makes your school work is the ability to show the door to any kids who don’t want to be challenged.

        And every time I hear a charter school operator bragging that their teachers “demand high standards” I know exactly what that means. It’s very easy to “demand high standards” when you simply drum out the kids who don’t meet them.

        And I’m betring that your “50%” students in poverty” is less than the public schools that the 50% of students IN poverty would have to attend without your charter. Given that you “demand high standards” and only teach the children in poverty who “want to be challenged”, you seem to be part of the problem, not the solution.

        Unless you believe the “solution” is simply to abandon the students who “don’t want to be challenged” and let them rot.


      • We must remember that “poverty” has a broad umbrella. There are those on the fringes of poverty with parents in a position to overcome their struggles who function quite well. There are the majority who are beaten down by poverty with childhood stress, malnutrition, sleep issues and a variety of other concerns whose learning will be slowed. Although I cannot comment on this particular charter school, one must consider which “poverty” students” they serve.

        Remember, the lottery is only for those whose parents have the time to apply. Many are overwhelmed by daily life making it difficult to respond to lottery deadlines.


  2. If you read my book, you will see that I agree with much of what you are saying. However, we shouldn’t “get rid of testing.” We have to have reasonable assessments of achievement. Re the history of ‘vast choices,’ that might be accurate but those options were always part of a sorting system. Today we do not have the luxury of sorting, because we don’t have enough children. We need to look at each child and ask ‘How is she intelligent?’ and then act accordingly. The current system asks only “How smart is she?” (often deciding based on test scores, race and SES).
    You are wrong about my ‘supporting’ Michelle Rhee. All we were doing was documenting what she said she wanted to do. I wish my critics (and there are lots of them) would take the time to watch all the segments.


    • Getting rid of the big test must lead to smaller pre and post tests that, compared with teacher authentic assessments, will give teachers an accurate “jumping off” point for the childs individual pathway to success. Teachers have immediate access to this information rather than waiting four or more months for outdated information.

      By the way, I have never known you to support Ms. Rhee.


  3. Thanks for the column, John. What’s innovative about some chartered public schools? Here are a few examples

    * Some charters where teachers who work in the school are the majority of members of schools board of directors. It is these educators who set their salary and working conditions, as well as everything else about how the school operates. Sadly traditional district model is that teachers are the “hired help.” These charters make teachers true professionals, like those in law, medicine, etc.

    * A chartered public school that works with youngsters ages 15-19 with whom traditional schools have not succeeded, where part of the curriculum is to create you-tube videos that are so sophisticated and professional that Verizon Wireless, State Farm Insurance and other organizations have hired the students to create you-tube videos for them. Junior Achievement gave this school its prize recently for the best school based business in the country. High School for Recording Arts

    * A chartered public working with a similar group of students as HSRA, which uses cross country trips (and some international trips) as the centerpiece of its curriculum. Incidentally, both of these schools specialize in helping students understand how they are smart, as you suggest.

    * A K-12 Montessori public chartered school – the first and only such school in the state. It was created in part by parents frustrated because a local district refused to create a Montessori junior-senior high school, though it had a couple of Montessori elementary schools.

    I could go on and on. There are valuable innovations in chartered public schools – and in district schools. One of the features of the new organization is that will expand and build on district/charter collaborations that are taking place in some places.


  4. The fundamental issue is innovation. Any school that recognizes that kids learn at different rates and in different ways and then devises a system and philosophy to assure that happens will be on the road to success. Any school that uses failure as part of the learning process rather than a vindictive punishment will do right by kids. Any school that supports children rising above the confirmation bias to ensure creative thinking will help those kids change the world.

    However, these schools will have to endure a lot of criticism. They will be shamed for their irrelevant test scores with the goal of bringing them into the fold. They will be admonished by the overuse of averages and percents to force them into seeing students as an extension of a single person rather than the beautifully different human beings they are.

    “Our mechanical, industrialized civilization is concerned with averages, with percent’s. The mental habit which reflects this social scene subordinates education and social arrangements based on averaged gross inferiorities and superiorities.”- John Dewey, 1922

    Innovative schools must stand strong and never give up. Not everyone will be supportive. Some will attack you with every fiber of their being. Just remember who matters and you will prevail. If your heart and soul is for children, it matters not what evil forces say. You will prevail!


  5. Caplee – completely agree that innovative schools “Must stand strong and never give up.” One of the encouraging things happening is that a number of public school educators – district and charter – who truly believe in multiple measures, having been gathering nationally for several years to share ideas and help eachother.

    The new national organization will be promoting that kind of thing – because there are powerful forces trying to push for the traditional neighborhood school as the only option – and powerful forces viewing traditional standardized tests and 4 year grad rates as the only valid, reliable measures.


    • Those traditional public schools can and must also be innovative schools. I did it in 1995, they can do it now. We must stand together for innovation no matter who does it. And keep the converstaion going.


      • Caplee, thanks for doing this in 1995. Please say more about that school. I completely agree there must be an opportunity for innovation within district public schools.

        In September, 1971, I helped start the St. Paul Open School, a k-12 district option in St. Paul, Mn. that has evolved and how is called “Open World Learning” and is a grades 6-12 option.
        The school featured among other things, an advisor/advisee system, graduation based on demonstration of skill & knowledge, rather than accumulation of credits, extensive project based and service learning, considerable learning in the community, advisory committee including students, parents and educators.

        It still includes many of these features, although the system has placed some principals over the years that do not agree with or support these strategies (the current principal supports many of them).


      • Wonderful. You must continue to make your voice heard. Perhaps by writing a book. It is so important to get the word out lest we be drowned out by the forces of evil. My efforts are documented in our first book entitled “Quashing the Rhetoric of Reform”. You can get it real cheap at dot coms. Also for more info


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