“Charter School” is a vague descriptive term, akin to “Restaurant,” in that neither term tells you very much. One of them, however, is dangerously vague.
“Restaurant” is vague but not dangerous. The word tells you only that the establishment serves food of some kind, but nothing else. It might offer great cuisine–or greasy slop. It might be a fast-food joint or a 3-Star Michelin legend with a 6-month waiting list for a reservation. And, if you do go there for a meal, that’s the extent of your obligation. If it’s bad, you can get up from the table and leave….
So, now imagine you are standing outside a building sporting a sign reading “Charter School.” All you can discern from the term is that it’s one of about 7,000 publicly funded but privately managed charter schools. And the possibilities of what that charter school might be are dizzying. Here are just some of them:
- It might be part of a national chain of schools or a stand-alone “Mom and Pop” school;
- It might have been authorized locally or set up by a distant authority (which may not be keeping its eye on things);
- It might have a Board of Directors made up of local parents and other residents, or it could be controlled from afar by a Board with no local representation whatsoever;
- It might have an admissions test, even though it is supposedly a public school, or it might be open to all comers;
- It might be financially transparent, or it could refuse to reveal how it’s spending the public money that it receives–which means its leader could be making more than $500,000 a year, even if his or her school has only a few hundred students;
- It might have a Draconian–and unpublished–discipline code that, unbeknownst to the public, systematically excludes students with special needs and/or children of color, or its code could be published for all to see; and
- It could be what’s called a ‘conversion charter,’ a school that is closely connected to its home school district, or it could be fighting its own district for resources.
- You won’t see a sign for a ‘Virtual Charter School,’ where education is conducted on line. According to Education Week, a study of 163 “virtual” high schools revealed that many fail to graduate even 50% of their students. From the article: “Online charter schools, which are run mostly by for-profit companies, have long struggled with poor academic outcomes—from test scores, to academic growth, to graduation rates, to attendance rates. The most high-profile study, done by economists at Stanford University in 2015, found that students attending an online charter school made so little progress in math over the course of a year that it was as if they hadn’t attended school at all.” In 2016 Education Week published “Rewarding Failure,” an exhaustive study of the ‘Cyber Charter School industry, and its findings remain shocking.
Now let’s follow the money, because our hypothetical “charter school” might have been established as a not-for-profit school or set up to make money. As it happens, that supposed distinction is now one without a difference, because an awful lot of so-called non-profit charter schools are systematically looting their state treasuries in ways that are perfectly legal, thanks to state laws that were deliberately written to allow the ripoffs. In “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” I focused on North Carolina. But here’s information about Arizona. Pennsylvania. Florida. Michigan. California. California again. Tennessee. New Mexico. (I could go on and on, but you get the point: the Charter School Industry is rife with scandal.)
The Network for Public Education, which is vigorously and vigilantly anti-charter, recently summarized the situation in a report entitled “Asleep at the Wheel.”
The most prominent pro-charter school organization, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, generally ignores any and all bad news, preferring instead to serve as a cheerleader. It has its own “Hall of Fame” and “Champions for Charters,” for example, and it offers a template for local charter schools so they can fill in the blanks to boast about themselves. These smart marketing techniques are, I suppose, designed to keep the public from knowing the truth about the chaos that is Charter World.
Could our hypothetical “charter school” be doing great work? Well, sure, but the evidence suggests that most charter schools do not outperform their traditional counterparts.
Many of the Democratic hopefuls are weighing in on education generally and charter schools specifically. Peter Greene, a keen observer, has created a clever way to evaluate what they are saying. Echoing a standardized test scoring system, the candidates can be deemed to be ‘below basic,’ ‘basic,’ ‘proficient,’ or ‘advanced.’ Here’s part of what it takes to receive an ‘advanced‘ score: The candidate recognizes that “The modern charter school movement is understood as part of a larger wave of privatization that threatens to replace government by the people with ownership by the rich and powerful. Advanced candidates recognize that the teaching profession is suffering not just from low pay, but from shrinking autonomy and a lack of support for public institutions. They recognize that high stakes standardized testing is driving schools in unproductive and toxic directions.”
I began by saying that ‘Charter School’ is a dangerously vague term. Unlike restaurants you can walk away from, many parents make extraordinary sacrifices to enroll their children in charter schools–without knowing enough about the school they are committing to. It’s not so easy to walk away, but that charter school might be one of the awful ones described above.
If you’ve read this far, you know that I am concerned about charter schools, an effort that began with the best of intentions more than 30 years ago. I served as moderator of the seminal meeting near the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, back in 1988. From that meeting came the draft legislation that Minnesota passed in 1990 and the first charter school in Saint Paul in 1992. The visionaries hoped that all school districts would establish charter schools as learning laboratories, but that has just not happened.
Is there hope? There might be, because some of the independent public charter schools are banding together in a new organization, The Coalition of Community Charter Schools, which is designed to give a voice to the 3,000-plus independent (‘Mom and Pop) charter schools. This organization seeks to return to the original vision of charter schools. To that end, it has created a comprehensive Statement of Principles that it expects all members to adopt and adhere to. The Principles, the equivalent of the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, include financial transparency, no admissions test, local control, multiple measures of accomplishment, collaboration, a commitment to diversity, and respect for teachers.
How many independent charter schools will be willing to commit to these principles is an open question. I’m hoping that at least half will join. If very few are willing to be open, then the charter movement is in deeper trouble than I feared
Frankly, I think this is the last best hope for charter schools, but I am not neutral on this. I helped a little bit with the planning for the new organization and have moderated two of their early gatherings.
To sum up, the term “Charter School” tells us almost nothing, which is why I suggest that no one even consider enrolling a child in a charter school unless they have access to its disciplinary code; its graduation, promotion, and retention rate; the diversity of its students and teaching staff; the measures of accomplishment it uses; and the salaries of its leadership. All that information is the equivalent of a restaurant menu, and just as you read a menu before ordering, so too should you learn this information before entrusting your child to that supposedly wonderful “Charter School.”
Your comments welcome at themerrowreport.com, and thanks….