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Charter Schools' Role in Strengthening Public Education

Dear Deb,

I would like to take our conversation about reform in a slightly different direction and wade into an area of controversy that is dividing educators and communities throughout the country. What role do you think charter schools can and should play in advancing the reform and renewal of public education?

As you know, several progressive educators, including our good friend Ted Sizer who founded a charter school with his wife Nancy (Francis W. Parker School), saw charter schools as offering the potential for innovative practices that could not be as easily implemented in public schools. The impetus for creating charters was not anti-union, at least not for these educators. The goal was to create schools where teachers would have greater say in how schools were managed, that could be less rigid with respect to curriculum and teaching, and more responsive to the learning needs of students.

A quote from Sizer's Horace's Compromise may be helpful in reminding us of that goal:

Teachers are rarely consulted, much less given significant authority, over the rules and regulations governing the life of their school; these usually come from "downtown." Rarely do they have any influence over whom their immediate colleagues will be; again, "downtown" decides ... Teaching often lacks a sense of ownership, a sense among the teachers working together that the school is theirs, and that its future and their reputation are indistinguishable. ... Teachers are often treated like hired hands. Not surprisingly, they often act like hired hands.

Charter schools were seen as places where teachers could be organized around a common vision and have more influence over their work. I think Pilot schools like the one you developed in Boston (Mission Hill) were created with a similar vision in mind. Of course, this isn't quite how it has turned out.

Instead of charter schools serving as beacons of innovation in learning, they are mostly very conventional, and instead of being used to renew and invigorate public education, they are increasingly being used to spur competition and increasingly, to undermine it. Teachers often have no say at all in these schools and are frequently required to work long hours. High turnover of teachers is expected, and some of these schools have no teachers with more than four years of experience. Even more troubling is the rapid expansion of charters which has led to the opening of a wide variety of highly questionable schools: for-profit charters where managers reap large salaries, religious charters subsidized by public dollars, and online charters that serve thousands of students at once and operate under very little scrutiny or accountability. In cities like New York, New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., charter schools are frequently exacerbating inequities among schools and leaving the most disadvantaged students isolated in under-resourced public schools.

Yet, despite the larger political agenda at work, I think it is a mistake not to embrace and learn from the best charter schools. The people teaching and leading these schools are frequently educators who left public schools because they were frustrated by the constraints within the highly regulated, compliance-driven, public schools. Typically, the children they serve are the children and families who were poorly served by the public system. Schools like Urban Prep in Chicago that are doing an excellent job educating African-American males should be used as a national example for how to change outcomes for this hard-to-serve segment of the population.

Schools like the El Camino network in Los Angeles are getting similar results for English-language learners while in district schools these children are dropping out in droves. North Star in Newark, N.J., La Cima in Brooklyn, Democracy Prep in Harlem, and Renaissance in Queens—the oldest unionized charter school in New York City, are all schools that educators could learn a lot from. Of course, I can also name exemplary public schools where children of all kinds are thriving. But I spend much of my time working with schools that struggle with discipline, motivation, and engagement. Many of these schools could benefit from utilizing the strategies these schools employ to provide academic and social support to students and create cultures that affirm the importance of learning.

Again, there's no doubt to me that charter schools are being used to undermine public education in many communities, but it's also clear that public schools in many communities are in need of change and renewal. The biggest threat to public education doesn't come from charter schools; it comes from the loss of confidence and support from parents who have chosen to place their children in charters and private schools because they don't believe their children will be well served, and from politicians who starve public schools of resources and weaken them further.

The educators who work in charter schools should not be treated as enemies, and not all charter schools should be opposed. Instead, I think we should push for greater accountability on charter schools to ensure that the rights of parents and students are guaranteed, that we should push for legislation to prevent such schools from denying access to students with significant needs, and most importantly, that we should promote cooperation with public schools. If it turns out that freedom and flexibility from district management and certain union rules is what gives some charter schools an advantage, then we should push for similar opportunities to be provided to public schools so that they too can have the flexibility to meet the needs of their students.

Let me know what you think.

Pedro

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