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My Charter School Dilemma

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Charter schools were on our minds at the National Association of Independent Schools www.nais.org annual conference last week. The current president had just blogged about them, and public-independent school partnerships sparked some discussion of independent schools' "public purpose." And then the incoming president's past affiliation with and presumptive enthusiasm for charters--he's a veteran of the for-profit Edison Project--had many of us examining our own thoughts on the question.

When the idea first arose, a couple of decades back, what educator would not have been excited about the whole "let a hundred flowers bloom" notion? I remember being electrified as a curriculum committee chair at my school by beacons like the New American Schools Development Corporation, Project Zero, Expeditionary Learning, the ATLAS project, and the Coalition of Essential Schools (with which we later affiliated for some years). In their earliest iterations, charters seemed like an ideal way to prototype these ideas, with their emphasis on pedagogy and assessment and new understandings of the learning brain. Cool beans!

Somebody, somewhere, of course, was writing into the enabling legal framework seeds that enthusiastic naïfs like me missed. Embedded was the possibility of chains, franchises, whole strings of schools operated by their own central authorities and applying particular methodologies on an industrial scale. And of course, such chains could operate for profit--providing return on investment to owners and shareholders. At some point back in the early No Child Left Behind era I was approached by a venture capitalist eager for my thoughts on how to make big money off education, but the idea of operating schools on this basis never occurred to me, and he went way.

Fun fact: I once worked at a school that had been a for-profit. But that had been in a different era; the school had been a proprietary mom-and-pop operation run on a shoestring. The founder had treated himself to a new Oldsmobile every eight or nine years to reward himself for teaching a full load of classes and operating as a one-man management team. But this model was dead as the dodo.

So, along came the charters, with some spectacular successes and amazing stories. Here in Massachusetts we have the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, Horace's own school, if you will, founded by none other than Ted Sizer. The Academy of the Pacific Rim's long school days, behavioral strictures, and "Pacific Rim"-ness prefigured many later and more extreme iterations of the same ideas. Boston Renaissance, Roxbury Prep, and similar schools in underserved communities seem to offer real hope for a transformed and transforming kind of urban education.

Across the country charters have sprung up like mushrooms, along with magnets, pilots, state-level STEM schools, and other schools of "preferred status." The "chains" have established themselves, from KIPP to Leona to Edison, some of these operating for-profit and representing considerable investments leading to considerable financial expectations. A few independent schools are even trying their hands in the charter realm as a way of expressing their public purpose--noble efforts and compelling models, but whether they're part of the solution or in some way part of the problem is unclear in my mind.

Of course, for every student at a charter school funds are diverted from the pool of funds available for mainstream public schools. And of course the exciting new curricular ideas of 20 years ago have been largely buried--in public and charter schools alike--under an innovation-crushing avalanche of testing. The "hundred flowers" look a bit artificial, and at the same time the explosive growth of charters looks to be almost marginalizing some heartening developments in the mainstream public sector--all as monies that could be building stronger school systems are directed here and there, even into the pockets of investors as profits.

So when the subject of charter schools comes up--as it did on Saturday in a session on public purposes I hatched with the brilliant and passionate Chris Thinnes at an EdCamp unconference in Philadelphia--I have very mixed feelings. Presumably there's a middle ground, a way of establishing schools that can serve as laboratories and models of new methodologies without succumbing either to industrial-size standardization or scaling for efficiencies that line someone's pockets. The initial charter impulse was a good one--even Albert Shanker liked it--and it shouldn't be lost, but it shouldn't succeed at the expense of the generality of public schools it was meant to inspire. I wish we could somehow recapture the full, early spirit of the charter movement in ways that could strengthen all schools, public and private.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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