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Determining the Fate of Charter Schools


The ability to close schools that are not up to snuff is a fundamental principle of charter schooling. The publicly funded but independently run schools receive greater autonomy than most other public schools in return for a promise to be held accountable for results. If a school isn't working, charter advocates say, shut it down.

But the "shut-down" process isn't always easy. Schools often resist and, even when states cite substantial administrative or academic failings, schools also have the option of taking their case to court, thus prolonging the process.

How should charter schools be monitored—and who should determine their fate?


The problems with charters is when the accountability is disconnected from the people who are forced to pay for them. In Massachusetts, the State Board of Education has absolute authority over granting and renewing charters, though the funding is taken directly from the local aid for the school district where the child resides. Thus, school districts are forced to close schools and eliminate programs due to funding lost to charter schools, which have enough money to implement new programs and retain programs lost by the sending districts.

When charters are granted for ideological reasons, and not due to significant community demand, they remain open and fiscally viable even when with failing academics or management. Massachusetts has several cases of badly run charters with bad teaching that are tolerated by the state, but drain the local community.

While it is true that many charters were handed out to entities that were unproven as far as educating students, true innovative charters are the best thing for the student and the local ISD. Charters that truly make an attempt to do something different for the student who is not responding to traditional systems are desperately needed. However, any innovative charter that dares to open wide their doors to the population of students who are 1.already failing standardized tests, 2.causing the ISD drop-out rates to be higher, and 3.not progressing in their credit work at all, does so at great risk. The ISD looks better because this population is not counted on its results. The charter that has a passion and the expertise to take this population must be willing to risk being targeted as academically behind and stay true to the course of giving the at-risk student the time, attention, and advocacy necessary to become successful.

Secondly, there is a real effort to squelch innovation as it applies to methodology. The traditional "Madelyn Hunter" system has been adopted in America as the default teaching style. The adoption is so prevalent that this teaching style can often be misidentified as a student's learning style ("This is the best and only way a student learns"). This approach dictates our classroom schedules, teacher certification programs, building planning, etc. If a charter is to be viable, it must look and act different than the local school district. If it is going to be just like the local comunity school, it should step aside and allow the district to keep the funding. However, innovation is risky as well. If there is methodology and pedagogy outside accepted practice, that proves to be better for the student, this could damage the political hold that traditional education has in our society. What occurs is an attempt by traditional education to be in favor of innovation but only from a financing perspective("We are willing to give this charter school our funding so we are in favor of innovation"). Yet, there is an unwillingness by traditional education to be in favor of innovation that threatens the methodological foundation adopted in the past century. In order to get along, a charter must look like and act like traditional schools. This threatens to make true innovation extinct.

Those who are competent and commit themselves to work with the at-risk population know that, at the end of the day, its the student that matters. This student will need more time and more attempts. This student will need a system that allows them to move forward individually rather than by a prescribed time-table. This student needs an advocate and more attention. Charter schools, even with the risks involved, can be a beneficial partner with the local school, and a place where the student needing innovation will receive it without apologies, excuses, or illogical expectations.

How do we monitor? At-risk students must be judged on progress dictated by content rather than time issues. Educators, specifically on the higher education level, can be used to determine true measures of progress and success. Educators who monitor should be well-versed in the area of at-risk education. Progress indicators can be developed outside traditional testing that is more relevant. Lastly, monitoring should be conducted by educators who are not affected financially or politically (again, those in higher education)by the success or failure of the charter school movement.

As a founder of a charter school, I believe that there must be some sort of oversight board -- either from the state or from a charter school collaborative organization -- to review charter schools and hold charter schools accountable to the charter upon which they are founded. This board must have the authority to 1) Identify failures to comply with charters and issue change orders in operation that must take place within a certain time frame 2)shut down a school that has strayed so far from its charter that it no longer complies with its original approval and has failed to correct the issues identified by the review, or 3)help the school's administration and governing board rewrite the charter to meet with its new mission and help with the resubmission of the charter for approval.

Before they open their doors, charter schools must follow a rigorous path to approval. The charter that is approved (either by the state or local district board)is a complete playbook for a school. The problems begin when the charter is handed from a founding board to an administration that was not involved with its development and a governing board that has little knowledge of the process and is reliant upon the administration for complete guidance. Soon, rather that looking at the charter as the authoritative source for service, the charter becomes simply a whimsical guide used when convenient and dismissed when it may require more work or innovation (or cost) than the board/administration is willing or able to embrace.

With independent review, poor delivery of curriculum, facility and services can be identified and corrected so that the school may realign with its charter or a new charter should be written. A charter school, after all, is about the charter and the delivery of its unique methods (as identified in the charter and required in most places for charter approval), and its delivery should remain constant despite changing administration or governing boards.

As the bar continues to rise for public schools, I don't see this happeneing for charter schools. There are some charter schools which are excellent. They are that way because of the autonomy that they are given that public schools do not have. Charterschools can simply release a student that they seem "uneducable." They return to the public schools after the charter has already pocketed the money from the state. When they return to public school, the money does not return with them, and the district is left with the task of finding the money to provide whatever dervices are needed for this student. If someone would track this information--especially in large urban districts, they would find that this is the case.

I helped establish an alternative center for education in my first public school job. The freedom the school system allowed us in order to reach at risk students created an environment where educational innovation and risk taking was encouraged by both teachers and students. Although the system was unable to continue the program independently due to funding issues, some of our practices went back to the other schools with our students and became part of their at risk programs. Truly innovative educational environments would be a welcome breath of fresh air in the American educational system. Implementation of schools committed to a "quality school" model (Glasser) or the precepts of the Coalition for Essential Schools (Sizer), among others, could revolutionize the way we look at learning. The problem is, most charters are simply implementing the two changes that all public schools already know work: 1) reducing class size and 2) enforcing clear and consistent disciplinary standards. The reason school systems don't implement these changes is simple - no funding for more teachers, and no will to fight the court battles to enforce discipline standards. The problem is, when the charters do these things, they increase the burden on the existing public system by siphoning off money from already overcrowded and underfunded schools.

Shutting down charters should be as easy as opening them. The idea that a charter school can sue the state to remain open is patently ridiculous - what other state funded and regulated program has that ability? What's next, suing to maintain budgets when overall state funding is cut? States have the power to dismiss entire teaching and administrative staffs at low performing schools and transfer teachers at will under emerging guidelines set by NCLB and state intitiatives. Massive retrenching is allowable in schools that serve the vast majority of the student population, but not in the charter community?

The idea of innovation and experimentation that launched the charter initiative has been lost in the web of politically and ideologically motivated charter "movements" designed to prove that teaching is not an art, a profession, a gift, but is rather akin to semi skilled labor-or that the problem with schools is the "hidden" political agenda of the "radical academics" who "run" education in the country. These schools need to be shut down and the primary idea of the charter program reclaimed. Unfortunately, these are the very schools that file the suits and "work the system" to maintain their failed attempts to discredit education.

This is an extremely difficult area. As a parent, one's decision is always based on looking at all the options relative to one another--and at the needs of your specific child.

We can, and often do argue, that the ways we measure sucess in education are imperfect and incomplete. But absent SOME measure--monopolies become complacent and deaf. Not every idea is a good one, not every group of individuals can pull off even a good idea.

Outsiders are always percieved as a threat, so the answer shouldn't be to leave the power to start or shut these schools solely in the hands those who feel threatened.

Charters that consistantly do a poor job should be shut down. But the definition of "poor job" should be detemined collectively by parents, educators and politicians--and "poor" must also be defined as relative to the other choices.

Public schools sometimes get criticized without really deserving it. And sometimes public schools need to be criticized. Public schools are sacred cows that will always be around, so why don't we spend more time and energy making them better, rather than funding alternative schools?

While I don't know the answer it does seem that charter schools play a role in testing out alternative styles, innovative ideas, and the like. They could become a real value in the testing of ideas if these ideas could then somehow be woven into the public school systems.

Working together these charter schools and public schools could form a wonderfully symbiotic relationship that would serve to benefit all our children.

The problem in some ways is the us against them mentality that seems to exist. This mentality creates the adversarial stance rather than the partnership necessary. And this adversarial stance is what creates the controversy over monitoring and controlling of charter schools,(and public schools as well).

The monitoring of charter schools in an environment of symbiotic partnership would be done by both parties in an attempt to discover what is working and what is not working and thereby creating the best possible environment for the children. With everyone working towards the same goals everyone can win.

One of the things to remember is that real and true change takes time. To judge a school's success or failure in a short amount of time is foolish. We live in a world of quick fixes. With public education today the fixes needed are not going to be "quick fixes". The fixes needed are long term and will take time to produce results.

I recognize that this might sound a bit idealistic. But then again, what are we but an idealistic nation?


As a retired teacher of 28+ years, 18 years spent teaching in the inner city elementary schools of Bridgeport, CT I have gained the kinds of insights that only an inner city teacher can have. I have never liked the idea of the "charter school" for several reasons. First, unnecessary moneys are spent to rent or purchase a school building, when the money for an experimental program would be better spent on putting that program in an already existing school. Those experienced in teaching inner city kids pretty well know what kinds of things will help these kids do better in school. For example,(1)the education, support and guidance of parents; (2)small class size; (3)gupport of teachers; i.e.how to be a strong and fair disciplinarian; (4)Good and broad curricula; how to build 'school spirit'; administrators who know their stuff, remember what it is like to have been a teacher and who can create school camraderie; ample resources including a resource teacher. An example of a class for parents (urged to take it by teachers and principal)--Children's Literature-which in addition to advocating reading and the library for both parents and their kids, can be a course that will teach and broaden English vocabulary.

Charter schools do not work although individual charter schools may work fine for its clients. Oakland has a charter school that has brillant test scores but the administrator is proud of practicing verbal and physical humiliation of students. He has bragged in the newspaper of having called a schoolwide assembly and made a promise to shaved bald the head of a student he accused of having stolen a radio. With the parent's permission he had his threat carried out. He justified his action because he had the parent's permission to institute the punishment.

Under California law charter schools are not accountable to local school boards for administrative policies and actions so no child's head of hair is safe in California charter schools.

The State has an open meetings act and a public records act that may apply, but in practice few charter schools make open meeting laws a part of their charter.

I believe it would be a good reform to require all charter schools to make decisions public and transparent with posting of agendas and the right of the public to speak to all agenda items. But, it is the structure of the independence of a charter school that can allow a charter to continue a practice such as shaving the head of students and the general value of the public in opposition would not count. With a wink, wink, charter concept provides opportunity for segregation by class, race and language. Don't like teaching of evolution, try a charter. Bottom line is public taxes pay for the power of individual parents to chose to create a separate education system that is not really a public education system, but only a publicly financed education system.

The educational community will go on arguing but getting nowhere, until it developes sound evidence of what works, and what hurts. This requires properly designed experiments. See www.campbellcollaboration.org

If charter schools are to receive public fundng they should be required to enroll any "student" who walks in, is dragged in, or otherwise arrives on their doorstep --as are "regular" public schools. "No room" is not an excuse ----In other words, they should be on the same footing as "regular public schools". Public schools cannot say, "Sorry, Amigo, we are full ---'no room in the school'". No "cherry picking".

Charters granted for ideological reasons can only be evaluated on the criterion of curicular and instructional consistency with the particular ideology. And which evaluators are qualified to do this? You guesed it! The ideologues! Student performance, in the traditional subjects, may or may not be relevant to such evaluation. In some cases, it may even be said that the mere granting of a charter says, in effect, 'this method/philosophy works, period, and no evaluation is required'. This, of course, puts the state in the position of taking money from many taxpayers to purchase the temporary silence of loudmouths. Some instructional structures and procedures in such "charter schools" may not even have stood the "test" of the most simplistic pseudoscientific "dual methodology" comparisons of the '60s. But, hey, a vocal population stops ringing the phones of insecure leaders. C.Fitz-G.,
Too many toes would need to be stepped upon to, honestly, learn "what works and what hurts".

That's why it won't happen. Did you ever meet an evaluation designer who thrilled at the prospect of being branded sexist, ageist, racist, or any other "ist"?

Case closed.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Retired teacher/ed. product [email protected] lab: Charters granted for ideological reasons can only be evaluated on read more
  • J. Alden Vanderpool EdD: If charter schools are to receive public fundng they should read more
  • Professor Emeritus C. Fitz-Gibbon: The educational community will go on arguing but getting nowhere, read more
  • Jim Mordecai/Oakland, California teacher: Charter schools do not work although individual charter schools may read more
  • Mrs. Dorothy Blaustein: As a retired teacher of 28+ years, 18 years spent read more




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