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Charters and Dollars Don't Constitute a Plan

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At the outset, I want to say that I have no animus toward Eli Broad or billionaires in general.  I've only met Broad once when he came to our campus, and he said nice things about my book, United Mind Workers (first chapter).  Philanthropy from Broad and other wealthy folk are essential to making America's particular brand of capitalist civil society work, and, I might add in full disclosure, keeping small private colleges like mine afloat.  I'm more concerned with the 300 or so billionaires who ignore public education in their giving than with the seven who have placed their bets on charters.

I've also visited some splendid charter schools.  I've written appreciatively about the High Tech High schools in San Diego County, learned a lot about the possibilities of teacher-run schools such as Avalon in St. Paul, Minnesota, and come to appreciate the work of many other charters.  The Alliance schools in Los Angeles grew from the ashes of the LEARN project in the 1990s.  Both the district and United Teachers Los Angeles turned against the reform, and its leaders bolted to the charter sector.  I laud Judy Burton, who headed reforms in the district and at the Alliance, as an education pioneer.

Philanthropists and charter schools were made for each other.  Founders of charters are, by definition, entrepreneurial and they fit perfectly with the contemporary thrust of venture philanthropy.  Philanthropists can see where their money goes and can judge whether their investments are paying off, or whether they are learning anything valuable from them.

Charters are an easier, more sure, investment than trying to change a large public school district directly.  But adding more charters doesn't constitute a plan for public education, even if all schools become charters.  With the possible exception of New Orleans, every effort I know of to use philanthropic money to blow-up, take over, and kill the old culture of a public school system has failed. 

A case in point: Dale Russakoff's new book The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Public Schools? tells the story of Newark and Mark Zuckerberg's $100-million gift.  It should be required reading to anyone with a checkbook and public school reform hubris (Education Week excerpt; Atlantic review).

So, it is not unreasonable that charter schools are attractive to philanthropists who are weary of trying to reform big city school districts.  But it is deeply irresponsible for charter school advocates not to specify the kind of school system that emerges from the endgame of their charter school expansion plan.  The Broad plan talks about a tipping point.  Tipping to where?

At a minimum, the charter community should step up and specify how it thinks the market in schooling would work.  Every deregulated industry I know of turns into a price-fixing oligopoly that gives lousy service and beats up on its customers.  Think about how California fared with the Texas price fixers during the electricity crisis or how much you enjoy flying on one of the handful of airlines left in the country. 

The charter school industry exhibits the same tendency toward combination.  Charter management organizations, which one early charter backer called "private school districts," are eclipsing the original charter idea of cooperatives of teachers and parents. 

It's also deeply irresponsible for the LAUSD school board not to find and enunciate a solution to a school district that has a mix of charters and district schools, and soon.  If it doesn't want to be hollowed out by charters, it has two alternatives.  It can fight, or it can quickly design an alternative, a pathway toward it, and a political coalition stronger than Broad's.  

 If both parties continue to ignore talking about what kind of school system is needed to take advantage of charters and district-run schools, the charter wars will continue.



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