Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Does the charter movement stimulate reform or spur

Prophet Motives
Summer 2008

Does the charter movement stimulate reform or spur
more privatization?

An Excerpt from Keeping the Promise? The Debate Over
Charter Schools

In the last two decades, charter schools have emerged
as one of the dominant reforms in public education in
the United States. While desegregation and magnet
schools were hallmarks of education reform in the
1970s and into the 1980s, by the end of the century
charter schools had eclipsed such initiatives to take
center stage.

From only a handful of schools in the early 1990s, by
the 2006ˆ07 school year there were more than 4,000
charter schools enrolling more than a million students
in 40 states and the District of Columbia. In some
urban districts, charters enrolled a growing
percentage of public school students˜as much as 57
percent in New Orleans and 27 percent in Dayton, Ohio,
and Washington, D.C. The for-profit Edison Schools,
meanwhile, had 157 schools, dwarfing the size of many
urban districts.

The charter school movement has roots in a progressive
agenda that, as educator Joe Nathan wrote in
Rethinking Schools in 1996, viewed charters as "an
important opportunity for educators to fulfill their
dreams, to empower the powerless, and to help
encourage a bureaucratic system to be more responsive
and more effective."

Early proponents of charter schools did not view their
reform as a cure-all but as one of many vehicles to
improve public schools, particularly in urban areas
where this country's dichotomies of race and class are
most pronounced. As Lisa Stulberg and the late Eric
Rofes wrote in their 2004 book, The Emancipatory
Promise of Charter Schools, charters are one specific
reform initiative that can "begin to open up a wider
discussion of a new, progressive vision for public

Unfortunately, the charter concept also appealed to
conservatives wedded to a free-market, privatization
agenda. And it is they who, over the past decade, have
taken advantage of the conservative domination of
national politics to seize the upper hand in the
charter school movement.

The question today is, where is the charter school
concept heading? Will it help spur reform so that all
public schools, charter and traditional, can live up
to the promise of a quality education for all and
serve the needs of an increasingly multiracial
democracy? Or will the movement drain away necessary
resources and energy from districtwide reform and
instead promote a system of individual consumer
choice, inevitably coupled with all the inequalities
inherent in a market system of distribution?

This country is on the cusp of a new political
dialogue. The conservative stranglehold on political
debate is ending, opening up opportunities for
progressives to regain the initiative. How this
opening will affect public education in general and
charter schools in particular is not yet clear, but it
ushers in possibilities not imaginable a decade ago.
A Multifaceted Movement

It is impossible to lump together our country's public
schools: well-funded schools in privileged suburbs are
far different than under-resourced schools in poor
urban neighborhoods. Likewise, charter schools come in
many varieties: they are shaped by a state's charter
school laws, by the motivations and capabilities of
the charter school's founders, and by the broader
local, state, and national political climate.

That being said, several legal requirements are common
to all charter schools. They are publicly funded, are
nonreligious, are not to charge tuition, and must obey
civil rights regulations.

Some charter schools have strong ties to their
community, are led by experienced educators, and are
committed to providing all children a comprehensive
education that meets their needs. Others are led by
entrepreneurs, sometimes as part of a national
franchise, who too often see schools primarily as a
source of money and profits and whose educational
experience is limited. Many charter schools fall
somewhere between these two poles.

Philosophically, the charter school movement started
with several core assumptions. Two are most important:
first, that freedom from bureaucratic rules and union
contracts will foster innovation and improve academic
achievement; and, second, that the lessons from the
charter movement's successes will be used to improve
public education overall. Any discussion of charter
schools must ask not only whether charters promote a
worthwhile vision of public education, but also
whether they are faithful to their own promises.
The Many Meanings of Choice

While academic excellence and equity of access were
dominant themes in education following the Civil
Rights Movement, the concept of "choice" has risen to
new heights in recent decades. A fluid and problematic
concept, it nonetheless strikes home with many
Americans; used properly and in moderation, it can
ensure that public education is sensitive to the
varying needs of this country's 50 million public
school students representing an escalating number of
nationalities and languages.

White and middle-class families in the suburbs have
made a choice of geography that provides them access
to schools they generally like and support. For poor
people in the cities, especially people of color,
choices are more difficult. Thus it is not surprising
that many urban families may see charters as a choice
of a safer school, smaller classes, and more
meaningful academics.

Virtually all segments of the charter school movement
have targeted urban areas. Some hope to counteract
inequity, spur innovation and better meet the needs of
marginalized students. Others, taking advantage of the
frustration that inevitably follows when districts are
allowed to deteriorate, seek fame and fortune. Some
hope to gain enough "market share" that they are on
par, and compete, with traditional schools. Finally,
there are those who view charters as a way to get rid
of public schools altogether.

The elixir of an individualized bailout from a
struggling system has serious side effects, however.
It can create a painful wedge in many communities,
especially among African Americans; it can weaken the
political will for a collective solution to the
problems in public education; and it can promote the
deterioration of traditional schools. As highly
motivated and engaged families pull their children
from traditional public schools, urban districts have
fewer resources˜both financial and human˜to address
their many problems. The worse the schools get, the
more appealing the escape to charters and private
schools, all of which feeds into the conservative
dream of replacing public education with a free-market
system of everyone for themselves, the common good be
damned. Beleaguered urban districts, meanwhile,
sometimes seem to give up on systemwide improvement
and instead take a triage approach of abandoning some
schools while providing "life boats," often in the
form of small niche schools with a selective student

Too often, charter schools and "choice" public schools
prefer, in practice if not in rhetoric, to educate
"the deserving poor." There is far less inclination to
serve students whose parents are absent or uninvolved,
or who have severe physical or emotional educational
needs, or who have run afoul of the juvenile justice
system, or who don't speak English as their first
language. Perhaps the most glaring example involves
students with special education needs. Such students
are increasingly overrepresented in traditional public
schools, making a mockery of reforms that held out the
promise that special ed students would not be treated
as second-class citizens.

For both charter and traditional public schools, the
question is how to develop a system that recognizes
individual preferences, but not by limiting the
choices and opportunities available to others. What is
necessary is a commitment to serving all students, and
to guard against the danger of linking choice with
exclusion and privilege.

At the same time, progressives must guard against
dismissing all alternatives to the traditional public
school system. There are times when a focused
commitment to the specific needs of specific students
is both necessary and positive, or when one must break
through the boundaries of traditional schooling in
order to create a working model of what could be.

The Freedom Schools established by the Student
Nonviolent Organizing Committee and other civil rights
groups in 1964 are a well-known example of finding a
vision of education outside of the public school
system. Similarly, many "free schools" and
"alternative schools" in the 1960s and 1970s were an
important antidote to the dehumanizing factory model
of education that valued standardization above all
else. More recently, the Coalition of Essential
Schools was founded in 1984 to promote equitable,
intellectually vibrant, and personalized schools that,
while operating within the boundaries of public
education, oftentimes did so outside established
district procedures. These examples show, in different
ways, the power of individuals working together to
create schools that challenge the inequities and
inadequacies of too many traditional public schools.

The charter school movement does not grow directly out
of such examples. But the involvement in charter
schools of progressives with similar visions should
not be dismissed.

At the same time, one cannot deny that the charter
school concept, as a movement, has been hijacked by
individuals, groups, and corporations who are guided
by free-market principles, often with a hostility to
unions, and who do not necessarily embrace core values
of equity, access, public purpose, and public

If charter school reform is to live up to its initial
promises, progressives must regain the initiative and
use charter schools to empower teachers and parents,
to challenge the dominant narrative in public
education of standardization, selectivity, and
privilege, and to use those lessons to improve all
public schools.
Bureaucracy and Contracts

From the beginning, the most important and consistent
themes of charter school proponents were that freedom
from bureaucracy and from union contract provisions
would spur innovation and achievement.

The claims, especially dissatisfaction with
bureaucracy, struck a chord among families frustrated
with how well public schools were serving their
children's needs, especially when the claims were
coupled with anecdotes of teachers and parents
prevented from implementing worthwhile educational

Without a doubt, too many public school districts
suffer from rote thinking and top-down mandates that
are codified into bureaucratic rules and regulations.
Sadly, the juggernaut of standardized testing and
drill-and-kill curriculum promoted by the federal No
Child Left Behind act (NCLB) has only heightened the
problem of harmful mandates.

As for union contracts, there is no doubt that some
complaints are valid, especially concerns over rigid
seniority rules that make it difficult for schools to
hire a staff committed to a common vision.

But it would be naive to ignore that some of the
antiunion rhetoric comes from conservatives wedded to
an antiunion ideology. Some union rules are the result
of hard-won protections˜with civil rights, special
education, academic freedom, and gender-based
protections just a few examples. Other bureaucratic
rules are designed to counteract problems of
corruption or incompetence. And many union protections
were fought for and won in order to safeguard the
rights of teachers around issues such as due process,
adequate pay, and decent working conditions˜rights
that every individual should have, and that have the
added benefit of ensuring a stable corps of
experienced teachers for our public schools.

The extent to which a charter school is exempt from
the union contract or unnecessary bureaucracy varies,
based not only on state legislation but the chartering
organization's views and the ideology of a charter
school's founders. The movement as a whole, however,
remains committed to the view that bureaucracy and
union agreements are to be circumvented whenever

One of the biggest controversies surrounding the
charter school movement is how well it has lived up to
its promise of innovation and improved achievement as
a result of its freedoms from bureaucracy and union
agreements. Overall, studies have shown that charter
schools perform either worse or just as well as
comparable public schools, which leads to an
unanswered question, as noted in the 2005 book, The
Charter School Dust-Up, by Martin Carnoy, Rebecca
Jacobsen, Lawrence Mishel, and Richard Rothstein:

If, however, charter schools are not improving the
achievement of disadvantaged children, it may be that
the cause of low student performance is not
bureaucratic rules but something else. When a
treatment is based on a diagnosis, and the treatment
doesn't work, it is prudent to examine not only
whether the treatment should be improved, but also
whether the diagnosis might be flawed.

Even if it is shown that certain bureaucratic rules,
union requirements, or state and federal mandates
stifle innovation and suffocate higher achievement,
shouldn't they be thrown out or modified for all
schools, not just charters?
Finding Quality Teachers

One of the problems facing many charter schools, and
indeed public schools overall in urban and rural
areas, is the insufficient number of excellent
teachers committed to teaching all students. Studies
have consistently shown that after socioeconomic
status is taken into account, a good teacher is the
single most important factor in student achievement.

Teacher certification for charter schools varies
significantly by state. Some states require that
charter schools hire certified teachers, some states
such as Arizona and Texas do not, and some states set
a percentage such as 25 percent or 50 percent
certified teachers, according to the Education
Commission of the States. Some require that charter
school teachers be credentialed at the same level as
other public schools only in college prep and core
academic classes.

In its initial years, the charter school movement
overall had a lower percentage than traditional public
schools of certified teachers, and disproportionately
relied on teachers with less experience. In fact,
strong anecdotal evidence shows that many of the
charter schools that have been favorites with the
mainstream media have had an extraordinarily high
percentage of new teachers and a high turnover rate.

Which raises an important question: is it possible to
build a systemwide reform movement, as charter schools
purport to be, if the movement can neither be
sustained at a quality level nor replicated?

No one disputes that it is possible to build good
schools, as individual charter, public, and private
schools across the country demonstrate. The issue is
creating a system of schools based on
institutionalized structures and practices that ensure
lasting success on a districtwide basis. Reforms are
bound to fail if they rely on the voluntarism of
idealistic, overworked teachers who burn out and leave
the school once they decide to have a family or want
any semblance of a meaningful personal life.

Such issues are related to questions of scale. Many
good, experimental schools, both charter and
traditional, rely on a particular vision that cannot
be replicated on a significant basis without broader
reforms such as adequate resources, a solid corps of
qualified teachers, and a reinvigorated commitment to
serving all children. In this context, perhaps it
remains best to return to the original vision of
charter schools as limited experiments designed to try
out new ideas that can be used to improve education
throughout the district.

Some in the charter school movement instead view
charters as growing exponentially, becoming a
substitute for traditional public schools. Yet when
charters reach that tipping point where they become a
significant sector unto themselves, immense problems
arise˜not just with maintaining quality, but also with
undermining traditional public schools because those
traditional schools have fewer resources and a higher
percentage of disadvantaged students.

Finally, the larger the system of charter schools, the
more glaring the need to address the issue of
democratic control of our schools. In too many
instances, important decisions are taken out of public
control and ceded to boards of directors who have
minimal public accountability beyond insuring against
fraud and corruption. In the case of charter franchise
operations, especially by for-profit companies,
concerns of public accountability are especially
pressing. For all their faults, school boards are
democratically elected bodies that provide a mechanism
for public input; for all their strengths, even
nonprofit boards of directors do not have similar
responsibilities to the public.

To date, there has been insufficient discussion of
dealing with these complicated issues of scale,
sustainability, replication, and public democratic

Unfettered free-market ideology, with its notion of
proprietary ownership of any formula for success, has
been especially harmful in undermining the original
ideal that charter schools would champion innovation
and share the lessons learned in order to improve all
public schools. Too often, charter schools are far
less innovative than promised and, when they do
purport success, do not collaborate with other schools
to share what works and, equally important, what
doesn't work.
Commitment to All Children

Throughout the history of education in the United
States, public schools have served dual and
conflicting purposes. On the one hand, our public
schools pay homage to a vision based on core concepts
of public control, high standards, and equal access so
that all children can develop their potential and
become contributing, productive members of our
democratic society. At the same time, our schools are
infamous for replicating and exacerbating this
country's undeniable stratifications based on class
and race.

It is also essential to recognize that school reform
cannot be isolated from resolving society's larger
injustices. If our schools are to fulfill their
promise, we must ensure that all children have the
healthcare, housing, and family financial stability
they need to do their best. This is not an excuse for
the shortcomings of our public schools. Indeed,
demanding such reforms as an essential component of
good schools can reinvigorate the broader social

At the same time, we must ensure that our public
schools become doorways to opportunity, not barricades
based on privilege. The original charter school
proponents saw charters as a way to improve public
education as a whole, not to split off into a separate
movement or isolated niche schools. They were
motivated by equity, not selectivity.

The question facing the charter school movement is
whether it will fulfill its founding promise of a
reform that empowers the powerless, or whether it will
become a vehicle to further enrich the powerful and
stratify our schools.

Creating successful schools, whether charter or
traditional, is not easy. It is difficult, demanding
work that requires vision, support, and resources.
What is more, schools have crucial obligations not
only to individual students and families, but to our
society as a whole as we strive to create a
multiracial democracy capable of addressing the many
social, economic, and environmental issues that cloud
our future.

As Rethinking Schools has often noted, public
education, for all its flaws, exists because
generations of people have fought to improve the
future for themselves, their children, and the broader
society. Whether public education continues to exist,
and whether it rises to the challenges before it,
remains an open question. Charters, for better or
worse, will be part of the answer.

Leigh Dingerson, Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson, and
Stephanie Walters are the co-editors of Keeping the
Promise?: The Debate Over Charter Schools. This essay,
which they coauthored, is excerpted from the book's
introduction. "Keeping the Promise? is available from http://www.rethinkingschools.org

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