Take a look at stories about charter schools that earn top billing in news media, and you will find a litany of negativity and fear. In North Carolina, where I teach, recent focus groups conducted by the Hope Street Group asked teachers from traditional school districts what they think of charter schools. Their responses revealed that many view charter schools as the enemy of public education.
This isn’t surprising. In our current political climate, the term “charter school” is directly linked to politicians who are accused of trying to dismantle public education. It is used interchangeably with the terms “school vouchers” and “privatization.” But they are not the same thing.
Voucher systems use public funds to provide private school tuition. With vouchers, students can attend private schools that have admission requirements, religious affiliation and many other factors that limit their accessibility to all students. They also have little oversight or accountability. This is true privatization.
Charters, on the other hand, have a different purpose. As originally defined in North Carolina legislation, charter schools “encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods.” Initially the intention was that there would be 100 of these schools across the state that were testing grounds for education innovation. Many charter schools are fulfilling this vision. They are working to incubate innovations and share them with district schools. This could and should be leading to better education statewide.
The Polarization of School Choice
The problem is that this is not true for all charters. Recently, a few charters have arrived on the scene who offer nothing different from their traditional neighbors beyond the lack of being tied to a district. Many of these schools have pushed the limits of charter law and are engaging in practices that are questionable at best and at times downright unethical.
Charter schools are making headlines for giving diplomas to students who didn’t earn them, hiring large numbers of unlicensed teachers, and failing to serve low-income and minority students among many other transgressions. These sensational exceptions are the ones that dominate headlines. Sadly, when one charter abuses or mishandles its opportunity, the reputation of all charter schools suffers.
As a teacher in one of the truly innovative charter schools modeled on the original vision, this infuriates me. For instance, my school is using a personalized approach to learning coupled with 1:1 technology to truly reach all students where they are. We have started an innovative mentoring program and intentional transition support for our incoming ninth-graders. We have reduced our class sizes for our introductory math classes and integrated tutoring into a seminar period for all students.
We are doing amazing things, but the emphasis in the media on failures of other charter schools is diminishing the value of the innovative work that charter schools like mine are doing.
Under the guise of “school choice,” charter schools are being used as political pawns rather than institutions of education and innovation. Those who support privatization use us as an example of why school choice is great without really valuing our innovation. Those who oppose privatization refuse to see our innovation at all or discount it as not having any scalable application.
With the appointment of our new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the polarization of “school choice” as a political issue has intensified. With the possibility of more dollars coming into my state for funding schools of choice, it’s time to overhaul the charter approval process.
Charter approval should be based on offering truly unique and innovative solutions to the problems facing traditional schools and providing pathways to share this innovation beyond the doors of an individual school. There also needs to be more oversight and consequence for charter schools who are not living up to their promises. It is only by investing in innovative schools, both charter and traditional, that we will really find solutions to the problems plaguing education.
The innovation that is being lost in this political fray is hurting our students. They are the ones missing out on the cutting-edge ideas that charter schools could and should be adding to the conversation about education, in my state and around the country.