As a candidate for the California State Assembly, I get a lot of well-intentioned but unsolicited advice on education policy.
I have been told that charter public schools “hate teachers,” they are “stealing away the best students” to “de-fund public education,” and of course that “billionaires are trying to privatize our schools.”
For me the discussion has to begin with results. The most recent Smarter Balanced Test results for schools in Los Angeles show that students in charter public schools are significantly outperforming students in traditional district schools. That’s a fact, not opinion, and not spin. We also know that charter schools are serving comparable demographics of students as traditional public schools.
Meeting Community Needs
Public charter schools are doing something better than many traditional public schools—they are designing schools around what students and communities need. Common sense dictates that rather than attack the non-profit model of education, we should be looking for ways that charters and district schools can learn from one another.
This raises the question: What are charter schools doing right?
To answer that question for myself, I went to the source. I arranged to visit charter schools in our communities, including KIPP, Partnerships to Uplift Communities and Green Dot Public Schools. At Green Dot’s Locke High School, one student in particular demonstrated how charters support students and engage with families.
The student recounted for me how the school reacted to her recent behavioral issues. She was getting into fights with other students almost every other day.
She refused to tell her teachers why she was emotionally distraught. Rather than suspend or expel her, as would be standard practice at most district schools, Locke’s staff examined her life to figure out what was getting in the way.
She said her mother started abusing drugs again. But school staff figured out what was wrong. She was ashamed but also relieved. She met with a school counselor every day, and has been working through her issues. She’s now on track to graduate and go on to a four-year college.
Removing Barriers to Learning
Her story is not unique, and professional educators know a great deal about the barriers to learning that can emerge outside of the school. Public charter schools are better able to broaden their range of services for a number of reasons.
First, because they have been liberated from the arcane staffing and resource requirements of the California Education Code, charters are able to invest in systems that address the needs of the whole student.
Second, they are often started from scratch—whereas traditional district schools have operated unchanged for decades, while the communities around them change and grow.
The ‘Common School’
Our current conception of the traditional public school comes from before the Civil War and Horace Mann’s concept of the “common school.” Mann’s idea, which was revolutionary for the time, was that children of all social classes should receive the same education based on the same curriculum.
The common school model was influenced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by notions of the production and assembly line—that children could be educated by roughly the same method that the Model T was built: by progressively adding one identical piece to the next by a succession of identically trained workers (teachers). Most charter schools have fundamentally altered that model, and are doing so to great effect.
Making All Schools Better
After I graduated from college I participated in a similar effort. I co-founded and taught at the Samvedana School in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The “public” schools in the neighborhood had nothing to offer students other than a free one-hour lunch. The schools’ methods were not tailored to the lives these children led. Because parents needed their children working for the family to survive, most kids would only go to school for the free lunch, and then they’d leave.
We started Samvedana to operate as supplementary education—providing kids with a few hours of life skills and a few hours of focused math and language curriculum. To make it work, we had to engage deeply in the community—I went door-to-door trying to convince parents that our school would meaningfully improve the lives of their children. When we opened our doors, we had more kids than we could seat.
Just like Samvedana, successful charters are recognizing that not all students come through the school doors equally equipped to learn. The best charters work seamlessly with communities, parents, teachers and school personnel to adapt to the needs of each student.
If we can apply the lessons that charters have learned, then we can close the achievement gap between traditional district schools and charter schools, making the distinction unnecessary. Common sense dictates that we collaborate to make all schools better.