Three decades since the passage of the first charter school law, this movement of extreme promise has fallen out of favor with many of its original supporters.
A growing list of educators, civil rights leaders and others have accused our schools of profiteering, harsh discipline, inequitable enrollment and failure to operate in the public interest. While much of the criticism is fueled by self-interest and misinformation, the charter community has provided critics with too much of the ammunition that has been used against it. And the brightest lights in the movement have been sidelined.
The public hears almost exclusively about large, national charter organizations, as if the two-thirds of all charters run by independent organizations don’t exist. The independents are local, community-centered charter schools unaffiliated with large management groups.
As community organizations, these schools strive to be transparent and collaborative in their practices, actively recruit kids with learning challenges and aspire to provide the kind of student-centered education for which parents traditionally pay great sums of money.
And the truth is that they perform their work diligently and under the scrutiny of regulators and auditors.
Champions of Innovation
The charter school movement, however, needs to distance itself from the agenda of those who insist on a narrow, orthodox view of education reform that obsesses over so-called “academic outcomes.”
This approach leads to the need to continually test, punish and reward, and ultimately robs schools of the autonomy to innovate and differentiate that is the heart of the original premise for chartering. Charter schools must return to being the champions of innovation and child-centered pedagogy and not be seen as poster children of a seriously misguided and insipid pedagogy.
Let’s keep in mind that the goal of public education is not to create the world’s greatest generation of test-takers, but rather to develop an informed citizenry that can help solve the problems of our time. Moreover, we are perilously close to losing the ethics that have made this country what it is. The question we should be asking is not, “Why can’t Johnny read?” but, “Why is Johnny rejecting science, empathy and the bedrock principles of our democracy?”
As with everything these days, all roads lead back to President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, whose policy wish list at the Department of Education has little to excite educators and a lot to excite profiteers, homophobes and gun manufacturers. The fact that Trump and DeVos favor charter schools (even if neither can articulate anything meaningful about them) is further evidence of the evil represented by our schools in the minds of those who find fault with us.
There are doubtless a number of bad actors who have ignored or perverted their charter contracts and a small but active group of shady operators who have prospered under lax state regulation. But when things go awry, thoughtful people need to set them straight, not blow them up.
Given today’s polarization and some bad actors in the charter arena, it’s understandable that many people, especially those on the progressive side of the political seesaw, look at charter schools under a harsh light.
Understandable and immensely sad, because if there is anything that could help public education become more responsible for maintaining a vibrant democracy it’s the kind of work that is being done now by independent, self-managed charter schools that each day follow the precepts that were present at the creation of the movement. Not all are great, and quite a few have failed, but all have the seeds of greatness.
Some of the problems that are affecting charter schools and giving them a bad name can be addressed by better charter authorization at the state level and many states have already taken steps to eliminate for-profit charter management. That’s a good start. But this should be followed with other best practices that our community-based, independent charter schools have learned, such as a requirement for governing boards to be fully independent from all service providers and to have a robust process for community input.
Last year, independent charters from across the country, fed up with being excluded from the national debate, joined together to speak with one voice. Well over 100 independents joined the Coalition for Public Charter Schools, which will hold its first conference since its formation on September 20. It is a monumental step forward for the nation’s charter movement.
Independent, self-managed charter schools are the only public schools whose autonomy is enshrined into law. They embrace our diverse communities, including immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths and the LGBTQ community.
They stand for community control, multiple measures for accountability, innovation, autonomy and the power of schools to transform the lives of young people.
If we care about dynamic, democratic public education, these are the schools that will have the greatest potential to lead the way.