I am a progressive and a member of the California Teachers Association. I am also an advocate for charter schools.
Charter Schools have a nasty reputation here at Daily Kos and among many on the left in general -- some of it deserved, but much of it not. Today, after reading LeftyParent's blog about the successes of my own Locke High School in Los Angeles, I realized that I needed to reengage with this community on the subject of charter schools.
My goal with this diary is to clarify, as a progressive, as union-member, and as a charter school teacher and advocate why I believe that much of the antagonism towards charters is misdirected and undeserved.
Disclaimer Much of what I write about here is not true for those states like Ohio and Arizona where for-profit charters are legal.
Disclaimer #2 As I will note throughout this diary, my experience and knowledge is with California charter law and California has some of the strongest charter law in the country.
What is a Charter:
Charter simply means that a school has autonomy from district policies in terms of delivery method, but in most states is held to the same (and in some states higher) standard of efficacy as traditional public schools.
Charters, however, have been perceived as a threat by much of the traditional education community. I do not believe that they are. First of all, we need to stop viewing education as a zero-sum game with competing teams. While this might be an accurate model if the goal were to simply collect education dollars, if the goal is to actually educate students and improve society then, please, we're all on the same side.
I believe strongly that traditional public education does a reasonably good job for the majority of students, an excellent job for a minority of students and a miserable job for the rest. Charter schools were designed as a tool to encourage public schools to do better, to offer alternatives for students who were unsatisfied, and to offer an opportunity for students who were being underserved.
But to more specifically refute some of the most common statements used by charter detractors to dismiss charters, I'll deal with them one at a time:
Here are the common complaints about charters:
1. There is no oversight.
2. They are anti-union tools
3. They exploit teachers
4. They divert money from traditional schools
5. They aren't any better
6. They get to pick and choose their students
1. There is no oversight: I can only speak for California, but here that is far from true. Charters are strictly regulated and, unlike district schools who are only assessed officially by WASC every three years or so, charters are assessed by both WASC (on the same basic schedule as all schools) and by the chartering district each year, as well. Any issue that is out of compliance with the terms of the charter can lead to a non-renewal or, if egregious enough, can lead to the immediate loss of the charter. This is not the case for district schools who have only NCLB or a parent or teacher led charter rebellion to fear.
2.They are anti-union tools: I am a union member and I work in a charter. A charter where I worked for five years unionized the year after I left. While it is true that charters do not have to be unionized, they are able to unionize fairly easily. Anybody who says that unions are unnecessary in public education -- that teachers are professionals and should act like it -- needs to spend more time on the ground and working with some of the difficult working conditions, difficult schedules, difficult circumstances and difficult (and sometimes downright vindictive) administrators that populate public education.
3. They exploit teachers: There is truth to this statement with regards to teachers. Charters tend to hire younger teachers and work them harder, piling on outside duties that in a traditional school are dealt with by administration. As a charter teacher, I have done master scheduling, discipline, security, lunch duty, recruitment, schoolwide data analysis, charter revisions for renewal, and many other tasks large and small that wouldn't normally fall on a teacher. I have had schedules where I was expected to be in front of kids for 6 hours straight without a break, and I have had work schedules where I was expected to be on-site and available for 9 hours each day. It is circumstances like these that are inspiring union efforts throughout charterdom. The flip-side, however, is that I have spent a teaching career free of pacing guides, district mandates, forced textbook adoptions, and tenure-enforced hierarchy. I've gained incredible experience which has shown me that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in being an administrator, and I have had opportunities to teach classes that would never be given to me in a traditional school.
4. They Divert Money: The money follows the students. The state provides a set amount of money per day of attendance per student so yes, if a student goes to a charter school, the district loses money. They also lose the cost of educating that particular student, so it's a bit of a wash. Charters have been historically more aggressive and dynamic in the pursuit of private and grant money, too, which often gives the perception that charters are somehow better funded and therefore they must be stealing money from traditional schools. The fact is that the grants and donations that charters cultivate are also available to district schools, but district schools are often unable to convince the district headquarters to complete the grant and are generally forbidden from pursuing them as an individual school.
5. They Aren't Any Better: Just like the schools in an a district, there is a great variation in quality among charters. Some are ridiculously bad and some are phenomenal. Most of them exist in the big part of the bell, just like everything else. Charters aren't the answer to education -- there is no one answer to education. I have worked in charters that struggled and I have worked in schools that have done brilliantly with students that the district had foresaken.
6. They Get to Pick and Choose Their Students No. No they don't. They do not. My current charter is a former district school -- we must take every single student in our district area, regardless of any factor. No charter school can refuse students if they are eligible for school. Many charters have waiting lists and lotteries, but they must take students by chance or by order of application. There is a propensity for charter schools to be attractive to parents who are more involved and therefore who possibly have children who are more educationally inclined, but in my experience, the net effect has been negligible.
Just as everything negative that is said about charters can be misleading, so can all the positives. Mostly, the positives I hear are these:
1. They are run more efficiently
2. They offer students a choice
3. They are freed from the burdensome bureaucracy of the larger districts
4. They are able to respond more quickly to challenges
5. They are more family-friendly
6. They are safer
7. They give more attention to individual students
8. They offer greater opportunities.
This one is much easier to deal with because the answer for each of them is the same: It depends on the charter school.
Charters can be more efficient, though that efficiency often takes the form of being underadministrated which can then lead to even greater inefficiencies later. They do offer students a choice, though in many cases, the choice is between vanilla and french vanilla, or between vanilla and axle grease -- neither of which is a real choice.
Charters can be freed from burdensome bureaucracies, but they are also fully capable of developing their own triplicate forms and circular chains of authority -- and they are also capable of having too little bureaucracy (not something I ever thought I'd say) and therefore having no ability to consistently apply policies and procedures. They are, indeed, more capable of responding quickly to challenges, but they often lack the resources to respond effectively.
Independent Charters are small and underresourced. A small independent charter, when confronted with even an insignificant drop-off in student achievement as measured by the API will be forced into Program Improvement by the state. They will have a short window of time to produce an Improvement Plan that will then have to be authorized by the chartering district. This generally means choosing off of a menu of predictably approved choices for change and the end result is that small independent charters that try to create change in struggling communities end up looking very much like the neighborhood schools in terms of academic and curricular approaches. Chartering Organizations like KIPP, ICEF, my own GreenDot, and PUC are all now equivalent to small districts in their size and behave accordingly. In the end, the ability to respond quickly to student needs, because of the ways that the charter laws and national education laws are worded, usually means throwing out the original mission of the school and being forced to mimic the same one-size-fits-all approaches that are showing modest gains in all public schools.
With regards to being more family-friendly and safer -- there may be some truth here. Charters are assessed as part of their charter on how they will increase neighborhood and parent involvement. Also, charter families tend to be at least slightly concerned about the quality and safety of their child's schools. The exceptions for this are the district take-over schools like Locke, Jordan, Camino Real and Palisades. These schools are forced to accept whatever child lives in their district area just like any district school. Here, the improvements in safety and family involvement are generally due to the fact that, as a smaller organization than LAUSD, they have more riding on the safety records of these schools and therefore focus more highly on them. GreenDot has turned Locke High School into a very safe school. In order to do this, they have spent a considerable amount of extra money over the last four years on safety and security -- money that the district was not willing to spend.
Individual attention and opportunities are truly going to be school by school. If I had a choice between sending my child to Diamond Ranch HS, a high quality public school, or a small independent charter, I would choose Diamond Ranch unless my child was one who would benefit from being on a small campus where s/he felt known. The resources are greater at Diamond Ranch, the opportunities are better at Diamond Ranch, the systems themselves are better at Diamond Ranch and my child would be offered a consistent and high quality education.
Of course I don't live in Diamond Ranch and my kid's local high school will be Belmont. This means that I will be looking at local charter high schools and inter and intra-district transfers. It all really depends on what is available. If she got into the magnet program at the Downtown Arts High School, an LAUSD public school I would want her to go there. If not, then I would probably try to get her into Camino Nuevo or Downtown Values charter high schools.
To sum up: Charters are not the answer. Charters are an answer. There is no "The Answer," and until people stop trying to find silver-bullet style solutions to the education problems in our society, we will not make progress.
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