Further Thoughts on Charter Schools

I got a nice acknowledgement on my most recent blog piece from Robert Skeels in his piece for the blog “Schools Matter”. Robert liked my insight into the teaching profession being disrespected and never fully treated as a real “profession” (like doctors and lawyers) because it has historically been and continues to be a “pink-collar ghetto” dominated by women. He took great issue though with my position in support of charter schools as the “only game in town” for communities to make any sort of real educational changes in their neighborhoods. Robert wrote…

I find your stance on charters somewhat lacking nuance and I think we need to find another mechanism than charters to move in a direction of democratizing schools.

In saying that “we need to find another mechanism”, I think Robert is acknowledging that he is not aware of any other mechanisms right now for moving “in a direction of democratizing schools”.

So I put it out to folks who read my blog (including the Daily KOS version), what other way is there out there for parents to transform their neighborhood public schools so those schools offer different educational paths to suit a diverse democratic community? What other way is there to see a new neighborhood school created that meets their need say for a different sort of learning venue that might be more suited to some of the kids in their neighborhood that do not do well in a highly academic, highly instructional (rather than say experiential) conventional public school?

I’m really interested for people who know about these things to chime in. I’m just a parent (with two now young adult kids who struggled in conventional public schools) who tries my best to be well read about all the education news and trends, but I am not seeing anything else out there. I’m perhaps naive about charter schools, so please give me some hope that there is some other way for a community to “think globally” but “act locally” in changing just one of their local schools into something they think will be a better venue for their kids to learn.

For example, say a group of parents, kids and teachers in a “majority minority” at-risk urban neighborhood would like to be able to send those kids to a neighborhood school using a Critical Pedagogy curriculum to help kids learn about and actually have the experience challenging racism in and improving their local community. Following this curriculum none of the standard textbooks would be used, the cadre of teachers in the group would develop their own materials focused on identifying privilege and strategies for challenging it. The hope would be that if the kids really engaged in this alternative curriculum they would learn enough of the state standardized knowledge to at least not completely fail the standardized tests. All this, while at the same time in this same neighborhood there is a much larger majority of other parents, kids and teachers who would prefer a more conventional school focused on the four conventional academic subjects and using all the standard textbooks and teaching methodologies.

If the first group of parents did not have the option to start a charter school, what would you suggest they do? Go to the school board or the district superintendent and ask that a new school be opened in their neighborhood that used a Critical Pedagogy curriculum that the teachers among the neighborhood group had come up with? Given the typical education bureaucracy and one-size-fits-all mentality, what would district leaders likely respond to this group of people? Great idea… we’ll help you make that a reality?

Robert Skeels goes on to criticize charter schools here in Los Angeles…

Where the most vile and greedy 501C3s have succeeded at commoditizing children to the tune of millions, the potential for corporate market forces to co-opt and dominate charters too great. The endless list of scandals, the predominant profit motive, the lack of democratic control, and the capricious way they can be closed, begs a different path entirely.

Sally and I were actually involved in starting a non-profit charter school here in Los Angeles using a John Dewey based social studies curriculum and teaching conflict resolution rather than using rewards and punishments. Do you think we could have convinced the Los Angeles Unified School District (with its 70,000 adult staff and 700,000 students) to create a small school, teach the Dewey curriculum, and convinced the principal of that new school to use only conflict resolution to resolve all issues and infractions?

We are aware of several other charter schools started in Los Angeles launched by determined parents and/or community activists that we have a direct or indirect connection with. I have read in the local media about many more started by groups within the community.

As to the “vile and greedy 501C3s” that have set up charter schools in Los Angeles and “succeeded at commoditizing children to the tune of millions”, I have not read about those organizations, and would be grateful if someone could point me to some pieces documenting their bad deeds in the city of Los Angeles. That said, I am aware of the issues in other parts of the country with for-profit charter chains in Florida, Ohio, and other places.

We know the names behind the so-called charter “movement” and they certainly aren’t people interested in democracy, community, or a populace with critical thinking skills.

I am aware that there are a number of non-profit charter schools set up by Democratic activist and community organizer Steve Barr and his Green Dot organization. Inspired by his progressive roots, Barr transformed the failing LAUSD Locke High School and has been acknowledged in many (but not all) circles for his success. Barr notably negotiated with the state teachers union and has staffed all his schools with unionized teachers, unusual for charter schools, but consistent with Barr’s progressive activist roots. (Barr did butt heads with the local United Teachers of Los Angeles union and its former head, A.J. Duffy.)

We need a better way to have schools with more community oversight and parental decision making, while removing any mechanisms for corporate control (non-profit or otherwise).

I agree, and I welcome any thoughts on the path forward on this. Maybe we change the charter laws so that all charters must be started by non-profit organizations (and ones that are not fronts for for-profit enterprises). Maybe our public school systems can be decentralized so that parents can participate in the budget, curriculum and policy decisions made in the neighborhood school their kids attend. I know my partner Sally served on the board for several years of the alternative Dewey charter middle school (referenced above) that our daughter attended.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. At least based on the study done at the Yale Law School in 2006, only 14% of charter schools in the U.S. were either for-profit or were non-profits managed by a for-profit company. The Department of Education statistics counted 3780 charter schools in the U.S. in 2006 growing to 4694 by 2009. Even if somehow all of those 914 additional schools were for-profit, still a strong majority of U.S. public charter schools have been legitimate non-profits, like our local alternative school where my partner sat on the board, or Steve Barr’s Green Dot schools.

Should we cut off a mechanism for people outside the education establishment and its now nationalized hierarchy to launch schools because it has been exploited by some?

Robert Skeels quotes Jonathan Kozol who says…

In the long run, charter schools are being strategically used to pave the way for vouchers. The voucher advocates, who are very powerful and funded by right-wing foundations and families, recognize that the word voucher has been successfully discredited by enlightened Americans who believe in the public sector. So they’ve resorted to two strategies. First, they no longer use the word “vouchers.” They’ve adopted the seemingly benign phrase “school choice,” but they are still voucher advocates.

I think there is good news in that the campaign by conservatives to promote vouchers has pretty much failed to date, evidenced by the change in strategy that Kozol calls out. I think he is also right that some (but not all) conservatives are opposed to public funded universal schooling (like they are opposed to public supported universal health care).

But in my reading of recent U.S. education history, conservatives did not start the charter school movement, and their involvement in it I would argue is more about trying to diminish or destroy the teachers unions which have effectively opposed conservative political and legislative initiatives. I would further argue, that at least in Los Angeles and other locales, charter schools have invigorated a moribund and overly-bureaucratic public school system allowing for some alternative approaches to learning, teaching and governing a school to be tried and leveraged.

All that said, I don’t think that charters have enough real freedom to provide truly different educational opportunities for our youth. They are constrained by many of the same key limitations that keep conventional public schools in the teach to the test mode with standardized curriculum and ubiquitous high-stakes testing. We still need to fight to end that standardization.

The charter option, though significantly flawed, gives you at least a limited opportunity to create a school in your neighborhood at least somewhat outside the box, though you still have to teach to the standards and to the test. But honestly, in the present reality, how else can you launch a school based on Critical Pedagogy, maybe have the teachers run the school (like a charter in Detroit MI) or have the parents “take over” a failing neighborhood school. How else could you have a school adopt a Montessori, Waldorf or John Dewey holistic education model.

If you don’t have the option to start your own public school, then you are just a small community of people challenging a multi-billion dollar national educational-industrial complex. How do you even begin to make headway there without either waiting for, or hastening the demise of our “command and control” education behemoth.

So please fellow progressives, reconsider a complete and total opposition to charter schools, unless you can come up with some alternative method to get new schools launched in ones own neighborhood without having to dismantle and transform the entire U.S. centralized educational bureaucracy first to do so so. Yes we should continue to fight for educational change from the top down (including, I would argue, trying to get charter laws amended to ban for-profit schools). But don’t remove this mechanism for achieving at least some degree of educational change from the bottom up, at the more human and doable local level.

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6 replies on “Further Thoughts on Charter Schools”

  1. Much to think about and maybe respond to here (and in other entries). For now, just a note that in Wisconsin and elsewhere the Voucher movement is expanding, not contracting and that is in apart because the insidious “choice” language obscures the ant-public sector agenda. I don’t see how people bent on destroying public education moving from ineffective marketing to effective marketing can be “good news.”

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    If conservative are managing to get vouchers approved (particularly for anyone beyond only poor kids) and are able to pass those bills with nobody calling them out as vouchers, I agree that is not good news. Charters really run the gamut I guess. They seem generally a good thing in my blue state of California and are apparently just the opposite in your increasingly red state of Wisconsin. Maybe charters are only exploited by the right in states where conservatives control the state government.

  3. Jim Cummings says:

    I worked on starting democratic schools 8-10 years ago. I read the PA charter law. It seemed that we could have done a democratic charter school if we somehow dealt with testing. I noticed there was nothing about grade progression in the charter law. What if the young people define their own grade level, specifically you are in third grade when you decide that you are ready and willing to take the third grade test (the earliest one in PA).

  4. Cooper Zale says:

    Jim… I would like to see schools identify a set of skills and thresholds to be achieved for graduation/matriculation and then let kids move towards achieving those things on their own pace. The whole thing of bundling all the same-age kids together is unnatural and from my experience as a kid in school very discomforting. Mixing ages and letting people learn at their own speed and on their own internal calendar would be very helpful to most learners.

  5. Jim Cummings says:

    Cooper – I see age segregation as a part of the oppression of young people. It keeps young people from connecting as young people and making common cause. IIRC, in the Sudbury model a student who wants to graduate makes a proposal to the school meeting: I am ready to graduate and then the meeting decides.

  6. Cooper Zale says:

    Jim… I really like the way Sudbury does that. It is very organic and all about “a jury of your peers”.

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