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Charter Schools

"... encouraged to collaborate rather than compete
with traditional public schools

by Pedro Noguera, PhD
Los Angeles, California

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.

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In several cities throughout the country, there is a fierce conflict raging over the direction of education reform. At the center of this increasingly acrimonious debate is the question of whether or not charter schools – publicly funded schools that operate outside the control of traditional school systems, should be allowed to proliferate. Given their steady growth, from no more than a handful twenty years ago, to over 6,000 today, charter schools and their advocates appear to have the upper hand.

Unlike many of the other partisan skirmishes over public policy, the fight over charter schools has pit key players within the Democratic Party against each other. Teacher unions typically oppose the spread of charter schools because most are non-union. However, they find themselves increasingly out-gunned by a formidable coalition of “reformers” that includes mainstream democratic politicians (e.g. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker) Republicans, wealthy corporate donors and private foundations such as Walton, Gates and Broad.

Against such a powerful array of opponents, the anti-charter forces have been losing in their effort to keep charter schools at bay. In New York City, teacher unions and their allies thought they had gained the upper hand when shortly after entering office newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, asserted that he would deny public school space to three charter schools sponsored by the Success Academy Network, headed by former City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz. With backing from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and millions of dollars from hedge funds and wealthy donors, Moskowitz managed to out-fox the new mayor. After mobilizing a small army of enthusiastic parents to march in the state capitol and airing a barrage of expensive TV commercials featuring the smiling faces of black and Latino children who were depicted as the victims of the Mayor’s callous disregard, de Blasio was compelled to back down and reverse his decision. Since that defeat he has not mentioned charter schools again despite the fact that opposition to their unrestricted growth was one of the major issues he campaigned on in his successful run for mayor. Emboldened by the victory, Moskowitz recently announced plans to open fourteen more schools.

The thrashing experienced by New York’s progressive new mayor appears to be due to a failure on his part to appreciate how powerful the backers of the pro-charter movement have become. In cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, the number of charter schools has increased dramatically. In Washington DC, nearly 50% of all children are now enrolled in charter schools, and in New Orleans, the entire system will soon be turned over to independent charter operators. A new bi-partisan bill sponsored by Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Mark Kirk R-Ill.; Mary L. Landrieu, D-La. and Michael Bennet, D-Colo. called the Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Act – will provide new funds to startup, replicate and expand charter schools.

As the number of charter schools continues to rise and the movement behind it gains steam like a locomotive plowing down the tracks, it is becoming increasingly difficult for opponents who see charter schools as a backdoor strategy to privatize public education, to find ways to stop them or at least slow their growth. Aside from the fact that they have such a powerful and wealthy array of backers, charter advocates have managed to make steady progress in the PR battle for hearts and minds of the public. With slick movies like Waiting for Superman (Directed by Davis Guggenheim and paid for largely by the Gates foundation) deployed to present charter schools as the panacea that can save poor children from the nation’s moribund urban public schools, advocates have been able to gain a steady increase in support from the broader public. Much of that support rests upon the claim that charter schools are in fact public schools, and rather than undermining traditional public schools, its advocates claim that their growth will ultimately lead to innovation and renewal within the public education system.

It is this point of contention that charter critics have failed to challenge. Despite the fact that the growth of charter schools has gained considerable momentum it is important to keep in mind that over 90% of American children continue to attend traditional public schools. In fact, polls continue to show that the vast majority of Americans support public schools. This does not mean that the charter movement can or should be ignored but it should serve as a reminder that advocates for public schools have a strong foundation of potential support from which to wage this battle.

In order to insure that the growth of charter schools does not imperil the nation’s commitment to free public education for all children, including those who are most vulnerable (e.g. undocumented and homeless children), it may be necessary to begin challenging charter schools on the very criteria that they have been lauded. Advocates of charter schools frequently make the argument that by providing parents with “choice” the system will be forced to improve through increased competition and greater accountability. In many cases, the competition between charter and traditional public schools has been distorted because education laws have created an unequal playing field. In the forty-two states that allow charter schools, state departments of education, local school districts and in some cases universities, have the power to authorize charter schools. Supporters of traditional public schools can use legislation and the authorization process to promote public accountability and to level the field of competition in the following ways:

Require transparency in finances

While most charter schools obtain results that are no better, and in some cases even worse than traditional public schools, it appears that at least a third are obtaining substantially better academic outcomes for the students they serve. Many of the most successful charter schools pay higher salaries to teachers and administrators (in NY City several Charter CEOs receive salaries that are more than double that of the Chancellor even though they are responsible for a fraction of the number of students) and offer students a longer school day and year. These extras appear to be made possible by the supplemental funding that some charter schools are able to secure from public and private sources. However, unlike public schools there is no transparency in how these funds are raised or used. This is especially important in the case of the for-profit charter schools to prevent fraud and the misuse of public funds.

Adopt clear guidelines for student and parent rights

Despite the fact that they are required by law to admit students through lotteries, in many cities charter schools have found ways to under-enroll the most disadvantaged children – homeless children, those with special needs, English language learners, etc. There is also anecdotal evidence that some charter schools find ways to counsel out children with academic and behavior problems. When this occurs local public schools end up enrolling a disproportionate number of “high need” children, and not surprisingly, their performance wanes. To level the playing field charter schools should be required to adopt clear guidelines concerning the rights of parents and students, and these should include due process guarantees on matters pertaining to school discipline (many charter schools have much higher suspension rates) and avenues for airing and adjudicating parental grievances.

Investigate schools with high rates of teacher attrition

Many charter schools lose 50% of their teachers each year. While teacher turnover rates are generally high in many urban public school systems the higher levels of attrition in charter schools appears to be due to the fact that teachers are non-unionized and have limited avenues for expressing concerns about working conditions. There is also evidence that high teacher attrition may be part of the financial model adopted by some charter schools since new teachers typically earn substantially less than those with more years of experience. In order to insure that teachers are treated fairly charter authorizers and state legislatures can adopt policies that monitor teacher attrition (as they do typically with student test scores) and penalize those that appear to foster less than satisfactory work conditions for teachers.

Place a moratorium on new charters in communities that have been inundated by charter schools

In some cities, charter schools have been allowed to proliferate at such a dramatic pace that they are forcing the closure of public schools that were once stable, solid performers because they have lost students and resources. Rather than allowing charter providers to pick and chose where they will open up, policymakers who support charter schools should deliberately encourage them to open up in the poorest communities where the need for good school options is greatest. They might also specifically encourage charter schools to serve highly vulnerable populations such as children in foster care and group homes, formerly incarcerated youth, or older immigrant youth with interrupted formal education. These children are typically among the least well-served in most public school systems and the flexibility available to charter schools may make it possible for more effective educational models to be designed and implemented.

These measures will not put an end to charter schools or eliminate the threat they may pose to traditional public schools. However, they could begin to level the playing field by fostering a level of public accountability that presently does not exist. Moreover, if there is any chance that charter schools are to serve as the engine of innovation in public education as envisioned by early advocates such as former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker, then it is essential that they be encouraged to collaborate rather than compete with traditional public schools.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 25, 2016.

This a re-reprint of a previously published article, published with Pedro Noguera's permission.

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