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Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Truth About Charter Schools Part I

A friend of mine just asked my opinion on Charter schools and their relationship with traditional public schools. Fortunately, I happened to have one handy so I didn't have to go find somebody else's and pass it off as my own. While I was at it, though, it occurred to me that, as my opinion is credulant on the matter, that this would probably be the best venue for offering an answer.

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.

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.

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

Each of these is a partial truth. In this entry, I'll deal with the complaints and in a later posts, I will deal with the praises.

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. The union contracts that stipulate tenure, however, are not necessary and many charter unions eschew the traditional tenure protections in favor of strict dismissal due process and a two-year renewal cycle after the third year.

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.

5. They Aren't Any Better: Just like the schools in an a district, there is a great variation in quality in 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.

Tomorrow: Part II: The reality behind common CS praise.

Just as the reality of the commonly repeated issues with charters are a mixed bag of credulance and reality, so too are many of their praises.

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