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Charter Schools: 'More Than We Ever Expected'

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The one clear thing about charter schools is that they are all very different, each having its own distinctive character.

California's charter school law is now five years old, and many of the charters created in the wake of its passage are up for renewal. How are these schools doing? Have they begun to improve public education as a whole?

The safest thing to say is that, for many of us working in them, charter schools are more than we ever expected. No charter school has had a totally easy go of it, but it would be an injustice to try to draw too many generalities. The one clear thing about charter schools is that they are all very different, each having its own distinctive character.

Nevertheless, at the risk of perhaps angering colleagues I admire, I want to make some general statements about our progress so far. Some of my fellow charter schoolers will agree with what I have to say, others will disagree. My intent is simply to start a dialogue that will take us further and faster in the next five years.

Charter schools' accomplishments have been superb in terms of animating the stakeholders in their immediate communities. Students are re-engaged; they feel safe and are interested in learning. Parents are grateful. They still get mixed up at times and think that charter schools must be private because everyone cares so much about them and works so hard for their success. But what about the call for positive student outcomes? How have we fared in that area?

The worst thing that could have happened in terms of measuring progress happened for us when we lost the California Learning Assessment System, the state's performance-based achievement exam, so early in the game. Despite what individuals might have thought personally about the test, at the time the charter law was passed, CLAS was our yardstick. We had a common measure of progress. Today, we find the governor taking one road, the state superintendent calling for another, and districts often "doing their own thing."

Charter schools have the legal right to focus on whatever is thought to be in their students' best interest. But how are they to deal with fragmented expectations about assessment? Critics say that only standardized testing will document progress. It's the only thing they will buy.

Let's assume that we eventually come up with some uniform measurement at the national level, or even at the state level, as the California state board of education certainly wishes to do. Most charter schools do well in terms of testing, but have their positive outcomes been dramatic? Across the board, are the results going to knock anyone off their political tuffet? I don't think so. Not yet.

The people will no longer tolerate inane bureaucratic practice. They want charters to have the chance to succeed.

Our charter schools have spent an inordinate amount of time in getting their administrative act together. If they had been able to pour all that time and energy into the education of children, then there would be no question as to the extent of their success. But issues such as governance, operational management, funding and finance, hiring, union representation, facilities, parent-involvement contracts, independent study and home schooling compensation, jurisdictional problems, and district interface have dominated the charter community's time from day one.

The business and legal folk at the district and state level say it's all due to the utter mess created by an ambiguous law(s). In California, they look at us condescendingly and say, "Now, wouldn't it have been better if we had received some direction from the beginning?"

What can you say when, five years later, bureaucrats still don't get it? The originators of the charter law in California purposefully did not attach an implementation manual. The intent was to find new and better ways of doing business--ways that would help remove some of the obstacles to action, so that valuable people and resources could be directed to the task of teaching and learning.

District legal departments and central-office staffs have often been obstructive and resistant to what some of them refer to as a "fad." In many districts (not all), control has seemed to be the mandate, not change.

For a while, it seemed that some district legal departments had found their place in the sun. Day in and day out, they work mostly in the area of labor law. Charter law offered them a chance for more lofty considerations.

Some of the more valiant counsel launched a massive effort to protect districts from a "looming liability" they forsaw. But four years later, more enlightened school boards are getting sick of this ultra-conservative legal sing-song. Board members are desperate for change, and charter people with savvy are getting better about working out differences with them.

Charter originators are usually quick to point out that most central offices have not jumped right in to help foster and nurture charter school development. It was naive to ever think they would. Some, but not all, lower-middle-management people discredit and limit the development of charter schools whenever possible. But it's apparent now that they are on the losing side. Charter schools are currently the best hope out there.

Change is coming. The public demands it, and the system will grab hold and endorse charter schools because boards of education and state legislators are elected by the people. The people will simply no longer tolerate inane bureaucratic practice. They want charter schools to be given a chance to succeed. Here are three areas that will affect that momentum:

  • Legislation. True bipartisan efforts in education seem to happen only when a devastating crisis occurs. The next voucher bill will undoubtedly create that magic moment when the legislative wagons circle. Politicians will try to demonstrate that there is an alternative to turning the public system of education over to profit-driven entrepreneurs who promise to "do it better."

But voucher advocates are getting smarter, and their ranks are swelling. They now include both powerful members of the corporate world as well as citizens living in devastated neighborhoods still being virtually ignored by most education initiatives. Many educational leaders privately sigh that vouchers may be an inevitability. Perhaps they are, but if the educational establishment has been reluctant to accept charters, what viable alternative for change has the public been given?

Charters are becoming 'big business,' and the self-serving are getting on board.

Are charter schools demonstrating that there is hope for positive change within the public system? Yes, they are. In spite of all the obstacles, charter schools have made great strides in beginning to create environments where teaching and learning can flourish. They are being creative in how they recruit, hire, train, and deploy people. Many are creating models for how schools can be run more like businesses. Dollars are finding their way to the classrooms.

Parents are more hopeful than ever before, as researchers have repeatedly found, noting a high level of satisfaction among charter parents and students. Governance is beginning to even out, and where there was once confusion and frustration, there is now a growing coherence and clarity of mission.

Charter leaders are gaining force in their communities. People know about their local charters. They like what they hear from friends and family. Support for charter schools is growing nationally, and we in California take pride in our state's contribution to the movement.

  • Charter leaders' agendas. New problems for charters are looming, however, and the irony is that the threat comes not from a frightened and hostile outside environment, but from within. Charters are becoming "big business," and the self-serving are getting on board. Charter leaders are being swayed.

Watch all the "entrepreneurial" interest as more and more federal grant money starts coming to the states. In California, many are promoting a consortia grant design that furthers specific political agendas. Promoters vehemently deny this, but the grant design is an invitation for abuse. We can guess that a minimal amount of funding will get to classrooms under this system. Instead, federal monies will end up supporting the care and feeding of "experts."

Of course, there is venture capital, which speaks, too. But not to all of us.

It is easy to forgive those who, from the beginning, did not believe in charter schools. There is no forgiveness, however, for those who said they did and are now looking to serve their own agendas.

  • Grassroots change. At this year's graduation, my school's largest ever, a quiet, gentle man came up to me with tears in his eyes. He held my hands tightly and looked into my eyes. "Your charter school has saved my family," he said. His son had become a new person, the man told me, confident, happy, and enthusiastic about learning. He raved about his son's teacher and asked me to thank everyone involved. The encounter filled me with pride and humility.

I still meet cynics on a regular basis. They sit across the table and try to negotiate a return to the status quo. I just smile when they do and think of that lovely man and his family.

With any luck, we in California's charter schools have sorted through the roughest part of our transformation. I personally want to spend the next five years thinking and talking only about teaching and learning. The ranks of the opposition are thinning. Legislative term limits will do away with a few of them. Others will tire of the fight. And some may have gotten used to the idea of charter schools doing things differently. For now, in this state, phase one is over, and phase two has just begun. And there is no doubt, we are ready.


Mary Bixby is the executive director of a large, citywide charter school in San Diego, Calif. She received the first California state Sen. Gary Hart Vision Award for outstanding leadership and service to the charter movement.

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