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Education Opinion

Are Charters’ Unintended Consequences a Part of the Democratic Process, or a Threat to It?

By Deborah Meier — May 19, 2015 6 min read
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Today Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan their differing interpretations of the school-choice movement--and what it means for democracy.

Dear Joe,

I’m getting closer to understanding. Our agenda contains the same items. Just in a different order. We’re differing over unintended consequence given this time and place. Not uncommon.

Examples: A longer school day might be good if ... school was different; ditto for starting school at earlier or at earlier ages. Yes, but ... it’s the unintended consequences of charters you and I see differently, and the intended consequences of the most powerful charter advocates.

Maybe I’m worried more than you about private choices that endanger democratic communities? Or maybe about how endangered democratic communities actually are? It may also reflect our different assessment regarding the extent that schools can redress class inequalities.

In the case of publicly funded, privately governed schools of choice, should it be necessary to assess the potential damage inflicted on the community? As we do with drugs and pollution. Or are these also things we should leave to choice?

Like you, I’m not for choice because competition is a virtue and competition rests on choices. I’m for choice because unless it does harm, why not? What kind of harm? Harm both to specific human beings and to an idea that is in critical shape today--that we are each other’s keepers. (Which is why Pope Francis’ message have been so welcomed.)

The United States is built upon a lot of incoherencies and flaws. The challenge of democracy is whether we can come together despite them. Ditto for families, neighborhoods, places of work, electoral districts, legislative bodies--and schools. We resolve these differences when and if we believe we need each other. Only the 1 percent can opt out entirely. Schools are the primary place to practice the habit of not merely tolerating differences but seeing them as essential to our welfare, too. That’s what democracy is about: seeing our differences as those of fellow citizens whom we’re stuck with, not competitive and anonymous consumers.

An example. My roommate my first year of college finally admitted to me that she had never before met a Jew and she couldn’t get over her surprise. I was a nice person! She was a small-town fundamentalist Christian and getting to know her well had the same affect on me. Lesson: Our college had wisely not given us a choice of roommates.

How do we decide if we must between x and y? Democracy suggests a system whereby all the critical constituents of the school participate in making such decisions. While it pays off when the deciders are also implementers there’s still a role for outsiders too--the district, state, or court.

A publicly funded institution has an obligation to its public at large to abide by existing laws regarding civil rights, liberties, fiscal integrity, health, and safety. It is also obliged to do no (or minimal) harm. Charters have too often framed their accountability in corporate terms--to their “bottom line.” (That’s in part what the testing debate is about: are scores a sensible bottom line.) Winners and losers are part of the game--they had their choice.

So, Joe, I treasure the stories told by students who felt our schools changed their lives for the better. But I worry about what we unleashed. There are no magic bullets, but there are risky distractions at a risky time in our history. Charters are a distraction that tears us apart not together. And I’m scared.

Joe Nathan responds:

Deborah, you wrote that “Our agenda contains the same items. Just in a different order,” and that “Charters are a distraction that tears us apart not together.” In this response I’ll focus on the second assertion. Later this week, I’ll describe what I see as priorities for a progressive learning and teaching agenda.

When you say that charters are “a distraction that tears us apart,” I recall the stirring, insightful words of anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

If we think about struggles over unions, voting, housing, LGBT, women’s equality, or other civil rights of American citizens, every one involved great disagreement and discord. Yet isn’t the country stronger for having gone through these struggles, contentious though they were?

The struggle over chartering reminds me of skirmishes of the last 40 years about whether districts should offer alternative schools and options. Many of the same arguments raised against chartering were used against giving educators, families, and community members opportunities to do this “within the system.”

The debate is not about options for wealthy families, who have had, and probably will continue to have them. It’s whether low-income families will have options.

Those who were opposed to education options for low-income students insisted, as many do now that, “it’s much better to improve existing schools rather than create new options.” That response to our blog posts has appeared several times. It does not have to be one or the other. It can be both. Also, chartering has helped encourage needed, valuable improvements in some district schools.

Al Shanker wrote years ago: “Many schools within schools were treated like traitors or outlaws for daring to move outside the lockstep and do something different. Their initiators had to move heaven and earth to get school officials to authorize them, and if they managed that, often they could look forward to insecurity, obscurity and outright hostility.”

John Goodlad wrote decades before NCLB that the cards “are stacked against innovation.”

Sadly the situation has not changed in many places. Over the last 45 years, I’ve attended alternative school conferences from Maine to Hawaii where advocates of progressive education (and other options) describe constant, continuing barriers.

Some district options help youngsters with whom traditional schools had not done well, succeed. Some options have helped strengthen their communities. Same is true of some schools developed via the chartering process (I offered examples of both last week).

Some people have misused chartering. There is some corruption and incompetence. There are continuing efforts to improve chartering, some of which I’ve involved in.

I wish charter opponents would acknowledge similar problems in some school districts and unions. I see little acknowledgement of this from charter opponents. Corruption and incompetence should be challenged wherever they are found.

I don’t always agree with everyone supporting chartering. Neither do I agree with everyone who has supported other important expansions of opportunity over the last 40 years. Real-world progress comes from developing alliances among people who don’t always agree.

Chartering is not the only important strategy for improving schools. But it does respect the insights, ideas, and creativity of educators. Indeed, the idea of teacher- led schools is a growing, encouragement development. It’s one of the good ideas that has come from chartering. I’ll say more about other important strategies later this week.

Deborah Meier responds:

Alas, choice and privatization are being cheered on by the most powerful forces in the country and (yes) allies who get into the highly touted schools they create, while it’s tearing apart advocates of public education and public space itself. That’s what we need to figure out together--a program that brings advocates for the public space together.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.