Education Opinion

Bringing Charter School Control Closer to Constituents

By Deborah Meier — February 03, 2015 6 min read

Dear readers,

Joe and I have an idea. We’re going to change format of our discussion by writing shorter back and forths vs. essays. We realized that we were having a more interesting time writing email notes to each rather than writing columns to each other. So we talked on the phone and that was such fun that we’ve concluded--inconclusively--that we’re going to experiment, starting right now.

So, we’ll start with snippets from our recent correspondence and go from there. I should first mention that Joe and I have worked off and on together for the last 25-30 years. Joe thinks it started with our work together on absurd efforts by the NCAA to control what high school courses candidates for athletic scholarships had to NOT take (like internships, community service, current issues, etc). We were also there for each other as we founded interesting projects and schools in our respective geographic territories. We were always on the same page. Until recently. So, it seemed worth trying to figure out where and why and how we parted company over charters and over privatization.

Here’s one example from last week’s unpublished back-and-forth.

Deb: I see charters as primarily serving the purpose of privatizing public institutions, contrary to its original attraction as a way to be more innovative. ... Have you always had a more benign view of the profit motive?

Joe: You ask, “have you always had a benign view of profit motives?’ ... There are some companies I would buy from and others I would not. ... I’d also say that there are some nonprofits I respect and some I detest. I’m not sure making a book company nonprofit would make it better. They could still pay huge salaries, misuse money, and produce crummy products. You and I buy things from companies every day. I think the issue is what is the quality of the products and services.

And here’s the follow-up:

Deb: I think, like you, I’m becoming more and more suspicious about the meaning of non-profits. Many are for-profits disguised as nonprofits. Probably few are the other way around.

Perhaps what I’m focusing on is not the profit vs. nonprofit issue but the public vs. private. The latter are responsible only to their boards and specific state and federal tax rules about how they operate. But public implies (not always realistically) being accountable to “a” public, by way of “democracy.” It’s the product of public discourse and a public form of decision-making. Because democracy is, at best, complex and problematic (and it’s rarely “at its best”). There are myriad examples of corrupt and manipulative public institutions. But either we give up on democracy or we need to correct these misuses. We also need schools that are centers for civic discussion, above all about the complexities and trade-offs that any democracy lives with, until it decides to revise the trade-offs, and then again revises, and on and on. That’s how I hope we tackle the egregious corruption of too many of our existing public institutions, including some school boards.

Joe: Deb, you are deeply and wisely committed to democracy. We agree on the value of democratic principles. But I don’t think democratic principles mean that all power to decide what educational options are available should be given to a local school board.

In this democracy, all powers are not given to any particular group. One of the wisest ideas this country has developed is the “separation of powers” concept. That applies at every level of government. Where would we be Congress had not stepped in to insist, for example on Title IX, equalizing opportunities for women? Where would we be if Congress had not passed laws saying local boards (or states) could not establish schools that only one race of students were allowed to attend?

It appears you are concerned about several aspects of the charter movement that you refer to as “privatizing.” One involves schools that are not under the direct control of an elected school board. But many aspects of public K-12 education are not under such control. Here are a few examples:

  • Statewide public schools. Illinois has its Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Minnesota has the Perpich Center for the Arts. Louisiana has a statewide school, the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts. There are many others (See, for example, this page http://ncsss.org/about/institutional-members.) This lists statewide schools and a few local magnet schools. More than 40 states have statewide schools for the deaf. These schools are supported by tax funds. Most are not under the control of a locally (or state-wide elected) school board. They are public schools of choice. No one is required to attend.

  • Early college programs. Many states have programs allowing high school students to take courses on college campuses with public funds following students, paying various costs. For example:

Washington has the Running Start. This program allows high school juniors and seniors to attend full or part-time at various public two- and four-year colleges and universities. State funds pay tuition. Students pay for books, transportation, and lab fees.

Minnesota has Post-Secondary Enrollment Options. This allows high school 10th-12th graders to take courses on public and private school campuses, or courses offered via the Internet. State funds pay all tuition, lab, and book fees. Students from low-income families may apply for assistance in paying for transportation.

Florida has a dual-credit program. This also allows Florida high school students to earn free college credits while taking courses on college campuses. The college campuses on which students can take courses are not controlled by a local elected school board.

Each of these are examples of programs supported by tax funds, available for k-12 students, but not under the control of a public elected board. However, each of these has been approved by the state legislature, which is subject to elections.

I’m OK with programs created by a state’s legislature that are not necessarily under the control of local boards. Legislatures wisely have decided that local elected board control is not the only way to apply important democratic principles to public K-12 education.

Deb: I think there is a difference between an organization that can be “voted” out of power and one that can’t--except by its own privately organized board.

There is a place for both. But there has not been a period in history that I have lived through in which I am more alarmed by so-called “marketplace democracy” (disguised as choice), and the erosion of a democracy of, for, and by--particularly by, the people. I want to figure out a way, with you, for getting schools closer to their constituents--representing both users and community. There could be some negative consequences, so we should figure out how to word our proposed policy so that it doesn’t have such unintended consequences. For the state to “allow” doesn’t take the power from locals whether they use the allowance or not.

I think, maybe, we agree that it would be a major step forward to move in the direction that Boston public schools did or New York City’s District 4 did: bringing control closer to the classroom but part of a publicly responsible “system” of monitoring.

Tune back in on Thursday when Joe will lead off, Deb will respond, and Joe will conclude for the week.

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.