Education Opinion

Lessons From Boston: Rethinking Charter Schools

By Deborah Meier — January 27, 2015 5 min read
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Deborah Meier’s conversation with Joe Nathan continues today.

Dear Joe,

We agree on so many things—hardly a surprise. I suspect that if you and I were to start off from scratch trying to figure out this charter school thing, we’d probably agree on a lot. Unfortunately, where we disagree is both on who is leading this “movement” and what their motives might be. I think these leaders believe, genuinely or not, that private is good, public is bad, and that the market place is a good substitute for public decision-making (sometimes called democracy). That’s their solution to worrying about “the common good,” except when it comes to war-making, which I think they still see as the government’s job—with volunteers (note how the draft, as an idea, has disappeared). I think the money behind it is coming from those who see another marketplace for investing their money—and making a profit. I think that’s the direction we’re heading in all manner of ways (the army, postal services, prisons, etc.).

Our disagreements otherwise are nuanced. I’m perhaps more worried than you that choice will exacerbate an already niche-style culture—where no one has to know anyone they disagree with, or watch a TV show they disagree with, or read a newspaper they disagree with, and on and on. Two of my grandchildren went to a local school (in a “system” of 1,000 K-12 students), and I loved the way everyone was brought together and the impact it had on the town and the kids. Still, I grant everything you say about how choice allows us to give more attention to the implementation of our ideas (curriculum pedagogy, specific kids, etc.). But since my ideal system wouldn’t eliminate elected regional/geographic boards, maybe the choice question (yes/no or “it depends”) can be left to that group? (District 4, in East Harlem, actually had both, neighborhood schools and schools of choice.)

Let’s imagine that you and I had all the political power and will we needed. How might we with the wisdom of our experience redesign the “charter idea” as the future of public education itself?

From the start of my move to Boston I wanted us to tackle the ultimate question: “What if” every school voted to be a pilot. Alas ... Instead management embraced charters, the Boston Teachers Union backed the pilots, but the systemic possibilities were never explored. Maybe we could have figured it out. After all my friend Leo Casey of the AFT wrote a letter to me when we dialogued on Bridging Differences saying he was in favor of individual schools having more power to design the details of their own contract—as long as “the school” meant more than “the principal.” Many local chapters have varying degrees of school autonomies—it wasn’t out of the question to add more.

The other mistake I think the Boston Teachers Union made was in not clarifying some of the criteria for the governance of pilots in their original BTU-BPS Pilot contractual understanding—beyond that each pilot needed a board. Mission Hill’s planning committee, by contrast, undertook to carefully imagine what a democratic decision-making body might look like. (I think parts of it may be on the Mission Hill School website.) One document was on the over-all governing board, a second on the responsibilities of the parent association and the faculty council, a third on the understandings of what the job of full-time teacher and principal at Mission Mill entailed, as well as spelling out how due process would be carried out and, soon, how hiring and firing decisions were made.

In short, a school governing board was part of the BTU-BPS agreement, but not the particulars of who and how it was chosen. At Mission Hill, the planning committee created a tri-partite board (later adding students). The board included five of each of the following: staff members (including the principal), families, and community members (chosen by the staff members and family representatives). Certain key decisions needed to have the approval of a majority of each constituency. In most cases, however, the proposals for action would be initiated by the staff councils. For example, if a scheduling and curriculum plan was proposed by the staff for the following year, any one of the three constituent groups could “veto” it and send it back to the staff for revision. The staff council (at first it was just full-time classroom teachers and principal, but it gradually grew to include anyone on the full-time staff) met for an hour weekly, in addition to retreats. We operated on a modified consensus basis too. Only if I thought the health and safety of a student and/or fiscal integrity were at stake did I have temporary veto power. During my nine years at MH there was never a veto, and only once did we have a really tough time getting a staff consensus. (It was about meeting on snow days.)

With a larger school we’d need an additional small staff steering committee to make some decisions, but our total staff was always under 20.

What else might the law specify? I think, as is the case in Boston, individual students’ rights to due process need to be included, as well as certain other rights of individual parents and parent bodies were not waived. And yes, conflict of interest laws, open accounting requirements, civil rights and health laws cover all publicly funded schools.

My colleagues at Boston’s Coalition Center spelled out the autonomies needed as budget, hiring/firing, scheduling, professional development, curriculum, and assessment. By the way, I love your description of the dual-credit program. CPESS (no longer in existence) used to do something like that. All students were required to audit some college courses, although the work was supervised by our staff. And we encouraged students to apply for credit if they thought they could handle it. Not all did. (P.S. When my granddaughter got her 2-year college degree at a NYC’s Bard College public high school, her college didn’t honor a single credit.) I think they are important in part so that kids get a “feel” for what college is like—as a culture, a climate, etc. We also made advisory trips every year starting in 7th grade to an out-of-town residential college so that they saw the world at large as their oyster.

I’d also like there to be a limit on the number of schools sharing a common board (versus networks). Maybe up to 3 schools in one region could link together officially under a common board? But no chain stores.

This is pretty bare boned, and off the top of my head. What do you think?

It’s useful to dream sometimes. The capacity to imagine what isn’t is one of the glories of being human—and needs to be frequently exercised. The long term fight for democracy (equality, justice, etc.) depends on strengthening the “what if” habit. It’s one of the many reasons that childhood play is vital. It should extend throughout our lives.


More on Mission Hill can be found on MissionHillSchool.org

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.