Which Charters Are Smarter?

A Vision for Truly Public Charter Schools

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Two hostile camps dominate debate about the future of American public education. One camp seeks to reform and revitalize public schools, while the other seeks to dismantle them through tuition vouchers and privatization. Curiously, both sides agree that charter schools are a terrific idea. University of California at Los Angeles professor Amy Stuart Wells calls this the "strange bedfellows" phenomenon. What's going on?

It's easy to see why public education supporters, including public school employee unions, are intrigued by charters. Charter laws give educators and parents the opportunity to create the schools of their dreams. Indeed, dozens of authentically public charter schools already are proving themselves as laboratories of innovation and change. They are helping to strengthen public education.

But charter schools are also attractive to groups that seek to replace public schools with private alternatives. In states from California to Massachusetts, when these groups have failed to pass tuition-voucher bills, they have shifted their energies to passing charter school laws. Why?

The answer lies in their peculiarly permissive notion of what a charter school is. In states such as Massachusetts, Michigan, and Arizona, these groups have succeeded in passing laws that grant charter status not just to legitimate public schools, but also to existing private schools, to home-schoolers, and even to individuals and for-profit companies with no track record in education.

For advocates of private alternatives to public schools, these permissive charter laws are a strategic masterstroke. After all, why go through the grief of trying to pass tuition-voucher bills--which fare poorly in opinion polls and have been consistently rejected by voters and the courts--when you can get back-door public funding for schools that remain effectively private by re-labeling them as "charters"?

"What is called for is an incremental strategy that helps acclimatize the public to school choice, readying them for phase two, vouchers," said voucher activist Roxane Premont, in a speech at the Christian Coalition's annual conference in September. "Christians can enjoy the control they exercise in charter schools even as they push for vouchers."

And that's not the only problem with permissive charter laws. They also allow anyone to found a charter school, including people without previous experience as teachers or school administrators. They allow charter schools to hire uncertified teachers and to maintain restrictive admissions policies. And, in a number of states, charter laws fail to provide for even the most rudimentary public oversight and accountability.

For example, in Mesa, Ariz., a private Christian school converted to public charter status this year but continues to teach creationism in its science classes. Despite this clear violation of both the Arizona and U.S. constitutions, Mesa's school board has no authority to intervene. In Los Angeles, a charter school principal used school funds to lease a Ferrari and to pay his rent, despite the fact that his school was $1 million in debt and enrollment was plummeting; the school closed at midyear, and taxpayers were never reimbursed.

Despite these all-too-common abuses and illegalities, advocates of permissive charter laws persist in claiming that such laws are "strong." Likewise, they claim that laws requiring, for example, that charter schools hire certified teachers, be approved by local school boards, and admit all students without discrimination are "weak."

But these semantic somersaults ultimately fall flat. Beyond the superficial appeal of charter laws that "get rid of all regulations," the reality is that such laws have opened the door to abuses that hurt students, and will damage, if not discredit, the charter school movement.

Fortunately, many states have passed tough-minded charter laws designed to ensure that charter schools are truly public schools, adhering to democratic principles and fully accountable to the public. Likewise, the National Education Association's own charter school initiative--which currently sponsors six charter schools around the country--is premised on principles that should be at the heart of every sound charter school law:

These are minimal, prudent parameters for ensuring that charter schools are truly public schools, and not just private entities receiving public funds. Nonetheless, the usual critics of the NEA have responded in knee-jerk, negative fashion. The NEA's support of charters, they claim, is a public relations exercise; the association's real aim is to strangle the charter movement in its cradle by insisting on onerous restrictions.

These critics are dead wrong. Certainly, we make no apologies for opposing loosely drawn charter laws that amount to back-door privatization and do nothing to strengthen public education. However, as a national association, we have not allowed deceptive and ill-advised legislation in a handful of states to deter us from embracing the broader promise of the charter school movement.

The NEA's initiatives have had a single-minded focus: to ensure that charter schools will be public schools in the best sense. "In most states," writes Eric Rofes of the University of California at Berkeley in the spring issue of Rethinking Schools, "teacher unions can be credited with forcing policymakers to craft charter legislation which deters 'creaming,' or providing preferential admission to academically talented students."

Is it nontraditional for a union to use its financial and technical resources to sponsor six charter schools? Is it nontraditional for a school employees' union to say that, henceforth, issues of school quality must be front and center at the bargaining table? Clearly, the answer to both questions is yes. And it should be equally clear that the interests of the NEA--in strengthening public education and serving our members--require exactly this kind of new thinking.

Ironically, the NEA supports charter schools for many of the same reasons as our opponents on the political right. We both see charters as a vehicle for de-bureaucratizing public schools; for increasing parental and community involvement in schools; and for expanding the menu of education choices and options.

But that is where our agreement ends. Our opponents--those who seek to dismantle public education--see charter schools as a halfway house en route to total privatization. By contrast, we envision charter schools as a catalyst for innovation in and renewal of public schools. To this end, we insist on rigorous charter laws to ensure that these schools are truly public--democratically governed, open to all students, and fully accountable to taxpayers and communities.

Vol. 16, Issue 14

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