School & District Management Opinion

Advanced-Stage Charter Syndrome: What “Maturity” Means to the Charter Movement

By Nancy Flanagan — June 30, 2016 6 min read
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Education Week recently posted a fine series of articles on the 25th anniversary of charter schools--the exciting original concept winding down to the dismal, show-me-the-money reality. And yesterday, the New York Times deftly and accurately outlined what happened to one state (Michigan) that embraced the charter movement early, then crafted additional legislation to support “choice,” chip away at public systems where the poorest children (and unionized teachers) are found, then provide cover for obvious failure of individual charters and CMOs.

If you want to know what your state may look like, given twenty-plus years’ worth of burgeoning charterism, simply take a look at Michigan. And keep in mind that #1) there is no foolproof charter legislation model (caps, authorizing agents, profit/non-profit, staffing requirements, etc.) that will guarantee control over charterism; and #2) the concept of a unique, mission-driven charter school is very different from the wide-scale rollout of an alternative organizing model for public education.

Here’s the story of my personal aha moment, re: charter schools:

The year is 1994, and Michigan has spanking new charter-establishment legislation. Several colleagues and I have been kicking around the idea of starting a school-within-a-school for students who have a passion for the fine arts. The district has axed, then returned, arts courses, staff and extra-curriculars in a depressing cycle over the previous two decades. First there is a program, then there isn’t--and then one music teacher is covering 1700 kids in three schools, so we can say we have music, when it’s only one 35 minute period every other week. And just when our students begin winning scholarships and prizes for their artwork--boom, all the art teachers are gone. And on and on, up and down, for years.

Our thinking: We could re-structure the school day, infuse the arts into humanities courses, take a project-based approach to curriculum--all ideas that have been around for some time, but are difficult to roll out in a very rigid bell schedule/direct-instruction environment. The charter legislation would allow us to work under the unionized protections of a traditional public system, but provide a framework to innovate.

Our target audience--kids and families who wanted rich arts programming, but weren’t tethered to 50-minute, single-grade classes. The teachers (K-8) who were interested in doing this were among the best, most creative folks on staff--all willing to forgo certain contractual guarantees (class size, student load, number of preps, textbooks, duty-free lunch) in order to launch our new school.

We also had a de facto leader--a helicopter-type mom who was determined to use the exciting new law to build her ideal school (and, naturally, provide a free custom-tailored education for her kids). We had a number of lunchtime dreaming-the-dream conversations, and precisely one meeting.

This was a long time ago, but I remember this moment clearly: We had sketched out an entirely new model for grouping students, covering curricular essentials, and operating as a teacher-led school. The mom--and friends she brought to the meeting--were thrilled. Outspoken Mom rubbed her palms together and boldly declared “We are going to have the cream of the crop at this school!”

The teachers looked at each other, dismayed. We were thinking about teaching and learning in new ways. The parents were thinking about screening and selecting the kids who would be their children’s classmates--a real perk since it wouldn’t cost them a penny in private school tuition.

We never met again.

I spent the next decade or so being cautious in my thinking about charter schools. I know teachers who have worked, long-term, in charters, earnest people whose vocation is promoting charters, and parents whose children attend well-regarded charter schools, folks who believe on the flimsiest of evidence that they have made the superior choice. I’ve spent days and held meetings in boutique “public school academies” established in planetariums and museums, with clearly defined missions and glossy PR materials. I am friends with a woman who got so sick of seeing an underclass of poorly served students in her wealthy, high-scoring suburban alpha school that she started a charter on the poor side of town, the antithesis of no-excuses KIPP-ish academic culture.

I am well-acquainted with early-stage charterism: The exciting idea that public education can be tailored to individual children, instead of “factory model” learning. The noble goal of giving a select group of children whose education would otherwise be unexceptional or dismal a fresh start, ending with admission to a four-year university. No more red tape and stultifying restrictions--let freedom and flexibility reign!

Well. I am here to testify that all the good intentions in the world cannot override the conversion of a long-established public good into a profit-making commodity. I no longer believe that there is a magic legislative formula that will allow “good” charters to exist harmoniously with public schools. I now understand that the end game of unfettered charterism is--and probably always has been--privatization and exclusivity. I live in a state where I am surrounded by hard evidence, gathered over time, of this principle.

A handful of high-functioning charter schools, spread over a large city or entire state, may be shining gems that do little to upset the ecology of public education. But once the low-hanging fruit of schooling children in deep poverty--the faux “we have to do SOMETHING for those kids” syndrome--is exhausted, wide-scale charterism becomes entrepreneurial in the commercial sense.

Then, in its advanced stages, charterism becomes predatory and cancerous. Building safe, functional environments for children whose (underfunded) public schools are chaotic morphs into clever ways to use public money to build edu-fiefdoms and line pockets. Next-- local, genuinely public, efficient and serviceable education ecologies are impacted: Funding is reduced. Schools that were once filled and thriving must be shuttered. Programming is slashed. Democratically elected school boards are forced to pit popular programs and advocacy groups against one another, in messy public forums (although charter schools select boards who will stay on-message).

Parents who can afford transportation, uniforms and “volunteer” requirements start thinking: Would my kids be better off at another school? Perhaps one where there are fewer children in poverty--or children of color?

Consider the following exchange between a Republican business leader in MI (with a familiar name) and a very well-heeled lobbying group supporting charters:

In February, four prominent Detroit Republican business executives, including two sons of former governors, testified in support of [a plan to preserve Detroit public schools and regulate charters] before the Legislature, arguing that 20 years had proved that the free market alone is not enough to improve schools. One of them, Mr. [Scott] Romney, likened schools to a public utility. "This is a public service, this isn't just a business," he said in a recent interview. "I don't believe in the free market for police or fire." But the Great Lakes Education Project and other charter school lobbying groups warned that the commission would favor public schools over charters and argued instead to kill off the Detroit Public Schools. In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission. Lawmakers were forced to take it to prevent the city school system from going bankrupt.

Is this what end-stage, terminal charterism looks like? Starting with already-troubled public systems, then working outward toward healthy public districts, especially integrated districts? Is the underlying rationale for the destruction of America’s best idea--a free, high-quality fully public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table--simple greed? Is it elitism run amok?

Or is it the suppressed ugly, racist side of human nature: It’s my money and you can’t have it-- and besides, I don’t want my children to go to school with them (whoever your own personal “them” is)? Maybe charterism is just another expression of who we are becoming, as a nation.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.