School Choice & Charters Opinion

3 District Problems Help Explain Charter Growth

By Joe Nathan — February 11, 2015 12 min read
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Joe Nathan replies again today to Deborah Meier. She offers a brief response.

Deb, thanks for your suggestions about assessment. Before we discuss assessment in detail, which I hope we can do next week, I’d like to discuss three documents. They help explain the frustration some educators and families have with traditional district systems. These documents also help explain the growth of the charter sector of public education. Please remember that our Center and I are strong advocates of excellent public schools, measured in various ways, whether district or chartered.

Charter growth is documented in a new report, released this week by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. It shows that the number of students attending charters in the 2014-15 school year increased by an estimated 348,000 students, to approximately 2.9 million students. There was a net increase of about 300 new charters in fall, 2014. The country now has more than 6,700 chartered public schools.

The first partial explanation of the growth comes from a powerful description of Metro, a terrific innovative district high “school without walls” in Chicago that operated 1970-1991.The second is a 1988 speech by Al Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers. The third is an article by civil rights legend Dr. Kenneth Clark. While I don’t agree with everything in each of these documents, they offer valuable insights.

Let’s begin with a poignant, passionate book by Paula Barron, a teacher’s union representative and teacher at Metro High School for 21 years. She describes Metro as a “school without walls that lasted two decades, inspiring its students and faculty.” Students took courses in many locations throughout Chicago, learning from community experts.

Among other things, Barron recalls that Chicago’s area and district superintendents “were so opposed to Metro that they did everything they could to put road bocks in our path.” Barron and her colleagues described a district public school option that worked well for many youngsters but ultimately died because of district politics. Sadly, this is not unusual, as the next document points out.

The second is a National Press Club speech that Al Shanker gave in March,1988. In this speech, Shanker acknowledged that ""80 percent of the students do not learn well in traditional settings.”

He also recognized that we have a system that deeply discourages educators who want to create new options that may be more effective for some students. As Shanker correctly noted,

“One of the things that discourages people from bringing about change in schools is the experience of having that effort stopped for no good reason.I hear this all over the country. Somebody says, ‘Oh, Mr. Shanker, we tried something like that 15 years ago. We worked around the clock, and we worked weekends. We read and discussed books. I never worked so hard in my life. And then a new school board was elected or a new principal or superintendent came in and said, ‘That’s not my thing.’” And that’s the end of the school or program.”
That’s what happened to Metro in Chicago, and to many other innovative district public schools.

The third document is a remarkable paper by Dr. Kenneth Clark. It appeared in Harvard Educational Review, Winter 1968. You may recall that Dr. Clark was the co-author of the “Doll Test” that the U.S. Supreme Court cited in Brown v. Board of Education.” He was deeply committed to the education of African American students.

He wrote, “Alternatives--realistic, aggressive, and viable competitors--to the present public school systems must be found. The development of such competitive public school systems will be attacked by the defenders of the present system as attempts to weaken the present system and thereby weaken, if not destroy, public education. This type of expected self-serving argument can be briefly and accurately disposed of by asserting and demonstrating that truly effective competition strengthens rather than weakens that which deserves to survive. I would argue further that public education need not be identified with the present system of organization of public schools. Public education can be more broadly and pragmatically defined in terms of that form of organization and functioning of an educational system which is in the public interest.”

Clark urged the creation of new public schools, outside the control of local school boards. He suggested that some would be created by unions, some by universities and some by businesses.

He concluded, “With strong, efficient, and demonstrably excellent parallel systems of public schools, organized and operated on a quasi-private level, and with quality control and professional accountability maintained and determined by Federal and State educational standards and supervision, it would be possible to bring back into public education a vitality and dynamism which are now clearly missing.”

Deb, you speak of the need for democracy, accountability and teacher unions. I agree in general with each of these points. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that:

1. Well before the charter movement started, district public schools were not working well for large numbers of youngsters.

2. When valiant teachers tried to create new, potentially more effective options, they often encountered the kind of barriers that Ms. Baron describes in Chicago, and Mr. Shanker described all over the country.

3. Options can serve some youngsters and help encourage broader improvement. Millions of students and their families, especially but not entirely low income families, have sought out options outside the traditional system. No one forced them to do this. They’ve made an active choice.

These are among the reasons the charter movement is growing in many states.

Calling the charter movement a “monster”, or referring to some schools as “chains,” as you did, does not change the reality described above. I think progress requires acknowledging there was a lot wrong with the district public school system before the charter movement began. There’s a lot wrong now that has nothing to do with chartering.

Fortunately, the charter movement has encouraged some traditional districts to turn to creative educators like you. Chartering, like democracy, isn’t perfect and isn’t a panacea. But chartering has helped produce new creative options like Pilots, including Mission Hill, which you started, within traditional districts.

We ought to honor and learn from the most effective schools, whether district or charter. We also should recognize shortcomings of the current system.

Deb responds:

Dear Joe,

You and I have been critics of the existing, above all the schools that serve the poor, for ever so long. But that does not justify any or all alternatives to it. Democracy has likewise always been a flawed institution and yet I that does not mean that I’d embrace it’s alternatives.

We’ve had almost 20 years to watch how the charter movement as presently conceived, plays out. I see more restrictive, traditional practice taking place in charters than you do. I see teachers, students and families more disempowered by charters and I see the leaders of the charter movement supporting “reforms” that have helped destroy more progressive public schools and ending a wave of progressive reforms than any public bureaucracy.

Joe, it needn’t have been if the charter legislation had written into it both more protections for its real life constituents and democratic requirements that have its constituents democratic power. Instead it mostly falls back on consumer choice--the market place--as the governing system of choice.

I understand all too well how good schools like Metro were murdered. Your examples are sad and true. But there are private bureaucracies as bad as public ones and if you add in the lure of public money - greed - at a time when greed has reached obscene heights...... It’s an idea that distracts us from the battles we should have and still must engage in for creating truly democratically controlled and operated schools. And it may prove even harder to defeat the corporate interests than the bureaucratic ones.
But our disagreements needn’t prevent us from joining together to fight for greater democratic practice where it’s most needed, in the schools that serve the effectively disenfranchised.

Joe responds:

Deb, here’s what we seem to agree on:

1. As you wrote, “good schools like Metro (have been) murdered.” (your word). Quite an indictment of the current system.

2. Just because the traditional system frustrates or stifles some students and faculty does not mean that any or all alternatives are a good thing. This is in part why I oppose vouchers to k-12 private and parochial schools. Ember Reichgott Junge, chief author of the nation’s first charter law, has written about why she strongly believes that the charter is much better than the voucher approach. I think we’ve previously agreed that allowing K-12 public schools to have admissions tests is a bad idea. So again, agreed that problems don’t mean all possible alternatives are better.

3. As you wrote, “whether charter or traditionally public, neither struggle will yield success easily and must be joined in the larger struggle for a more equitable and thriving democracy.”

Where we appear to disagree is whether it’s a good idea to allow groups of educators, parents, and community members to create new public schools outside the district structure. You think on balance, that this has been bad because it “disempowered” some educators, parents and students.

Yes, the charter movement has produced some school closures, both district and charter. Some district schools have been closed, in general because of declining enrollment and in a few cases because of low student performance, as charters were opened. It’s also true that some charters have been closed. The recent National Alliance report found that more than 200 charters closed last year. This happened for a variety of reasons, including continuing low student performance, badly mismanaged finances, low enrollment, and sometimes a combination of these things.

You also charge that “the leaders of the charter movement (are) supporting reforms that helped destroy more progressive public schools and ending a wave of progressive reforms....”

Deb, I’ve pointed out several times during our exchanges that there are a variety of voices in the charter movement, as there are within traditional district public schools. Moreover, there are no elected leaders. What I’ve seen over and over in attending national charter conferences is the vast array of views.

For example, some emphasize the importance of innovation, creativity and multiple measures. Others focus primarily on standardized tests and four year graduation rates. Some emphasize comparisons between district and chartered public schools. Others (like our Center) urge learning from the most effective public schools, district or chartered.

You spoke about problems with charter laws. We agree not all charter laws are equally effective. One of the problems is that most don’t provide support for buildings. So many charters have to take funds for leasing a building from the per pupil costs. They can’t go to local tax payers for funds to construct, lease or fix up a building.

Also, charter laws constantly are being refined to reflect concerns about transparency, accountability, etc. Here’s an Ohio newspaper story about changes that have been proposed, (and in my opinion were needed). The National Association for Public Charters publishes a yearly review of charter laws. Part of their criteria is accountability for academic results and whether the law requires that schools be financially transparent.

Generally people are not attracted to charters because they are spending more money than district public schools. A University of Arkansas 2014 national report shows that charters on average, receive about 28 percent less, or about $3800 less per pupil than district public schools.

A Minnesota 2015 report done by a respected accounting firm, Clifton/Larson/Allen, showed that statewide, charters received $447 less per pupil. The funding differences were significantly larger in Minnesota’s two largest cities. Charters in Minneapolis received more than $4900 less per pupil, or 31 percent less than district schools. St. Paul charters received about $3,500 less per pupil, or about 25 percent less. This was primarily because Minnesota charters don’t receive local property taxes.

Building challenges have helped produce some of the questionable financial arrangements with charters that have been rightly criticized. But less money for charters was not the idea of most charter advocates. This was one of the unfortunate compromises that came in battles over whether charter laws would be adopted.

Turning now to assessment, one of the areas that I think you and I agree is the value of multiple measures. Next week, when we discuss ways of assessing schools, I’ll provide more details of a recent National Alliance for Charter Public Schools report that endorses an array of ways to assess schools - not just standardized tests and four year graduation rates.

One of the things that I find most encouraging is that there are growing numbers of places where district and charter educators are putting students first. They’ve joined to focus on helping young people make progress. I’ve previously described the Increasing College Readiness Project we’re doing in St. Paul. This district charter collaboration produced a triple digit increase in the number of students, mostly students from low income families, who are earning college credit while still in high school. There’s a vast, growing research literature on the value of dual credit courses.

University of Washington researchers are documenting district/charter collaboration in a number of cities. Sometimes for example, it’s cooperation on staff development, sometimes sharing buildings, sometimes serving students with special needs.

Yes, details matter. All collaboration does not work out well. But there are growing numbers of educators trying to put students first. That’s encouraging.

Deb, you and I have spent decades working with urban families and youngsters. We should not ignore shortcomings and mistakes, of both the traditional and charter approaches to public education.

But we agree that there has been progress. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that four year high school graduation rates have reached 80%. This has happened even as many states have adopted laws requiring students to demonstrate greater proficiency in various areas.

I think part of the reason for this progress is that districts have asked educators like you to create new, potentially more effective options. This effort has been encouraged by the existence of the charter sector of public education.

There’s plenty of work left to do. But let’s give educators credit for helping produce progress. And let’s recognize that the charter movement has helped create a new dynamic in public education. Faced with the charter option, some wise districts have turned to creative educators and given them an opportunity to establish new, potentially more effective options. I think you and I would agree empowering educators can be a very good thing.

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.