School Choice & Charters Opinion

A Tough, But Visionary, Testing Ground

By Peshe C. Kuriloff — February 11, 2004 8 min read
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Despite their problems, charter schools embody Walt Whitman's America.

Walt Whitman would have loved charter schools. They embody the spirit, grandeur, and can-do attitude of America’s dreamers and pioneers. All across the United States, legions of Whitmanesque entrepreneurs are seeking to change the landscape of public education. With such a historic legacy, is it possible they might fail in their mission?

Although charter school laws were passed by legislators with the best of intentions, in many cases it seems as if charter schools are set up to fail, at least in the mission that initially rallied supporters and founders. Not only are they often forced to coexist in a hostile environment with district schools, but they are also viewed by the media, by unions (and not just the teachers’ unions), by district administrators, and others with an interest in the status quo as unwelcome upstarts. The very same freedoms that empower charters to innovate force them to begin each school anew, often literally from the ground up. Overburdened with all the responsibilities of a school district and a school combined, including the responsibilities for reporting, record keeping, facilities, security, and protecting the rights of children under their care, charter schools are fighting an uphill battle.

Some states have set up resource centers to help charter schools get started and to help them mature and so avoid the likelihood that schools will make the same mistakes again and again, as each school learns from experience. In Pennsylvania, however, an entrepreneurial atmosphere prevails, and schools struggling to get off the ground rarely can afford either the money or the time to access best practices, absorb the lessons learned from their fellow charter school founders, and avoid the many pitfalls that loom before them, threatening their very existence. This was certainly the case in my charter school, located in the heart of one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, during my 13- month tenure as chief administrative officer.

Just about every day of my charter school administrative career brought new challenges that inevitably interfered with my capacity to help children learn and achieve. In spite of my determination to put the children’s needs first, surviving as a school too often meant sacrificing educating children to the business of education. Whoever said that charter schools were exempt from bureaucratic requirements obviously did not operate a charter school in Pennsylvania. Calculating and reporting average daily membership and average daily attendance to the third decimal point takes precious time and resources away from supervising teachers, researching best practices, or simply consoling a child whose mother overdosed on drugs and was taken away to the hospital.

Designed to free educators from burdensome state and district regulations, charter schools have largely failed to find a way to make themselves publicly accountable and still maintain their autonomy and capacity to take risks. Especially at a time when public officials have chosen to venerate standardized tests, responsible administrators are forced to meet expectations by focusing on growth in test scores. Where do promising trends like integrated, theme-based curricula, portfolio evaluation, service learning, or work-study programs fit into an agenda centered around test-score improvement? When do schools get the opportunity to leap into the unknown and try out a new approach to building learning communities, integrating constructivist learning through technology, or educating parents and children together? Most schools have not had the leeway to figure that out.

Overburdened with all the responsibilities of a school district and a school combined, charter schools are fighting an uphill battle.

Charter schools are particularly plagued by their inability to access knowledge and expertise easily. That reality has made schools operated by colleges of education and universities especially attractive. These expert resources cost money, precious dollars that might be spent on facilities, teachers’ salaries, or books and supplies. Long-range planning, regular assessment of school operations, creative problem-solving, and enthusiasm for trying new approaches take a back seat in school environments dominated by concerns about compliance and looking good.

In addition, the pressures to conform and survive are almost overwhelming. Every charter school meeting hosted by the Philadelphia school system or the state department of education, when they were trying to be helpful, was chock full of information and protocols designed to enable charters to achieve results just like other, mostly failing, public schools. Mandatory state meetings tended to focus on navigating the education bureaucracy and reporting requirements. A whole day’s meeting this past summer was devoted to how to complete your annual report. Although the district had no clue about how to handle extremely disruptive behavior in elementary-age students and, in any case, had no intention of providing free support to charters if and when they figured it out, district officials spent an afternoon explaining their procedures, clearly expecting us to follow their lead.

In the case of special education, a touchy area for charters because of its potential to cost individual schools large sums of money (costs usually borne by entire school districts), the state does provide charter schools with free advice and training. The agenda advanced by such established resources, however, tends almost always to support the status quo. In a climate that favors individual rights over the best interests of the community, educators fearful of being sued are wary of change. If we don’t have the space or choose not to use space to create a self-contained emotional-support classroom and a self-contained learning-support classroom, following the model established in the district, then we’re bucking the system and out of compliance with the law, no matter how well the affected students learn. Ideas about improving special education service delivery and better responding to children with special needs are in short supply in the special education resource system. Yet we are expected to rely on it.

In spite of all the obstacles, charter schools have shown considerable determination and resilience. Too often impeded by the necessity for reinventing the wheel, they still forge ahead, and many have begun to stabilize and produce respectable improvements in test scores as well as other measurable results. Certainly, as a recent report from the Manhattan Institute shows, their outcomes are no worse than those produced by the schools with which they directly compete, and in some places are better. Given time and support, many might well achieve their promise.

What steps might help charters live up to their potential and avoid what sometimes seems to be their fate? A less hostile working environment and an easing of tensions between school districts and charter schools would be a good start. Increased collaboration between districts and charter schools, along with more collaboration among charter schools, would enable charters to, for example, share the costs of educating students with disabilities, who tend to gravitate toward charters, without being accused of “creaming” students by sending those in need of expensive customized instruction back to their districts and keeping the rest. In return, an individual charter school could develop an innovative program for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a pervasive problem, and train teachers from the surrounding district. Charter schools could be a testing ground for new ideas for school districts willing to take advantage of the opportunity.

To reach their potential, charter schools need the assistance of the best minds in education. Impediments in the path of education reform in large, heavily unionized urban districts don’t exist in small charter schools, where reform and research can flourish.

Generations of children have suffered while the adults responsible for them have set a poor example by refusing to put their shoulders to the wheel.

Partnerships among schools and social-service agencies, churches, and community groups with the potential to energize and address the needs of the entire school community are not uncommon in charter schools. Some creative thinking about service delivery and allocation of resources could lead to significant improvements in the community, as well as a boost in student achievement. But such accomplishments will come about only if charter school operators and administrators can access expert knowledge and experience to guide them as they venture off the beaten path.

Most important, if charters are to have any chance of fulfilling their mission, they need to be granted not just “freedom from” requirements but also the “freedom to” take risks and possibly fail in order to learn and grow. Not every new idea is a good idea, but we will never know what might have been if we can’t allow ourselves the opportunity to make mistakes. Instead of circling charter schools like vultures waiting to rush in for the kill, the education establishment and public school advocates need to stop bickering, roll up their sleeves, and join charter schools in getting to work. And charter schools need to lose their attitude when it comes to district interference and accept the help they so sorely need.

Children’s lives are at stake, so mistakes are costly. But failing to try is costlier. Generations of American children have suffered while the adults responsible for them have set a poor example by refusing to put their shoulders to the wheel. Without vigilance, charter schools could easily succumb to the same lack of will that has defeated serious education reform for decades. If we do not empower them to succeed, no amount of American know-how will save them, and Walt Whitman’s vision for American will remain unfulfilled.

Peshe C. Kuriloff was formerly the chief administrative officer of Alliance for Progress Charter School in Philadelphia, and is now a consultant there in education, communications, and public policy.

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