Accountability Opinion

Can We Bring the Charter School Movement Under One Umbrella?

By Joe Nathan — February 10, 2015 7 min read
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By Deborah Meier on February 10, 2015

Dear Joe,

I’m working in my hotel in beautiful Lima overlooking the sea on a strange computer, which I am hoping will work for this. Here goes!

The unions might be criticized for naïveté. But neither they, I, or Ted Sizer (who started a charter in the 90’s) were imagining the possibility that the charters, with huge funding behind them, were making a grab for the public system - at least the urban systems. The unions, like me, focused on building more autonomy into the regular public schools, as well as preserving the union movement’s basic bottom line for all schools, rather than starting from scratch school by school. Solidarity on wages and benefits and seniority are hard to fight for if schools are each on their own, especially in dealing with chains. I regret that they weren’t bolder in proposing more dramatic system-wide reforms on autonomy. But, for example, the UFT in NY did write-in to their contract with the city many areas in which teachers could vote to bypass the contract, including in hiring! And the Boston union started pilots, without any support from the hedge funders.

Fundamentally our disagreement is over who is in the driver’s seat and what the hopes and designs of the drivers are. I see no chance of having a serious role in the direction of the charter “movement.” I see it as a “monster” with huge resources to bring to the “battle” to take anything public and transfer it into private hands. I see this happening both here and abroad, and, as with other sectors of private business, with as little regulation as possible.

But you are not alone in seeing positive potential in this development. I’d love to figure out a way we could join together to create a charter movement that brings us together under one umbrella to fight for better charter or pilot legislation that will preserve the best of ‘public-ness’ and the best of ‘private-ness.’

Could we agree that the best system would give those closest to the children’s education the greatest power, but also include power for the public taxpaying community whom they serve; regulate transparency and rules regarding the rights of students; assure the right to be part of an existing union; and adhere to state and federal rules re: civil rights, health and fiscal oversight? Under such circumstances we´d never need state or federal laws on assessment, except perhaps some federal and state test sampling. But that doesn’t mean that assessment as a school and community issue isn´t important and requires some rethinking. Assessment should involve a discussion of why the public should have a role in decisions about what is a proper vs. improper use of their monies. This is the discussion that’s sadly lacking and about which I think you and I agree but most of the chains do not.

Joe Responds:

Deb, I see the charter movement as more complex than you do - like democracy at its best and worst. Having visited more than 500 charters from Hawaii to Georgia, Texas to Minnesota, I’ve seen vast differences. So I want to write briefly about what I think chartering is and is not.

Linda Nathan (no relation) and founder of one of the first Boston (district) Pilot Schools, agrees that there is great diversity among charters. She’s now Faculty Director of the Institute for Creative Educational Leadership at Boston University. In a recent email that she’s given me permission to quote, she wrote, “the charter movement is not monolithic at all.” I agree.

Chartering is first and foremost, an invitation to practical visionaries. They can be educators, parents, or community members. That’s a key element of democracy at its best - an invitation to try out new ideas. Democracy offers opportunities. Some make great use of those opportunities, some don’t. Some use great creativity and skill to create organizations that do a wonderful job of meeting people’s needs. Some see democracy as an opportunity to exploit and make huge profits. It’s the same in the charter movement.

Sadly, I think it’s the same in district public schools and teacher unions. There are some marvelous public school educators, including union leaders. And there are some who exploit opportunities, ripping off the public and the students they are supposed to serve.

You write about the huge money behind charters. There’s even more money supporting district public schools. And both district and charters vary enormously in the support available. Some district and some charter public schools receive substantial foundation or private individual support. Many public schools (district or charter) receive very little outside funding.

Moreover, the funding systems of public education in many states provide less per pupil for many schools serving students from low income families. That’s wrong!

Let’s return to the Boston (district) Pilot Schools. I think Boston Teachers Union and the Boston Public did a great thing in allowing you and other educators to create the kind of public schools you thought would make the most sense. I think every district would be wise to give similar opportunities to educators and community groups. This can be done via schools within schools or free standing schools.

But in criticizing charters you wrote, “the Boston union started pilots, without any support from the hedge funders.” I checked with Dan French, executive director of Center for Collaborative Education in Boston. He confirmed that there was startup funding for some of the Pilot Schools from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Boston and Barr Foundations. I think that’s great.

Wise funders will help practical visionaries, whether they are part of a school district or creating a charter. As mentioned last week, we’re working with some teacher union leaders to request funding from the state legislature to help teachers start new options within districts.

Fortunately the Los Angeles District has created a Pilot School program. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul Federation of Teachers have advocated for the Pilot School approach. Minneapolis Public Schools has asked Dan French to help the district create “community partner schools,” that will be similar to Pilot Schools. These are positive, encouraging developments.

You wrote: “I’d love to figure out a way we could join together to create a charter movement that brings us together under one umbrella to fight for better charter or pilot legislation that will preserve the best of ‘public-ness’ and the best of ‘private-ness.”

You suggest among other things, financial transparency and the right to join a union. You also urge following “state and federal rules re: civil rights, health and fiscal oversight. " We agree.

There’s no single, elected leader of the charter movement. Different funders have different priorities. Certainly some funders have a big influence. But as Linda Nathan noted above, the charter movement “is not monolithic at all.”

Why not go beyond discussing changes in charter laws? We and many other educators could help create more strong public school choices - whether part of a district or a charter system. My post later this week will suggest possible ways to do that.

Deb Responds:

Dear Joe,

Ah well, we´ll have to disagree about the larger politics of the moment and the balance of power between management and labor, the rich and the rest of us, and the forces who benefit from democracy and those who don´t. I think the latter have managed to use their riches to distort the best of ideas you and I have.

I don´t think ignorance explains why what I call corporate reform prefers standardized testing since it will always give an edge to children based on family

But you and I know that from K to 12 there are betters ways and fairer and more objective ways to judge the real work of students, and of their teachers, rather than test them and so much else that matters on bubbled-in scores designed to differentiate so that they can create a rank order.

The Coalition of Essential Schools has tested it out on a fairly large scale, using genuine Hard Data: the work of students with the student defending that work, in front of a committee of thoughtful, expert adult judges, capable and trusted to exercise their judgment.

Since exercising judgment well is the purpose of education itself, it is fitting that it be our means also. And, such an examination system forces schools to prepare children and teachers for such exercise of judgment, the capacity to present and defend, to speak persuasively, to revisit and revise, and to see more possibilities ahead of them. It starts in Kindergarten, and it thrives only when the adults are examples of such wise, thoughtful judgment, and represent, alongside the family, what it’s like to be a powerful adult.

This is the kind of assessment that’s for ruling not being ruled. I think we might both agree about this approach. Of course there are other ways, but what they have in common, I suspect, is the respect given the student and his or her work, the opportunity to get real face-to-face reactions to it, and be declared ready to move on--or perhaps ready to do more work to get ready to move on!

It´s an approach that welcomes mistakes, critiques, collaboration, and a range of communication skills. It´s an approach, I find, that kids and the world respect.

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.