School Choice & Charters Letter to the Editor

Teachers and Charters

June 21, 2005 5 min read

To the Editor:

Though the quickening pace of school choice activity around the country is being reported in this and other newspapers, precious little is ever said about what happens to teachers in a school choice environment. The term “school choice” generally refers to the decisions parents make. But in Milwaukee, as it turned out, teachers needed school choice too.

In broken urban districts nationwide, many teachers are stuck in classrooms, programs, and schools that they know don’t work. Just ask them. Loyalty to their students, professional pride, and community commitments are what usually keep such teachers in these schools.

What could teachers in a school choice environment do?

For one, they could leave dysfunctional schools and take their students with them. With more options, open seats, and increased numbers of schools recruiting dedicated teachers, this already happens in many districts where violence, crowding, and inept administrators are not major impediments to public education.

Teachers also could form their own schools. Minnesota and Wisconsin teachers now routinely form teachers’ cooperatives to get out from under the incompetence, abusiveness, or plain foolishness of so many administrators who are supposed to be “principals”—first teachers—but who too often act as central-office hatchetmen, or are painfully obvious career climbers.

Most important, teachers could behave and perform like the professionals they are, instead of like the abused rote-workers they are perceived to be.

Why don’t teachers already exercise these options? They can’t.

The teachers in the nation’s badly-performing and underresourced urban districts have no more choice than the parents and students relegated to these schools, which are too often little more than juvenile-detention centers. Take an urban teacher to dinner sometime, and ask him or her how much instruction is actually possible in the course of an average year.

Who benefits from such no-choice systems?

School boards benefit by issuing imperious commands and “reforms.” Though few district teachers take these pronouncements seriously, they give the people supposedly in charge the aura—and maybe even the feeling—of power and control.

Central-office bureaucrats—from superintendents down to administrators—benefit, because they get to spend millions of tax dollars while blaming legislators for a lack of money and teachers for the lack of academic progress.

Teachers’ unions benefit because they like centralized seniority and favor dealing over representing the professional commitments, ambitions, and values of their dedicated members.

The only employees of failed and failing districts who don’t benefit by monopoly control and student and teacher assignment are the most productive employees in any district: talented classroom teachers.

John Gardner

Former Member at Large

Milwaukee Public School Board

Milwaukee, Wis.

To the Editor:

As a teacher at a large Chicago public high school, I am increasingly alarmed by the polarization growing between teachers and boards of education concerning the charter school movement. On the surface, the goal of the movement—to encourage community entrepreneurs to bring to fruition successful small schools—seems full of potential. Unfortunately, both teachers and large school boards are threatening to destroy this initiative through their long-standing traditions of using well-meaning movements to camouflage their somewhat selfish dueling agendas.

Many teachers in traditional schools view school boards as using charter schools to circumvent union positions. In their eyes, as a board closes a failing school and replaces it with a charter, many hardworking teachers find themselves in lower-paying positions requiring soul-numbing hours of work without the benefits long taken for granted as the fair trade-off for a lifetime of public service. Sadly, this may very well be true.

Perhaps this is why so many of my colleagues have been bad-mouthing the performance of Chicago’s charter schools. This tactic, however, irks me. What many of them fail to admit is the innovation that can be bred through experimentation fostered by the charter school movement. Free from the litany of requirements contained in miles of bureaucratic red tape, charters are free to explore possibilities on the educational frontier. What makes America great is its frontier spirit. Education should follow suit and provide its own trailblazers.

At the same time, the balance to America’s adventurous spirit is its pragmatism. For this reason, not every underperforming traditional high school should be converted to a charter.

Many existing high schools do a fine job of serving very challenged populations, and they should not be dismantled. Their test scores may not be competitive with wealthy suburban or private schools, or with charter school populations chosen through selective enrollment. But the public needs to understand that general, comprehensive high schools deal with variables that few other kinds of schools dare to touch.

There is another fundamental reason many teachers are wary of charter schools. They believe, and rightly so, that a community-led movement originally supported by local interests is being replaced by the agenda of a top-down bureaucracy. Many recent ideas for new charter schools are not locally grown at all. Rather, like a number of new charter schools in Chicago, they are cultivated by powers at the top and then grafted onto local neighborhoods, whether local residents and educators buy in or not. How can strong school ownership be bred from such an example?

Innovation is seldom handed down by old behemoths. It is more often the product of local entrepreneurs, who need to work with the resources around them. The founders of the original charter school movement understood this. They also understood that many successful neighborhood high schools may not be in need of a charter school. Alarmingly, many school boards do not.

The teachers I work with at Chicago’s Nicholas Senn High School have Harvard, Brown, and University of Chicago degrees among their many high-caliber credentials. They draw on their strong skills to educate a population that hails from 70 different countries and is 92 percent low-income. Many of their accomplishments have been recognized and studied by experts around the nation and the world. Yet, not one faculty member has gained an audience with our city’s politicians or the public school system’s brass, who meet regularly to discuss the school’s possible breakup.

Such actions will continue to pervert the charter and small-schools movements. And another bright idea may pulled apart by ill-informed and inattentive players obsessed with tug-of-war politics. That would be a shame.

Ross Freshwater

Chicago, Ill.

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