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School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Charter School Idea Turns 20

By Richard D. Kahlenberg — March 25, 2008 6 min read
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Twenty years ago this month, in a landmark address to the National Press Club in Washington, American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker first proposed the creation of “charter schools”—publicly funded institutions that would be given greater flexibility to experiment with new ways of educating students. At the time, some conservative education reformers opposed the idea, saying we already knew what worked in education. Today, the positions are reversed: Conservatives largely embrace charters, while teachers’ unions are mostly opposed. How did the notion of charter schools evolve over 20 years? And might a return to Al Shanker’s original idea improve the educational and political fortunes of the charter school movement?

In Shanker’s vision, small groups of teachers and parents would submit research-based proposals outlining plans to educate kids in innovative ways. A panel consisting of the local school board and teachers’ union officials would review proposals. Once given a “charter,” a term first used by the Massachusetts educator Ray Budde, a school would be left alone for a period of five to 10 years. Schools would be freed from certain collective bargaining provisions; for example, class-size limitations might be waived to merge two classes and allow team-teaching. Shanker’s core notion was to tap into teacher expertise to try new things. Building on the practices at the Saturn auto plant in Nashville, Tenn., he envisioned teams of teachers making suggestions on how best to accomplish the job at hand. Part of the appeal of charter schools to Shanker and many Democrats was that they offered a publicly run alternative to private-school-voucher proposals, which they feared would undermine teacher collective bargaining rights and Balkanize students by race, religion, and economic status. A charter school, Shanker said, “would not be a school where all the advantaged kids or all the white kids or any other group is segregated.”

Might a return to Al Shanker’s original idea improve the educational and political fortunes of the charter school movement?

In the early 1990s, Minnesota legislators, working with Shanker, adopted the nation’s first charter school legislation. However, as the idea spread (eventually to 40 states and the District of Columbia), the father of charter schools expressed increasing alarm that his idea of teacher-led institutions had morphed into something quite different. Many conservative advocates saw charters as a way to make an end run around teachers’ unions, and the vast majority of charter schools today lack collective bargaining agreements. Likewise, states disregarded Shanker’s admonition that charter schools should be diverse, as individual charter schools often appealed to specialized ethnic, religious, or racial groups, raising the very concerns Shanker had about private school vouchers.

Shanker argued that in charter schools, rigid collective bargaining rules could be bent, but that teachers still needed union representation. Only when teachers felt secure could they take risks, he said. “You don’t see these creative things happening where teachers don’t have voice or power or influence.” Not surprisingly, lacking a collective voice, teachers in charter schools turn over at almost twice the rate of public school teachers. And while right-wingers assumed that eliminating union influence would make test scores skyrocket, a number of independent studies have found that charter schools do no better than unionized public schools. Moreover, as a practical political matter, as charter schools became a vehicle for anti-union activists, powerful education unions naturally opposed their expansion and effectively limited the ultimate growth of the experiment.

Likewise, instead of drawing diverse student populations, charter schools often explicitly appealed to particular groups, with Afrocentric or other ethnocentric curricula, or, in other cases, effectively “creamed” students, by requiring parents to sign contracts committing them to volunteer a certain number of hours or be subject to fines. Shanker noted that “children whose parents are scared off by the contract’s tone, or don’t have the time to volunteer, or can’t read, or don’t understand what is being asked, won’t be enrolling in one of these schools.” According to a 2003 report from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, charter schools tend to be even more racially segregated than regular public schools.

Some charter schools also foster religious segmentation. Shanker raised concerns about a Michigan charter school, Noah Webster Academy, that received public funds to establish a computer network to educate a group of Christian home-schooled students. In Minnesota, a Muslim group established the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a publicly funded charter school designed to teach Islamic history and culture. Last year, in Florida, an Orthodox rabbi established a Hebrew-language charter school serving kosher lunches and teaching Jewish culture and history. And the Archdiocese of Washington has proposed converting eight Roman Catholic schools into publicly funded charter schools. While Catholic officials have said they would strip explicit religious instruction from the curriculum, the conservatively oriented Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s Education Gadfly argues that “maybe it would be better still if they could remain religious—and still go charter.”

There is still an opportunity to create teacher-led “Saturn” schools for the 21st century that enhance teachers’ collective voice, help integrate students, and improve student learning.

Many charter schools also fail to address a third form of segregation: by income. Charter schools, as schools of choice, have the potential to attack what many educators regard as the fountainhead of educational inequality: the concentration of poor kids. While a small number of highly publicized charter schools, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program academies, have done well despite concentrations of poverty, the vast majority have not. Most high-poverty charter schools, like most high-poverty regular public schools, fail to produce high levels of academic performance.

Can Albert Shanker’s original vision—charter schools that are teacher-led and integrate students of different racial, ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds—replace anti-union charters that segregate? Of course it can. The successful Green Dot charter schools in California are unionized, as are two charter schools started by the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. In Milwaukee, eight teacher-cooperative schools have been established, in which teachers are part of the public school collective bargaining agreement but also have the authority to run the schools as worker cooperatives.

Similarly, charter schools, like magnet schools, clearly have the potential to overcome the segregation that afflicts many schools that have students assigned based on residence. In June of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the extent to which districts can use race in student assignment, but officials remain perfectly free to consider the economic status of students, which will usually translate into racial integration. Moreover, by creating a good economic mix, charter schools can provide a favorable learning environment with positive peer influences, active parents, and great teachers.

Returning to Shanker’s vision would jump-start the charter school movement and remove the two major impediments to success it faces in the coming decades. By allowing unions to represent teachers, charter schools would eliminate the chief political obstacle to expansion. Moreover, by more effectively tapping into teacher expertise, and putting measures in place to reduce economic segregation of students, charters would have a fighting chance to significantly increase academic achievement. Two decades after Albert Shanker’s vision was unveiled, there is still an opportunity to create teacher-led “Saturn” schools for the 21st century that enhance teachers’ collective voice, help integrate students, and improve student learning.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Charter School Idea Turns 20

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