Education Funding Opinion

The Problem With Charters

By Deborah Meier — November 22, 2011 4 min read
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Editor’s Note: Diane Ravitch is taking a break from the blog this week, and Deborah Meier is blogging in her place today. Bridging Differences will begin its Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow and return next week.

Dear Diane,

I’m back from Chicago—my sort-of second home. I spent my “off hours” arguing, as usual, with my friend Mike Klonsky. Mostly about old issues, definitions of words, etc. It’s our leisure hobby. But it keeps me sharpened.

And it’s Mike who noticed that in my last letter to you, Diane, I mistakenly left the impression that I equated Ron Wolk with the corporate billionaires. That was a sloppy error, as I rushed to get it off before leaving for Chicago! (An aside:Hurrah! The National Council of Teachers of English passed a resolution of nonsupport for the central thrust of the Duncan reform agenda at its meeting in the Windy City last weekend.)

Anyhow, as a close reader may notice I mostly agree with Ron and furthermore am a great admirer of his. And also appreciate him for his steady support for the work of the Big Picture Company. In fact, the point I was trying to make was that there are good people who support charters for quite different reasons—as a path for exploring ideas that are too far out to find a place within the public sector and as labs for our future.

It was precisely in this vein that I hoped New York City, in the early 1990s, would create a truly “charter-like” district within the public system for trying out not only pedagogical and curricular innovations, but also accountability innovations. It had steady support from the unions, the then-mayor, state chancellor, old school board, and the outgoing city chancellor. But it didn’t meet the needs of the incoming superintendent. Details are in In Schools We Trust, which I wrote in 2002. See pp. 165-174.

It was an approach that rested on a hope: that if schools networked with allies, but were part of a larger, self-chosen experiment in accountability, they could discover new possibilities that met common criteria. We lost that chance.

Charters, whatever they are, have not pioneered in either respect. They are “ultimately” accountable to public bodies chosen by public bodies chosen by ... . But their real accountability (short of closing them) is pleasing their boards and the private interests who have funded and defended them. Most are a part of a larger macro-chain that is pushing the idea of the marketplace as the best form of democracy. At present they seem satisfied to be able to claim that they are not much worse than traditional public schools serving the same population (the latter being hard to define, of course).

Their Fordham Institute champions claim they are mostly mediocre. (See Mike Klonsky’s blog on this.) But there are exceptions, like Big Picture’s MET schools (which are sometimes charters and sometimes “regular” public schools). Or the mom and pops like the Parker School in Massachusetts. But nothing they have done couldn’t be done in a regular public system that had the will to do so. So, Mayor Bloomberg, or Arne Duncan (when he was in Chicago) could have taken the path that Tony Alvarado did in District 4 in the 1970s and 1980s in East Harlem. Or that Chicago did pre-Duncan when they decentralized the system to provide real power to school councils composed of parents and teachers—and (as I recall) others. Tony Bryk noted that it was during that period, and only during that period, that test scores even went up. It was cut short, of course, by the fact that it didn’t produce a miracle, and in came centralization with a bang—and out went a grand idea, with a whimper.

New York City’s efforts to decentralize, imperfect as they were, were primarily dismantled by the claim that there was corruption in some districts. Yes, I know that. But I also know that the corruption in the centralized system is, while more sophisticated, probably at least as great if not greater. We are now talking in the millions of dollars for no-bid contracts. Granted they aren’t contracting out to local politicos and local businesses, but on a rather different scale to a rather different sort of folks. You can fill in the unsaid.

Given the ugly 99/1 divide in wealth—and therefore power—no strictly school-based solution can entirely balance things out. But, under current circumstances, the evidence suggests that local control, weighted in favor of those who actually have a personal stake in the enterprise (students, parents, teachers) is the best we can do. Chicago still has the outlines of its old school councils, and a campaign to return them to power might make a good issue. New York has gone a step further and eliminated all mediating institutions (although technically there are still paper districts). No elected anything, except the mayor. So the NYC schools probably face a more daunting task.

But young people need to keep company with powerful and responsible adults: parents (grandparents, neighbors, et al) and teachers. There is no other way. As I frequently remind folks, if you can’t find a babysitter you trust, stay home. Don’t imagine that you can control them by fear or by writing a “best of practice” script.

When we acknowledge that, we’ll start to think whether we have any sensible solutions—aside from home schooling! And since I’m not a home school advocate (but more sympathetic than I used to be), I’m hoping we spend time uniting around alternatives to our current madness.


P.S. I highly recommend this column by Gene Lyons. It makes for interesting reading.

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.