School Choice & Charters Opinion

What Chartering Could Have Been

By Deborah Meier — October 11, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Pedro,

Regarding the Ted Sizer quote on teachers: Thanks for the reminder. Or, as I often say, teachers “burn out” because they are treated like appliances. I hesitate over Ted’s wise words only because of those last two about acting like “hired hands.” Being a “hired hand” is, after all, not dishonorable nor does it come without skill and responsibility.

As I read your letter, I thought also of Larry Cuban’s book How Can I Fix It?, in which he argues about the difference between looking for “a solution” and working through “dilemmas.” There are, we probably agree, no “solutions” that can be put in place by mandate. We have to be prepared to learn from a wide range of potential answers, each of which may have part of the answer. That’s something the new Reformer/Deformers didn’t bother with.

Actually what Tony Alvarado did in New York City’s District 4 from about 1974 to 1984 and what Boston did a decade later, offered a lot to learn from. It’s interesting to think about why there was so little excitement in the business/corporate/financial world over these innovative practices. They included far greater school autonomy, the creation of school-based boards, quality reviews, and choice—all part of the New Reform Agenda, as well as union concessions on contract language about grievances and even hiring and firing. It suggests to me that all these claims—re. purpose—are not the attractions that vouchers and/or charters are for the new De/Reformers.

While staff and parent empowerment were not mandated in Pilots in Boston or District 4 schools of choice, virtually all of them were driven by some combination of innovative practice, curriculum, organization, and governance.

In real life, it’s critical to understand the context in which new ideas reach public attention. Without exploring what it is that they want to fix we can miss their real intentions. “Compared to what?"—the sixth habit of mind. I wish we had added to the other five habits at Mission Hill and Central Park East. It reminds us that we needed to place the charter proposals within the existing particular alternatives. And, it reminds us to ask what stopped the new reformers from carrying out their dreams within the existing public sector? Why weren’t they exploring ways to make Boston’s and NYC’s innovations spread? Why weren’t they offering us similar levels of support for the work we were pioneering?

We are fighting a different fight these days than Alvarado’s in 1974 or Boston’s Tom Payzant’s in 1995. Their (and my) language has been co-opted by powerful “allies” with a very different agenda. We didn’t recognize this at first, as you point out. But there are still people out there who see in charters just what I did, and whose choices today in public education are not the ones I faced.

I have to consider: What if, in 1974, I had been faced with the choices facing teachers like me today? I honestly don’t know what I’d have done. So one can’t afford to turn any ally into an enemy.

Because charters are now an organized “movement” on behalf of ending public education (plus every other public enterprise?) without any interest in carrying out a nearly 60-year-old U.S. Supreme Court mandate (to integrate schools), it’s important to expose them. They are also strong supporters, as a movement, for testing, high stakes, merit pay, and ending unions. I suspect it’s a hopeless task to fight that agenda within the charters movement, but I admire those who do.

The part that scares me most is that this attack on public education goes along with an assumption long held by public school educators, too—an education philosophy that provides encouragement to those who’ve always said that those kids learn differently than more favored white and/or wealthy students. They encourage a dumbing down of education for precisely those whom earlier choice models argued should get what every rich man wants for his child, only more so. The only feature today’s Deformers borrowed from the old reforms is choice, usually different choices for charters serving middle-class white students vs. those educating mostly poor African-American children. Too many have abandoned what we in New York City (and Chicago, Boston, etc.) saw as our real secret weapon: schools built around respect across lines of class, race, role, and age; built around curriculum, personalization, and accountability usually associated with the education of the ruling class. (The schools to which our presidents send their own children, for example.) The “Ten Essentials” were Ted Sizer’s way of summarizing that spirit, which we expanded upon in our five Habits of Mind. They can’t be reduced to a formula. But Ted believed, as I do, that we know respect when we see it even if it’s hard to rate it numerically.

Too many of the charters, especially the chains, are particularly offensive to my view of respectfulness. They are modeled instead on characteristics that, at best, are found at military schools where the rich send their “troubled” youths. So, I suppose, there is a rich man’s precedent for schooling modeled on prisons and treating kids as pre-felons.

So, you and I are on much the same page—no surprise?—in believing that what we need to figure out is how to re-structure school districts—big or small—to take better advantage of what chartering could have been. Changing the odds means doing so without dictating terms that undermine the essential purpose of building a stronger and more equitable democracy. It’s hard to imagine a less level playing field than the one we have now, in school or out.

My definition of “ends,” allowing for many different “means” is, I hope, consistent with our public obligations in return for public funding. Let’s you and I lay out some possibilities for each other—and our readers—and invite tough (but not rigid or rigorous) critiques. Not easy to do at a time in American history when more than ever, as Billie Holiday sang: “Them that’s got shall get, Them that’s not shall lose, So the Bible said and it still is news.”


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