School Choice & Charters Opinion

What Do We Mean by ‘Public’?

By Deborah Meier — November 17, 2011 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

What nice way to spend a few days: with 600 to 700 wonderful educators, mostly teachers in a city I’ve come to love (Providence, great food) at a school (The MET) that always inspires me. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and “it” comes to me annually in the form of the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum.

Of course, I always manage to get into an argument or two when I shouldn’t and live to regret it. But that’s a learning experience, too. From the opening to the closing moment we heard from important people, including students. “LISTEN” was the theme of one of the amazing student plenary presentations, this one by the MET Singers. As for listening, it’s not actually easy to do and is at the heart of good teaching. But listening can be especially difficult when we feel passionately! Passion can also fool us at times.

For example, I discovered an interesting book at the forum by the founder of Education Week and the president of the MET’s board: Ron Wolk’s Wasting Minds. I’m reading along passionately agreeing with most of what he says when suddenly I hit Chapter 17, on which we disagree. Wolk criticizes you, Diane, for claiming charters are not truly “public schools.”

Wolk and I agree about charter history and much that we admire about the idea. But then we part company. No, Ron, charters no longer are public schools. They are not accountable to the public they serve except in the sense that a consumer is—you’re free not to buy/use it. I appreciate that and certainly enjoyed the advantages of choice in the schools in East Harlem and later Boston where I worked.

But choice can be public in the technical sense, and democracy may be best served by offering choice. But it ain’t necessarily so. It depends. (Perhaps there are two different issues: public and democratic? I need time to play with this.)

If the president of the United States had the power to make micro and macro decisions about all American schools, I suppose we could call it democracy. And public. After all, we voted him into office. And the office is public. But, as we have discovered—painfully—even an all-powerful mayor over a mere 7 million citizens is dangerous to public democratic life. Yes, we can hold him accountable (vote him out when his term is over), but it’s hard to hold someone accountable if our vote can be a response to so many different public policies. It’s also true that the information upon which accountability rests—the evidence—is harder to come by the further removed from our experience the evidence rests.

So my ultimate democratic ideal with regard to public institutions is that decisions should be made close to their implementation and accountable to those closest to those they serve. It isn’t always easy to do, and at times even impossible. But in the case of schools, we can do that most of the time—within broad national and state mandates with Constitutional implications.

But, Ron Wolk, most of the new charters are not accountable to any public but their own privately chosen board (and a very distant appointed oversight committee). None of its constituents—parents, students, or staff—are by law part of that board nor have any choice but speaking with their feet. Not their voices.

Charters were intended as a nudge, a provocation, in systems that are not friendly to inventiveness. Former Superintendent Tony Alvarado didn’t need charters to create choice in New York City’s District 4, a “system” as large as those of many cities. Nor did Boston when it created pilots in a system larger than the average city. But such “experiments” in doing things differently work if the rest of “the system” is composed of schools that have the freedom and flexibility to adopt the innovations they like.

Instead, charters exist today in a setting of super-regulated schools (some of whose regulations hamper charters, too) used as threats. If you aren’t good little boys and girls and, by hook, as well as crook, raise test scores etc., you will be closed and replaced by a charter—as though charters are even better at getting good test scores!

The folks who have the joy of creation are not the parents, staff, or kids, especially in charters! It’s the folks with the resources and connections to initiate them and who will be their future bosses: their board. For example, it was Geoffrey Canada’s board, as I understand it, who told him he had to fire the whole senior class of 8th graders so that they would have a better freshman class for their new high school.

These all-or-nothing, us-vs.-them stances divide the constituents of our schools. Attempts to bring our schools back to their own communities—without romanticizing the olden days—is a common thread. But what we mean by “community” differs and often divides geographic and political communities into enemy camps with no common ground. The olden days were pretty awful for many communities, but they had one asset which needn’t be thrown away. The schools were part of the community (or communities), not outsiders—well-meaning or otherwise—basing success on a fictional marketplace as the best judge of quality. The marketplace model may support democracy, or it may support totalitarianism. Which will depend on us.

But the marketplace doesn’t define democracy, and we’re in danger of forgetting that in the name of “crisis.” “We the people” become, in a crisis, a nuisance, an unaffordable luxury. That’s the bad “habit” democracies have lived and too soon died by. It’s the trump card that the rich and powerful so often use to win out over democracy. K-12 schools are too critical to democracy for them to be ruled by the whims of the marketplace. As you noted earlier this week, Diane, schools are becoming the toys of a conglomerate of hungry entrepreneurs, plus well-meaning big shots. And a few good friends like Ron Wolk et al who are simply wrong!

We need some settings for arguing about this civilly. Maybe at next year’s Fall Forum? Save the date, Diane, as soon as we decide when it is. Meanwhile, everyone, become a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools.


P.S. From my email, I can’t resist: “My name is Sarah Camiscoli ... [I’m] an intern for the documentary ‘Brooklyn Castle,’ a great film about a low-income junior high school in Brooklyn ... that has the highest-rated chess team in the whole country (www.brooklyncastle.com).”

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