School Choice & Charters Opinion

When Charters Are More Like Chain Stores Than Small Schools

By Deborah Meier — January 06, 2015 5 min read
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Bridging Differences returns for the new year today; Deborah Meier’s new blogging partner is Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change.

Dear Joe,

How long have we known each other? Did we meet through St. Paul Open School? Our passion for democratic education has brought us together on many occasions.

But instead I’d like to start our blog with our more recent differences. I suspect, without being sure, that we might wince at different headlines these days—re. charters, for sure. Re. standardized testing, “no excuses,” the Common Core State Standards? Yet I think we both also fly under the same banner: small, self-governing schools of choice. With caveats.

We began at the same place on charters—interested, even eager. The small schools that Michelle Fine started in a Philadelphia high school years ago were called charters. The work in District 4 (where the Central Park East schools began) might have been called charters, just as the Pilot Schools I joined with in Boston could have. I claim that something happened to that concept.

While I’d argue that charters have changed their meaning, still some of my favorite schools were founded on state charter law. The list is long. There’s Ted Sizer’s Francis Parker School in Massachusetts, Capitol City in D.C., and on and on. I just visited a new K-8 charter, Compass, in Brooklyn that’s off to a promising start. Plus the Big Picture and Expeditionary Learning charters. They have all used charter legislation to do things that are, generally, harder to do within the regular public system. But, I would claim, far from impossible. And—as in Boston and New York City—maybe even easier if. (And, in the long run, safer from misuse.)

The if? If there had been a 10th of the support for District 4’s work or the union-initiated Pilots in Boston as have been poured into charters.

Innovative district schools focused on democratic ideals and practices, offering all children what the rich provide for theirs suffered a blow instead. The same reforms that may have helped my allies within the charter camp did great harm to those of us in the public school camp.

For some reason (hint, hint) these district efforts did not have the same appeal to corporate-minded reformers.

So let’s look more closely at that slogan—small, self-governing schools of choice, as they play out in charters, plus accountability, as a concept itself.

1. Small? I am pleased that the corporate reformers see the advantages of smallness, but I always noted that smallness could be used for good or ill. It is easier to control people in small rather than large groups; e.g., it’s easier to organize unions in one big school vs. many small ones. It’s also easier to get to know each other well, which can help build the trust democracy rests on.

2. Self-governing? It depends on who the “self” is! When looking at charter schools what I mostly see are chains operating more like Walmarts than mom-and-pop stores, with authority more distant from the children and families than in even unreformed public schools. I see less, not more, school-/community-based autonomy (which at best is now a euphemism for principal power).

I see more poorly paid teachers, parent voice relabeled as “the right to choose,” and a weakening of the rights of unions and due process. Schools have become commercial enterprises operated by entrepreneurs with chain store mentalities. And, like any good business, their governors often have a keen interest in profit (like higher salaries for central officers and board members, contracts to allies and friends—or themselves!) And since money-making is a virtuous activity.....

I’m even rethinking the word “autonomy.” It’s too easy to confuse it with Ayn Rand forms of libertarianism. Public schools should answer to the larger public—on behalf of the common good. The market may be useful for many things, but it’s not a substitute for democracy.

3. As for choice. Alas, choice has led to more class and race segregation in our cities, as happened in the South after Brown vs. Board. The critics of choice always had a point. Choice can disrupt community and hinder serious conversation across ideological lines. But existing public schools already do a lot of this. We always had to balance these potential negatives with the potential positives that choice offered for bolder “experimental” practices. In carefully designed situations I think choice helped rethink ways to educate the young, but I don’t see that at work in the charter movement.

Most charters are “innovative” educationally only in terms of stricter discipline, finding more ways to dispose of “disruptive” children or families, not having to deal with unions, and greater reliance on standardized tests to make decisions. They actually seem more like the Chicago public schools I subbed in during the 1960s, e.g. the phrase “no excuses.” That’s what courts, lawyers, juries—due process—are all about: to examine the excuses.

In short, I don’t see charters having led the way in integration or innovation.

4. And what about accountability itself? Ironically, the laws in most states provide tons of legal loopholes, not to mention illegal ones. Thus, accountability is more lax, and sometimes nonexistent in charters! Scandals abound.

Joe, I fear that some far-seeing business-minded folks have brought about a very different dream than the one we had in the 1960s-80s. They outwitted and, of course, way outspent us. They thought that if they could convince the politicians that private was good and public bad—starting with the sacred cow, our public schools, they could create their revolution. First step: declaring public schools enemies (A Nation at Risk); falsifying the data; demonizing teachers, unions, and local school boards; and then going for vouchers. When that failed, they compromised for second-best, charters. Then, via testing, common curriculum (scripted teaching), plus technology, streamline the job of teaching, making it easier to hire inexperienced low-paid young teachers, unconcerned with pensions and unions.

Meanwhile, given the climate, it was easier and easier to legislatively undermine unions. End result: They could promote schools, like they do other private goods and services, with a particular audience in mind—more like “online” news and cable TV (where we all watch different news shows, and only have to listen to those whose opinions we agree with.). Next? Post offices, police, libraries, and armies?

I am seeing this through a lens of great alarm, on many fronts, to the future of a much weakened democracy. Am I wrong—10 percent wrong, 90 percent wrong? Or missing the point entirely, Joe?


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