School Choice & Charters Opinion

Wise & Woeful School Choice Plans

By Joe Nathan — January 15, 2015 7 min read
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Today, Joe Nathan of the Center for School Change responds to Deborah Meier.


Over the last 40 years I’ve seen wonderful and woeful uses of school choice. This week I’ll write about both.

Let’s start with your concerns about schools that enroll primarily “students of color,” whose families have actively chosen the schools among various options.

Please consider Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribally Controlled Colleges. Last fall our Center sponsored a conference about what K-12 educators can learn from these institutions. Info is available here.

Dr. Brian Bridges, vice president of the United Negro College Fund, wrote a great paper for the conference. Among other things, he pointed out that

  • Despite enrolling only 9% of the nation’s African American students, they produce 16% of African Americans with bachelors degrees and 27% of African Americans with degrees in STEM fields.
  • The top 10 schools sending African Americans on to earn PhDs in science and engineering are HBCUs.
  • HBCU graduates demonstrate higher levels of charitable giving and political participation than African-American college graduates who do not attend HBCUs.

Carrie Billy, former director of the White House Initiative on Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities, now directs the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. She also spoke at the conference. Her paper is available on our website. Among other things, she explained that

  • More than 50% of American Indians who are enrolled members of tribes and are attending colleges or universities are attending Tribally Controlled college/universities.
  • Two Tribal colleges lead the nation in preparing American Indian nurses.
  • Tribal colleges are “actively and aggressively working to preserve and sustain their own tribal language and culture.”

HBCUs and TCUs are valuable, and valued parts of American higher education. K-12 schools serving primarily students of one race, available as options, can be the same in public education. Last week I mentioned an example, Higher Ground Academy. This is an award-winning public school started by Bill Wilson, a former HBCU student who became the first African American elected to the St. Paul City Council and was Minnesota’s Commissioner of Human Rights.

Moving to other concerns you mentioned, some years ago an outstanding, award winning urban public school teacher wrote that public school choice is “an essential tool” to help create good public education. Choice allows development of schools “with a focus with staffs brought together to create a whole set of school parameters.” The teacher was you.

I agreed with you then, and I agree with those wise words now. But choice is a powerful tool that needs to be used carefully. I think you and I agree:

1. That teachers who want it should have opportunities to help run public schools. The charter movement has helped produce “teacher led or teacher powered schools.” This is something like what happened in East Harlem and with Boston (district) Pilot Schools, both places that you worked. Thanks to leaders like Carlos Medina, Sy Fliegel, Harvey Newman and Tom Payzant, teachers were allowed to create new options, entire schools or schools within schools.

But the teacher led model goes further. Part of the idea is that teachers will form the majority of the board that runs the school. They will determine their salaries and working conditions, as well as their curriculum and how the budget is spent.

A national poll last year described these schools where " teams of teachers collaboratively decide on the curricula, the allocation of resources, and the form of leadership. They choose their colleagues, handle evaluation, determine the schedule, and set school-level policy.” 85% of Americans think this is a good idea, and 54% are “very interested in seeing teacher powered schools in their community.” Moreover, 54% of teachers were “very interested” in working in a teacher powered/teacher led school. More than 60 public schools are using these principles. More being developed. The report describes this as a “new deal for teachers.” I agree. The full report is well worth reading

2. K-12 public schools should be open to all, with no admissions tests or auditions required to determine who gets in. I think this is true for district and charter schools. It’s no surprise that civil rights groups have sued in New York City, challenging elite, quasi private magnet schools that are allowed to pick and choose among students.

I’m opposed to admissions tests for public schools, whether district or charter. I think you are, too. Is that correct?

3. Another bad form of school choice allows “first come, first served” admissions. This tends to favor families that can stand in line (or hire someone to stand in line). A lottery approach is much better if there are more applicants than openings. Do you agree?

4. Start up funds should be available to help teachers and community groups start new options. Federal magnet school money was used to help create new options that you and others created in East Harlem. Federal and foundation money was used to help a number of us create the St. Paul Open School and other district options in Minnesota. My understanding is that some startup funds have been available in Boston to help create the Boston (district) Pilot Schools.

We’re now working with three teacher union presidents in Minnesota on this. Legislation has been developed that would provide start-up funding for “site governed” and “teacher led” (district) public schools here. This builds on efforts of some urban, suburban and rural district teachers who want the chance to do what you described above, create district public schools with a focus. Here are two recent examples: //www.startribune.com/local/south/287427841.html

5. Faculty of a public school, whether district or charter, should be allowed to join a union. This was built into Minnesota’s charter law, and into many state charter laws. It was great to the NEA help teachers create charters in the early years of the charter movement. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has become the first teachers union in the country to become an “authorizer” - the group that examines proposals.

6. The state should use a funding mechanism that recognizes student enrollment may change during the year. Michael Griffith of Education Commission of the States has helped me understand this. A helpful report from the University of Indiana’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy explains this. Some states fund schools only on the basis of how many students are attending school on a certain date in October. But most states wisely recognize that enrollment may change during the year. So these states build this recognition into their funding formula.

7. I don’t favor “voucher” plans that provide public funds to K-12 church-related schools. We could spent a whole blog talking about this one. But just to be clear, I think this is a bad idea.

You wrote, “the best preparation for democracy is more of it.” I agree. Of course, details matter.

However, you wonder about “the balance between individual self interest and the common good.” New York and other states have developed statewide expectations about what schools should help youngsters learn. Then when things work as they should (and that does not always happen), educators are allowed to determine curriculum and spend money as they think should be done, to help youngsters meet those common standards. And as you note above, choice, done well, can allow the creation of schools with a focus.

Another part of balancing self and common interest is sharing information about how students are succeeding. Ann Cook of New York City’s Urban Academy and her colleagues in 28 schools have developed portfolio assessments to help determine whether students are achieving the expected state standards. I think portfolios can be a superb way of helping assess student progress.

Am I concerned about corruption in some charters? Absolutely. There have been conflicts of interest, leaders who mis-represent their credentials, or exorbitant salaries for some charter leaders. These are very disturbing and need attention. They detract from the good work happening in many charters.

The same can be said about corruption in district schools and teacher unions. A recent story describes hundreds of computers that have been “lost” in New York City public schools.

Another story describes a district has told some immigrants they could attend school only a few hours a day. Other stories describes theft from teachers’ unions.

Those acts detract from the good work in many district public schools and teacher unions. We need to pay honor and acknowledge progress, and work to reduce the corruption.

School choice done well, can have wonderful benefits. Done badly, it can produce corruption, frustration, and alienation. Details do matter. But careful expansion of public school choice, whether by district or charter public schools, is part of what will help us make progress.


Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools.

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.