School Choice & Charters

Shanker on Charters

February 21, 2006 3 min read

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A School of Their Own

Albert Shanker, the longtime leader of the American Federation of Teachers, had a lot to say about charter schools, starting well before the first one opened in 1992. Mr. Shanker, who died in 1997, wrote about the issue repeatedly for the aft’s “Where We Stand” column, which appeared regularly as an advertisement in The New York Times and sometimes in other publications, including Education Week.

July 10, 1988:

“The idea is to encourage risk-taking and change. … Explorers got charters to seek new lands and resources. Many of our most esteemed scientific and cultural institutions were authorized by charters. And national labor unions issue charters to state and local unions. As [educator Ray] Budde notes, the charter concept can also be applied to public education. …

“Over time, we can expect charter schools to stimulate a different and more effective school structure. But … [a] demand for quick results will send the message that only quacks need apply for charters.”

July 17, 1988:

“[T]eams of six or more teachers [would] set up small, autonomous public schools. The purpose of charter schools is to try out new or revitalized ideas and to look for ways to vastly improve student learning. Only students who chose to attend these schools would be enrolled. …

“Charter school teams will have some solid knowledge and sound ideas to begin with, but they won’t start with the TRUTH. They will be trying to find new answers. …

“Millions of students fail because they are given educational ‘cures’ that should have been labeled failures long ago. If schools are to improve, they’ll have to support a constant inquiry and search for new and better ways to reach youngsters. If they don’t, the public will look for something other than the public schools to educate our children.”

June 26, 1994:

“Supporters claim that charter schools will establish accountability, so that good schools will flourish and bad ones will shrivel up and die. But without an external incentive system that demands a certain kind of quality, success will be based on popularity rather than quality. …

“Many of our schools now suffer because of bureaucratic, top-down management, but giving them the freedom to do whatever they choose will not solve the problems of our education system. Indeed, encouraging them to do their own thing before we have decided what we want our students to know and be able to do could be very destructive. The real question is not whether schools should be independent but when and under what circumstances.”

July 3, 1994:

“Charter schools must have autonomy to get where they want to go, but they must also be part of a system that has a central purpose—and that means a system that has decided what kids need to know and be able to do. Otherwise, they will end up like all those alternative schools of the 1960s—relevant only to themselves and useless to the system as a whole. …

“[T]here are other supporters of charter schools whose real aim is to smash the public schools. Unless charter school legislation is carefully crafted and controlled, charter schools will not lead to improved public education.”

Dec. 11, 1994:
“What we really need—at the very least—are statewide curriculum frameworks and statewide assessment systems. Then, students and teachers in every school will know what kids are responsible for learning and whether or not they have learned it. And we should add statewide incentive systems that link getting into college or getting a job with achievement in high school. Once those things are in place, why limit charter schools to five or 10 or a hundred? Why shouldn’t every school be a charter and enjoy the kind of autonomy now being offered to only a few?”
Dec. 18, 1994:
“[C]harter schools are, at best, a partial answer to the problems that afflict our schools.”
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SOURCE: United Federation of Teachers
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Shanker on Charters

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