Teaching Opinion

A New, Better Deal for Teachers and Families

By Joe Nathan — February 05, 2015 9 min read
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Joe Nathan replies again today to Deborah Meier. She offers a brief response.

Deb, we hear daily about how many public school educators are frustrated. Fortunately, there’s a growing teacher-led school movement to give teachers, along with families, a new, better deal. This empowers teachers to create new public options, or convert existing public schools into places that reflect their views about how schools should be organized. This is happening within traditional districts and in the charter sector of public education. Here are two examples, along with your reactions.

First, please consider what Louise Sundin, former Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president, and former American Federation of Teachers vice-president wrote in 2012, based on the teacher led charter model: “The charter sector offers some hope as a place to get the professional status and the approach to learning that teachers believe is right.” Sundin has a commentary in an important book, Zero Chance of Passage, by the lead author of Minnesota’s charter law, Ember Reichgott Junge.

The Mission Hill School in Boston that you helped create and led is a great example of what can be a “new, better deal” for educators. Mission Hill is a district public school.

Avalon, a teacher led charter in St. Paul, Minnesota, is another good example. Below I briefly describe each school. Then I discuss the conditions that allowed them to be created and to operate.

Mission Hill describes itself as “a Boston Public Pilot School serving approximately 250 children, ages 3-14 (grades K-8). The small learning community emphasizes a project-based, collaborative curriculum, inclusive of all learning abilities. MHS was founded in 1997 by educator and author Deborah Meier and is modeled on democratic principles.”

Mission Hill, and other Boston Pilot Schools, were created under a Boston School Committee policy that originally was suggested by the Boston Teachers Union. Bob Pearlman a BTU staff member helped developed the idea. Knowing something about “New Visions” district schools in New York City, BTU suggested that teachers be allowed to create new options within the district. This was a wonderful suggestion. The BTU deserves credit for making it.

Initially the Boston School Committee (aka the Boston School Board) rejected the Pilot School idea. Then the Massachusetts state legislature adopted a charter law. The School Committee realized that some of the district’s most talented educators were thinking about creating a charter. The School Committee changed its position and worked with the BTU to establish these schools. One of them is Mission Hills.

Pilots have flourished in part because of the Center for Collaborative Education. CCE has skillfully assisted, encouraged, and promoted many of these Pilots. CCE and its director, Dan French, are among the nation’s best resources for people trying to create new public schools.

In Boston democracy worked within a district. The Board and BTU wisely agreed to give educators and community members opportunities to create new within district options. Some are governed, like Mission Hill, as a democracy. A Governance council that includes elected members of the faculty, families, student and community makes decisions. It’s a wonderful approach. But Pilot Schools were initially, in part, a response to the fact that educators could create new public school options outside the control of a local school board.

Half a continent away, in St. Paul, Minnesota, you’ll find Avalon. This is a project based, grades 6-12 charter public school. Avalon is governed by a nine-member board includes five teachers who work in the school, two parents and two members of the broader community. The school describes itself this way:

“Staff, students, and parents all help create and maintain a community that is reflective, adaptive, and renewing. All community members are learners. A teacher cooperative governs the school. This shared ownership and governance helps focus all stakeholders and fosters a spirit of commitment and dedication to making Avalon an ideal place to learn. Avalon encourages community-building processes such as circles and conflict resolution practices, giving voice to all participants.”

Avalon now enrolls about 185 students. The school description continues, “Avalon features student-initiated independent projects, seminar classes, public student presentations, and partnerships with parents and community. The school operates on a teacher owner governance model and has no principal or director. Teachers share all administrative duties. In addition, Avalon School is an affiliate member of EdVisions Cooperative.

“From the beginning, Avalon has been committed to creating a supportive community within the school. The school does this by remaining small and promoting strong student and adult relationships where every student has an adult advocate and a personal learning plan. Students are placed in advisories of no more than 24 students. This group will work together for the entire year and students have the option of remaining with this same advisor for their entire high school career. This small teacher/student ratio allows teachers at Avalon to get to know their students and the families of students quite well, forging a strong partnership between the families and the school.”

There’s much more to say about the school. But what are the conditions that led to creation of this school, and a number of others that follow the model of teacher-led schools, often project- based schools that model principles that I think you and I appreciate and admire? The conditions were/are that Minnesota law allows

  • Groups of parents, educators, community members and others to propose new public schools, open to all. A licensed educator must be part of any group proposing a charter.
  • Conversion of existing district schools to charters if 60% or more of their faculty vote to do so. There are several examples of schools voting to do this.
  • Local districts, social service agencies, colleges and universities, and several other groups can serve as authorizers.
  • Waivers of most state rules and regulations about curriculum and other issues, accompanied by a contract that the school and authorizer create, specifying goals the school will work toward, and ways to measure progress toward those goals.

Many of the best charters were created, in part by veteran district school educators who were tired of battling with the district(s) in which they worked. Many things frustrated them. They often report that developing and working in a charter are among the hardest and most satisfying things they’ve ever done.

Deb, you might reply that some people abuse these opportunities. You’ve sent me several articles describing profiteering and corruption that has taken place in some charters. I agree that this has happened.

I think we’ve also agreed that there have been theft, abuse and corruption in district schools with locally elected boards. I remember the extraordinary Coleman Gann, a New York City district school leader who literally “wore a wire” for months. He exposed incredible corruption in the district where he served as superintendent. The New York Times called him “the Serpico of the public school system.”

That same obituary noted, “The city’s 32 community school boards grew out of a 1969 state law aimed at giving community leaders and parents, especially in minority neighborhoods, a voice in the running of public schools. The conversations recorded by Mr. Genn, who became the highest-ranking official willing to discuss corruption publicly, led gradually to state legislation recentralizing the school system over the last few years.”

Deb, I hope we could agree there is no perfect approach to democracy. I think you and I would agree that putting power to make critical decisions about curriculum, budget and personnel at the school level can be a very good idea. Mission Hill works well. So does Avalon.

Can elected school boards work well, or badly? Yes. Can the charter approach which in part is small-scale democracy, work well or badly? Yes.

What are the expectations, requirements, and procedures that increase the likelihood that things will work well both for the youngsters and for the educators in the school? That’s what I hope we can discuss next.

Deborah Meier:

Here are two schools that we both admire and are equally democratic in their internal operations. One inside a public system with gross faults. Is it necessary to unleash a monster just to produce what could have been done without that if the forces behind the charters today had simply wanted what you and I do?

That’s not the driving force behind their enthusiasm for charters vs. Pilots etc. Why does the bank robber rob a bank? At one stroke they get the money, divide the enemy and destroy the last strong union still left standing.

They hate democracy for the very reasons you and I cherish it. There has to be a better way to increase the number of democratically operating schools. It’s a bad bargain.

Could we design a legislative approach that favors more democracy? What might it look like? How might we unite the genuine democrats behind it?

Joe: I respectfully disagree that the charter movement is a “monster.” But there are encouraging developments here, both at the community and policy levels.

  1. Louise Sundin, the former AFT vice president that I quoted earlier, helped start the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN). She recently wrote in Ember Reichgott’s book, “In the discussions at TURN, the attitude toward charters is visibly changing Members see opportunities in many of the models that are developing.”
  2. The American Federation of Teachers gave the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers a grant to start a new teacher led charter school authorizer organization. Minnesota has approved the Minnesota Guild, and it has started authorizing “teacher led” charters. The Guild is led by a former Minneapolis Public School teacher, Brad Blue.
  3. Finally, here’s new alliance that that may interest you and others. Sundin, Lynn Nordgren, Denise Rodriguez and Don Sinner have joined with many of the people who helped write Minnesota’s charter law. Nordgren is the president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Rodriguez is president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Sinner is president of the Lakeville Education Association. Together, they’ve helped write a bill for Minnesota legislators that would provide startup funds for teacher-led district public schools. We working hard to win legislative approval. I’m part of this.

If they had been more far-sighted, teacher unions would have embraced the charter public school movement in 1991, when it started. The NEA did briefly help members set up charters. But it stopped after some of its more regressive members objected. The New York City teachers union has helped start charters. But mostly teacher unions have objected to, and battled charter laws.

We can’t change the past. But I think developments such as those described above are very encouraging.

Teachers, as well as families and students, deserve new options. The teacher-led schools rightly recognize research by Richard Ingersoll that Sundin cites: Schools can be better “when teacher roles are larger.” These are exciting developments that the charter movement, and the Pilot School movement, are helping produce.

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.