Somewhere along the way, nearly every teacher dreams of starting a school. I know I did. More than once during the 30 years I taught English and journalism to high school students in Paterson, I imagined that creating my own school would open the door to everything I wanted as a teacher:
- Colleagues with a shared vision of teaching and learning
- Freedom from central office bureaucracy
- A welcoming school culture that reflected the lives of our students and families
- Professional autonomy that nourished innovation and individual and collective growth
- School-based decision-making that pushed choices about resources, priorities, time and staffing closer to the classrooms where it matters the most.
But reality can be hard on daydreams, and I got a glimpse of how complicated these issues are when my large comprehensive high school embraced the reform-trend-of-the-day and moved to create small theme academies inside the larger school. As the lead teacher of a new Communications Academy, I soon faced a host of thorny questions: Who would our new academy serve? What would the selection process be? How would the academy share space and resources with the rest of the school? How would our academy team be formed, and what impact would overlapping circles of authority have on teachers’ contractual and evaluation processes? What would be the effect of the new academies on the larger school around us, which still opened its doors to everyone? … //
… How do charter schools measure up?
- The most complete national study of charter school performance by CREDO, a research unit at Stanford University that supports charter reform, found that only about one in five charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many had lower ones. [iii] Unlike most charter schools, traditional public schools accept all children, including much larger numbers of high needs students. In most states charters also do not face the same public accountability and transparency requirements as public schools, which has led to serious problems of mismanagement, corruption and profiteering.
- Invariably beneath accounts of spectacular charter success lie demographics that reveal fewer special needs children, fewer English language learners and fewer numbers of children from the poorest families. This hasn’t stopped the cheerleading for charters coming from some quarters, but it does undermine their credibility as a strategy for improving public schools overall.
- Take, for example, the most recent report on New Jersey’s charters that CREDO produced in conjunction with the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). The press release announcing this long-delayed study claimed it showed that “New Jersey charter public schools significantly outperform their district school peers.” [iv] Education Commissioner Chris Cerf echoed these claims, saying “the results are clear – on the whole, New Jersey charter school students make larger learning gains in both reading and math than their traditional public school peers.”[v]
- But a closer look at the report raises familiar issues (even putting aside the dubious premise that equates school success with test scores). The report showed that 70 percent of the New Jersey charters studied had the same or lower math scores as the traditional public schools they were compared to; 60 percent scored the same or lower on language arts.
- The charters with the best results were clustered in Newark, which includes more selective “No Excuses” charters. These schools serve lower numbers of the highest needs students and have relatively high rates of attrition compared to traditional district schools. Typically, the CREDO report failed to distinguish between levels of student need, lumping students who receive speech therapy with those facing more severe disabilities like autism as “special education” students. “Reduced lunch” students are similarly equated with “free lunch” students facing much deeper levels of poverty. [vi]
- More importantly, the report fails to identify a single school characteristic aside from the different demographics of the student population that accounts for the “success” in the limited number of charters where it appears at all. The study also fails to account for the “peer effects” of mixing limited numbers of high needs students with the more selective charter population, while the highest need students are increasingly left behind in growing concentrations in district schools.
A return to segregated schools? … //
… The need to focus on poverty and proven reforms
- But the current push for deregulated charters and privatization is doing nothing to reduce the concentrations of 70, 80, and 90 percent poverty that remain the central problem in our urban schools. It’s instructive to contrast charter-driven reform with more equitable approaches. In North Carolina, reform efforts were based on integrating struggling schools in Raleigh with the schools in surrounding Wake County. Efforts were made to improve theme-based and magnet programs at all schools, and the concentration of free/reduced lunch students at any one school was limited to 40 percent or less. The plan led to some of the nation’s best progress on closing gaps in achievement and opportunity. [x]
- There are many other factors that make charters unsustainable as a general strategy for improving public education. Significant evidence suggests that charters are part of a market-driven plan to create a less stable, less secure and less expensive teaching staff. Other trends reflect the efforts of well-funded groups working to privatize everything from curriculum to professional development to the making of education policy.
- Nationally, charter school teachers are, on average, less experienced, less unionized and less likely to hold state certification than teachers in traditional public schools.[xi] (In a word, cheaper.) Here in New Jersey, the Christie administration has proposed lowering certification standards for charter school teachers and insisted that charter schools be exempt from the much-heralded tenure and evaluation reforms in the TEACHNJ Act passed last year. [xii]
- As many as one in four charter school teachers leave every year, about double the turnover rate in traditional public schools. The odds of a teacher leaving the profession altogether are 130 percent higher at charters than traditional public schools, and much of this teacher attrition is related to dissatisfaction with working conditions.[xiii]
- Charter schools typically pay less for longer hours. But charter school administrators often earn more than their school-district counterparts. Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy Schools, two widely heralded charter school leaders, are each paid close to half a million dollars a year.[xiv] In New Jersey, charter school administrators are exempt from the salary caps imposed on district superintendents.[xv]
- Charters raise similar issues in suburban districts. Last year, an application to open a Quest Academy charter school in my hometown of Montclair was a finalist after being previously rejected four times. If approved, the charter would have drawn over $2 million from the district budget. Quest promised to serve a small group of students with “small classes,” “individualized instruction,” and “cutting edge technology.” But it would have left students at Montclair High School with larger classes, less individualized instruction, and less cutting edge technology. It would have eroded programs and staff at a high school that sends over 90 percent of its students to post-secondary education, including over 90 percent of its African-American students.[xvi]
Parents weigh in: … //
… Still, the march continues:
- Commissioner Cerf has declared intentions to dramatically expand New Jersey’s charter sector. An NJDOE grant application to the California-based Broad foundation, a major funder of charter school networks, promised, “The percent of high quality public charter schools in New Jersey, as measured by NJDOE’s definition of high quality, will increase by 50 percent by 2014-15.” The Christie Administration has proposed allowing for-profit charters to operate in the state, permitting existing charters to open “satellite campuses” in multiple districts, and opening the door to fly-by-night cyber charters. In recent years, New Jersey’s charter approval process has been marked by inconsistency, secrecy, and scandal.[xviii]
- It has become impossible to separate the rapid expansion of charter networks from efforts to privatize public education. Commissioner Cerf has spoken of replacing the current “school system” with “a system of schools.” Former deputy commissioner Andy Smarick campaigned to “replace the district-based system in America’s large cities with fluid, self- improving systems of charter schools.” Governor Christie, a longtime supporter of private school vouchers, was once a registered lobbyist for Cerf’s former company, Edison, Inc., then the largest private education management firm in the nation. [xix]
- Inevitably, charter schools have become part of this polarized debate about education policy. Those who believe that business models and market reforms hold the key to solving educational problems have made great strides in attaching their agenda to the urgent need of communities who have too often been poorly served by the current system. But left to its own bottom line logic, the market will do for education what it is has done for housing, health care and employment: create fabulous profits and opportunities for a few and unequal access and outcomes for the many.
- Our country has already had more than enough experience with separate and unequal school systems. The counterfeit claim that charter privatization is part of a new “civil rights movement” addressing the deep and historic inequality that surrounds our schools is belied by the real impact of rapid charter growth in cities across the country. At the level of state and federal education policy, charters are providing a reform cover for eroding the public school system and an investment opportunity for those who see education as a business rather than a fundamental institution of democratic civic life.
- It’s time to slow down charter expansion and refocus public policy on providing excellent public schools for all. Using charters as a reform strategy has become too much like planting weeds in the garden. Better to tend the soil and help all public schools flower to their full potential.