Giving Charter Schools a Chance
One might imagine this to be a natural area for progressives to get involved. Charter schools have much in common with the alternative schools of the sixties and seventies. They are about one-third the size of the typical public school. As a result, experimentation is easy, and a strong bond with the community is common. What's more, many charters are specifically designed to serve populations traditionally of concern to the left: poor and minority children.
Certainly, good numbers of progressive educators are vigorously involved in creating or supporting charter schools. Yet many on the left, inside and outside education, have been holding their collective nose at the charter movement. They cite a variety of fears about charter schools: They divert reform energy--along with dollars and other resources--from the larger system to schools serving tiny numbers of children; they drain off the active, involved parents who could help existing schools improve; they "cream" the best students away from regular schools, depriving classrooms of stars whose energy helps other children; they don't follow the rules made by democratically elected school boards and may themselves be less democratic; they are difficult for unions to organize, and sometimes they are actively hostile to collective bargaining; they could be a stalking horse for tax-funded vouchers and other anti-public school schemes; and they are sometimes irresponsibly selective, expelling children with discipline problems or avoiding those with learning disabilities.
There is some basis for each of these worries. Some charter schools do behave irresponsibly; some are backed by people with questionable motives. On the other hand, some of these concerns are overstated; charter schools don't get all the "best" students or parents, and often get the kids who have failed and the parents who have been most irritating to previous schools. Moreover, the argument about democracy falls flat when parents start their own school because they feel they have no voice in "the system."
More important is the question of charter schools' role in big- system reform. Despite charter advocates' hopes that the advent of such independent schools would bring vigorous change in surrounding districts, that has actually happened only about a quarter of the time. And unfortunately, the notion of charter schools as curriculum laboratories for the larger system has not yet been realized; right now, there's not much mechanism for transfer. But particularly under a vision where district reform and charters worked more closely together, charters could serve as experimental greenhouses to produce vibrant examples of public schools that work for poor minority kids. (One can only hope that amid the current standardized-testing mania, charters' need to demonstrate "results" will not drive out that experimentation.) Moreover, since many districts have been reluctant to embrace small, innovative schools despite their obvious benefits, parents and teachers who are not willing to wait for change within the existing public school system should be allowed to create charters.
Charters ought to be on the agenda for the left, in part because of their potential to serve as tools of racial and economic justice. Nationally, 52 percent of charter school students are nonwhite, compared with 41 percent of students at other public schools. Charters also serve a population that is slightly poorer than average. But the relationship between charter schools and children of color varies widely from state to state. In California and Colorado, for instance, charter school student bodies are whiter and wealthier than those of regular public schools.
On the local level, charter schools sometimes take a fun-house mirror to traditional race politics. In some Southern states, for example, parents in overwhelmingly African-American communities who want charters are being blocked by their traditional allies--the NAACP and the US Justice Department--because of fears that such single-race schools would open the way to segregation. On the other hand, there are reports of racist white school boards making racially motivated decisions on who can or cannot start a charter school. But such stories only seem to add urgency to the question: If charter schools can aid poor and minority children--as they do in Dorchester and elsewhere--can that opportunity be ignored? Progressives who remain on the sidelines of school choice risk finding themselves in an empty stadium. Parents and policy-makers alike are demanding change. Choice is not an open discussion anymore; the only question is in what form it will come. Charter schools are public, in name and in fact; many of the other options are not.
Political conservatives, and particularly corporations, have proved singularly unhesitant about staking claims in the realm of school choice. From privately funded private-school vouchers to for-profit charter schools to centrally managed, HMO-like "education maintenance organizations" with curriculum by E.D. Hirsch, the right has demonstrated its readiness to answer inner-city educational desperation. And plenty of parents are ready to sign on, as the torrential response to last year's privately funded Children's Scholarship Fund vouchers proved. The potency of the choice message--and the feebleness of the response--was crystallized, as E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post pointed out, in a February presidential debate in Harlem. There, applause thundered through the Apollo Theater when a reporter questioned Al Gore for opposing vouchers but sending his kids to private school. "Is there not a public or charter school in D.C. good enough for your child?" she asked. "And, if not...why should the parents here have to keep their kids in public schools because they don't have the financial resources that you do?"
Meanwhile, a growing movement seeks to run public charter schools for profit, spearheaded by Edison Schools, which manages seventy-nine schools in sixteen states, plus the District of Columbia. The push to make money from public schools has raised considerable alarm on the left, but here too one finds surprising alliances. Edison was the early favorite of Mayor Jerry Brown to open charter schools in Oakland. And Edison is working with the University of Wisconsin, among others, on a charter school that would help prepare African-Americans for that university's medical school and careers in science.