Giving Charter Schools a Chance
We have reached a curious pass when inner-city parents look to right-wing billionaires and well-heeled corporations for help while Democrats and progressives get tagged as hypocrites and sticks-in-the-mud. But liberals need not abdicate their place on the educational cutting edge, and ought not be seen as defenders of bureaucracy and failure. Charter schools present an opportunity to do the right thing, politically and morally. There is a need here, as evidenced by the struggles of inner-city communities to start their own schools, and progressives ought to answer the call, giving their own flavor to the charter movement. People--and particularly educators--of conscience can lead by example, aiding in the creation of excellent, model schools.
These schools need plenty of thoughtful help getting off the ground. The problems of many struggling schools can be traced to inadequate preparation. Schools--even small ones--are complex beasts, like cities or hospitals, and what may seem like tiny gaps in planning can become real chasms after the school is open. In her illuminating forthcoming study "Parents Founding Charter Schools," University of San Francisco Professor Patty Yancey describes how the founders of the pseudonymous C-Star Charter, unified by purpose, good intention and urgency, glossed over nettlesome details of bylaws and contracts. At the time, the documents seemed little more than bureaucratic irritants. In an experience repeated over and over by charter schools, however, that haste came back to haunt the parents and teachers. They found they had handed governing power to an autocrat and that there was no grievance system. Halfway through the first year, parents were meeting in secret; by spring, the principal had been fired, and the school nearly went bankrupt. The academic year closed with the resignation of the school's two teachers and the departure of half its families. Although it is probably safe to say that most charter schools never face problems that serious, this kind of power struggle is not unusual.
There is a conundrum presented by money: Generally, charter schools receive funds only when students arrive. That means any work before the school opens must be done on the cheap. The best schools, on the other hand, pay staff for a year or more before admitting students, and then start very small--with numbers so low that they do not cover initial costs. Some of the difference is now being made up by grants, including more than $137 million this year from the federal government. Probably as a result, only 40 percent of charter schools complained of problems with startup funding last year, down from 60 percent three years earlier. Even so, some thoughtful grant-making in this area would go a long way. Given sufficient time and opportunity, school staffs can find the unity they will desperately need later in everything from discipline policies to basic trust. And of course, extra time would allow them--before facing the hassles of installing sprinklers and choosing carpet colors--to do their most important work: developing a compelling plan for educating children and for deepening the skills of the teachers.
It is no surprise that the charter schools that have their act together the most--that is, the ones least likely to face disaster--are in the states that conduct the most exacting review before granting a charter. In states that are less demanding--ones with a large number of charters, like California and Arizona--progressive educators should serve as "critical friends" to charter schools, evaluating plans for curricular depth and seriousness, helping school leaders sharpen their vision and strengthen their methods. By the same token, schools-to-be need the help of lawyers, businesspeople, educators and other good thinkers who can apply a magnifying glass and a reality check to budgets, contracts, school policies and recruitment plans. Each school has a board, where strong, thoughtful, critical people can make the difference between success and disaster. And anyone who goes to the voting booth should support state charter laws that focus on creating the best environment for kids--not the most convenient compromise for powerful adults.
For anyone involved with a nascent school, whether peripherally or centrally, there are some principles that should be considered crucial. The first is vision. People who want to make a school must know why. They must know, simply and precisely, what they want to achieve, what sort of world they want young people to inhabit. The vision will be reached only if it is known and shared by everyone at the school. The second point is unity. Using their shared vision as a rallying point, adults must agree on the key principles and policies on which their school is built. They must trust one another. If that bond is not strong enough, it will be frayed by inevitable strains--racism, the lack of time and materials, mischievous children and angry parents--and chasms will develop into which children will fall.
Third, the classroom must be the focus of the school's attention--a seemingly obvious point often ignored amid concerns about finding a building and paying bills. In curriculum, charter schools can be laboratories for the innovative, the risky, the unusual; that opportunity should not be squandered. Such important classroom work can be sustained only through high-quality professional development. Like surgeons and pilots, teachers must continually develop their craft, whether in their first year or their thirtieth. And finally, there are the personal principles of hard work and balance. Anyone who comes to an innovative new school should be prepared to work hard, but no one should be made to burn out.
A generation ago, progressives were the guardians of innovative education for children who needed education the most. Through helping to create superb independent public schools, they can return to their place in the vanguard. It's not just a politically savvy way to fight the enemies of public education. It's the right thing to do for children.