Giving Charter Schools a Chance

Giving Charter Schools a Chance

Ask a supporter of charter schools whether that vogue new concept holds promise for inner-city children.


Ask a supporter of charter schools whether that vogue new concept holds promise for inner-city children. By way of an answer, you might get invited to a quiet corner in the hardscrabble Dorchester neighborhood of Boston.

There, in a building one could easily miss while searching for a school, a remarkable story is unfolding. Inside the warm, cozy classrooms of the Neighborhood House Charter School, the 180 students enjoy class sizes of 18 students–and two teachers. The student-teacher ratio, at less than 10 to 1, would be the envy of some expensive private schools; the typical public school ratio is 17 to 1. Founded by the local settlement-house network–a movement that has long offered services to ease the transition of new immigrants–the school serves as a center for healthcare, social services, after-school activities and adult education. A local newspaper reports, “Collaboration has been expanded beyond the building walls, and the entire community is recognizing the benefits.”

New families are welcomed by a coordinator in the school’s parent center, who visits homes and helps connect parents to services they need. The coordinator also oversees the “family learning contracts”–a promise parents sign to help with their child’s studies, get their kid to school on time and help develop the child’s “Individual Learning Plan.” An independent evaluation notes, “Every teacher in the school makes detailed observations about each of his or her students every day. The teacher-student ratio is so low that most teachers have totally internalized the ILP of their individual advisees.” Students attend school from 8 am until as late as 6 pm, when adult education begins. And they attend with a vengeance, posting an impressive 97 percent attendance rate. No child has ever been expelled from Neighborhood House.

The student body, while not a precise mirror of the neighborhood, is mostly black and mostly poor; white students make up less than a third of the enrollment, and 51 percent of the students are eligible for a free lunch. Yet Headmaster Kevin Andrews, who worked as a principal in the posh Newton and Brookline suburbs, has brought the standards of affluent, largely white schools to the inner city. Despite a pay scale at least $5,000 below other Boston public schools–a trade-off for the small classes–he has attracted a staff dominated by experienced teachers. Many are graduates of Ivy League schools and hold master’s degrees.

Among parents, he has tried to build the same sense of “entitlement,” as he puts it, that prevails in the suburbs. Some parents accustomed to busing their kids to the suburbs, Andrews says, hesitated to raise their voices in those schools “to avoid blowing it.” Here, he pushes them to fight for the best. The results have drawn national notice. On recent statewide tests–which despite all their limitations are the main measuring stick for the media and the public–Neighborhood House fourth graders outperformed every other school in Massachusetts in English and language arts. In math and science Neighborhood House took the top scores in Boston.

As for the latter numbers, only Andrews seems unimpressed. “Because they’re the best in Boston, what’s so wonderful about that?” he asked. “If we were testing like Newton, that would be wonderful.”

It would also be wonderful if all urban charter schools were like Neighborhood House. They’re not. Charter schools are independent public schools freed from most rules governing school districts and from the attendant bureaucracy. Instead of promising to follow a maze of regulations, they promise results, measured in student performance and parent satisfaction; that promise is embodied in a document called a charter. (Generally, charters must win approval from a local school board or state.) But while they exist outside the system, charter schools adhere to the definition of public schools: They cannot charge tuition, teach religion or discriminate in admission. Many charter schools were created to serve the needs of children who are not doing well in traditional schools. Nationally, charter schools enroll a higher proportion of poor and minority students than other public schools.

It’s too soon to say whether charter schools, by and large, are better than the public schools down the street. The first charter school opened in 1992; most of the 1,700 now in existence opened in the last two years. Indeed, it would probably be a mistake at any point to try to draw broad performance conclusions about “the charter movement.” By design, that “movement” is a collection of unique schools ranging from international baccalaureate academies to intensive last resorts for juvenile lawbreakers; taking their average temperature probably wouldn’t be enlightening.

What’s painfully clear, however, is that many inner-city charters aren’t doing as well as Neighborhood House. In Oakland, California, for instance, several charter schools are struggling for bare survival. At one, a Latino-oriented school that was among the nation’s first charters, a wrenching struggle for control between founding teachers and a new principal played out recently before local television cameras. Last summer parents picketed a small charter school for Native American students when it became clear the majority had failed and were being held back in their grade. And in April a third Oakland school, founded on ideals of tolerance and racial harmony, became the first local school to have its charter revoked amid heavy debts and multiple staff resignations.

Teeth-gnashing struggles like Oakland’s, while not the rule, demonstrate a key early lesson of urban charter schools: If one hopes to create an effective inner-city school, good intentions, adequate resources, community legitimacy, a herculean work ethic and a ticket out of the bureaucracy may be necessary, but they are not sufficient. This desperately important task also requires wisdom, forethought, genius. These schools could use some help.

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.

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.

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