At the policy level, it’s important to keep debating the pros and cons of charter schools. But on the ground, system leaders must come to terms with them.
Every summer, PDK hosts a national conference for members of Educators Rising, our Career and Technical Student Organization for young people interested in becoming teachers. This year, more than a thousand high school students and their faculty advisors joined us in Dallas, Texas, for four days of workshops, discussions, networking, and competitions in categories such as curriculum design, lesson planning, and public speaking.
I was particularly impressed by the winner of the public speaking contest, Sruti Rathapaum, who gave an impassioned speech calling for greater equity in K-12 education. She touched on a wide range of issues — including a detailed examination of school funding disparities — and she was a powerful and engaging speaker. But what stood out most for me was her story of growing up as an immigrant child on the poor side of Austin, Texas, and choosing to leave the regular public school system to attend a charter school.
Of course, the story left me feeling conflicted. On one hand, here’s a brilliant young woman who is already an inspiring leader and shows exceptional promise as a future educator. On the other hand, she credits much of her success to having fled her local school system.
Now, it’s possible that Sruti would have thrived wherever she went, given her drive, intelligence, and character. But still, the fact is that she and her mother believed the neighborhood schools to be inadequate. They didn’t want to take the chance on them, so they opted to go elsewhere.
I accept that charters have become an integral part of the public school landscape and, frankly, I think some of their practices are worthy of emulation.
I’m glad they had that choice. Like most Americans, I staunchly oppose vouchers and tax credit schemes meant to funnel public dollars into private schooling. But I accept that charters have become an integral part of the public school landscape, and frankly, I think some of their practices are worthy of emulation.
Sure, I have misgivings about them. For one thing, I’ve spent my entire career trying to improve traditional school systems, and when families leave them for the charter sector, I take it personally. For another thing, I resent how much of the oxygen charter schools suck out of the public discourse — while they enroll fewer than 10% of the nation’s students, they seem to get more like 90% of the attention from education journalists and policy makers. Further, many reformers (and their funders) have oversold their promise, treating them as a panacea for all that ails the public schools. Meanwhile, critics have raised serious questions about their effects on local school finances and facilities management and about their commitment to serving English learners and students with disabilities. Moreover, the research remains unclear as to how well they stack up, overall, against traditional public schools.
Yet, many individual charters do seem to provide excellent opportunities for underserved children. Many are led and staffed by dedicated educators who work their tails off for students and families. Many charters are innovative and creative and are leading the way at preparing students academically and tending to their social and emotional needs.
Herein lies the rub: It feels like today’s education debates force you to take a position either for charter schools or against them. Can’t I just declare that I’m for good schools and against bad ones, whatever their governance model? Isn’t that the distinction that really matters?
Beyond the charter wars
Whenever I hear a speaker heap praise on a charter school, part of me feels compelled to defend the traditional public school system at all costs, standing up for it against its detractors. I have great respect for the role public education has played, over many decades, in promoting social cohesion, economic mobility, and democratic citizenship, and I’m wary of those who would dismiss and undermine those accomplishments.
But let’s get real: Many of our public schools have always stunk, too. For generations, they’ve tracked and oppressed some students while protecting the wealth and privilege of others. Rather than advancing social justice, they often reinforce the country’s entrenched racial and economic hierarchies. And when teachers, parents, and system leaders do try to push for positive change, they are often stymied by intransigent PTA members, school boards, unions, and political interest groups.
Individuals like Sruti and her mother don’t care which side they’re on in the charter wars — nor should they care. It doesn’t matter to them whether they’re disrupting or defending the traditional public schools; they just want to find a school that works for them.
I’m less and less convinced that school system leaders have to pick sides, either. Rather than declaring themselves to be for or against charters, I think it’s much more helpful to focus on the ways they can manage the complex realities of school choice today. Specifically, in districts where the charter sector has become significant, what can they do to improve the traditional schools while also helping charters succeed? (Because state policy contexts vary widely, my recommendations are somewhat broad; I invite others to flesh out the local details.)
1) Build a robust data system that includes metrics on student achievement, finances, student demographics, families, and teachers — and ask the charter schools to contribute to and make use of these data.
Ideally, a robust data system will create opportunities for collaboration among traditional and charter schools. It’s in everybody’s best interest to figure out which schools are serving which kinds of students, how they allocate their resources, and how they perform. In turn, system leaders and charter operators alike should do whatever they can to use that data to support their decision making, identify struggling students as early as possible, and keep the public and policy makers informed about their challenges and progress.
Whether system leaders welcome charters or see them as intruders, the fact is that charter schools serve the very same community as the traditional schools. And if local educators can’t find ways to share data, resolve conflicts, and learn from each other, then who can?
2) Don’t complain. Improve. The attraction of a charter school lies in the perception that it offers something new and different from a traditional public school — whether it actually does so or not. Americans like choice, and they are more likely to value something they’ve opted into.
At the same time, if a school is persistently failing, then system leaders have an obligation to take bold and comprehensive action to remedy the situation, rather than complaining about charters stealing their students. According to the 2016 PDK Poll, 84% of Americans don’t want underperforming schools to be closed down — but 67% do want personnel to be replaced. Real improvement requires tough decisions, which may include firing people, finding new talent, and fighting for resources to support the change effort.
This is, of course, complicated by how difficult it can be to change existing systems. Leaders of traditional schools often have to struggle just to carve out some space and time to rethink their approach. By contrast, charters — or any new school — have the advantage of being built from the ground up. When school leaders can choose their own staff, plan and build curriculum, and so on, the lift is much easier than it would be if they had to turn around a long-dysfunctional institution.
That doesn’t make charters a panacea, though. The limited supply of well-organized, well-managed charter schools simply doesn’t permit most districts to turn things over to outside operators. Even in cities like Washington, D.C., where almost half of the system’s students attend charters, K-12 leaders must continue to pursue bold strategies to turn around low-performing schools rather than start new ones from scratch.
3) Decide precisely how choice will function in the district. Even before the arrival of charter schools, most districts had some combination of magnet schools, gifted and talented programs, specialized schools, and processes by which parents could choose to move a kid to a different school or program. System leaders have always had an obligation to be maximally transparent about these opportunities, how to access them, and what’s being done to ensure fairness.
When charters are added to the mix, it becomes even more important to define an overall vision for choice within the district. Otherwise, choice can become a confusing free-for-all, with charters relying on a lottery system, magnet schools selecting students by test scores, gifted programs depending on teacher recommendations, and so on. To ensure credibility and fairness, system leaders need to work out clear, consistent ground rules that the public understands and endorses.
Time for bridge building
On the glass walls in the PDK conference room are written some core tenets that my staff and I try to follow. We believe that educators need to be intellectually honest, embrace the complexity of school change, ask the right questions, and call out B.S. wherever we see it, even if it comes from our friends and allies.
If local educators can’t find ways to share data, resolve conflicts, and learn from each other, then who can?
I remain an ardent supporter and defender of traditional public school systems. I fully believe that our schools, particularly those that serve vulnerable children, need more money and resources. I believe that most educators are capable, well-intended, and working as hard as they can. And I believe that traditional schools and districts are willing and able to improve, if given the time and support they need.
But if I’m true to the tenets on the conference room wall, I have to admit also that some traditional public schools aren’t good places for kids. I can’t, in good conscience, tell Sruti and her mom that they should have stayed put in a lousy neighborhood school.
I’m not naïve enough to think that the advocates and interest groups that have mobilized for and against charter schools will ever choose to meet in the middle. No doubt, when it comes to policy debates, the charter wars will continue. But at the local level, where system leaders are trying to do whatever they can to support kids, it’s time we focused on building bridges between traditional schools and the charter sector.