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Saving the charter school movement from itself

Charter schools are being used as a front for union bashing and privatization, but it doesn’t have to be that way

June 8, 2015 2:00AM ET

Advocates of charter schools argue that they are innovative laboratories of experimentation. But the reality is that over the past decade, the policies that led to the creation of these schools have been used to advance a political agenda: putting public resources into private hands, reducing accountability over how those resources are used and scapegoating teachers for the many problems that plague public education. 

In doing so, many charter advocates have threatened to transform public education into a resource-scarce system that relies on philanthropy to function. That’s a shame. If charters were reimagined to respect their original objectives — to allow educators to experiment with new ideas, advance teachers’ voice in education and strengthen the public school system as a whole — they could yet live up to their potential. 

An influential early proponent of charter schools was Albert Shanker, the long-time president of the American Federation of Teachers, who first embraced the idea in 1988. As Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter write in their recent book “A Smarter Charter,” they were “imagined [as] a more purely democratic version of traditional public schools” — a place where children from neighborhoods segregated by income and race could come together under small groups of teachers experimenting with new ways of teaching. 

Most important, the innovative practices developed in charters were intended to be folded back into the larger education system in order to improve all schools using lessons learned by a few. If this policy were applied today, it would be one way to break the gridlock of an increasingly polarized and rancorous debate. Rather than pick sides, charter advocates and their critics could come together for the benefit of all students. 

Making charters smarter

If the charter school movement is going to play the positive role in education reform that it was supposed to, it will have to do three things: restore its commitment to public accountability for public resources, support increased funding across the system and respect the rights of teachers to collectively express their voice on the job.

First, there’s the issue of accountability, in particular, admissions policies that exacerbate student segregation. As Iris Rotberg, an education professor at George Washington University, wrote in Eduction Week, “There is a strong link between school choice programs [i.e., charters] and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income.” A 2010 study found charters enrolled English-language learners at less than half the rate as traditional public schools do, for example. Kids with disabilities or discipline problems are likewise less likely to be accommodated. Too many charters use not too subtle means of picking and choosing which children they admit, treating traditional schools as a dumping ground.

Contending that more money doesn’t work is an excuse to scapegoat teachers for problems linked to race and class.

Not all charters do this. Kahlenberg and Potter describe Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans as “a rare specimen: a unionized charter school that intentionally seeks a diverse student body.” Morris Jeff recruits low-income students for subsidized pre-K classes. Two-thirds of the schools’ seats are reserved this way, and when the students enter kindergarten, the student body retains this diversity. The school’s teachers are union members affiliated with the NEA, one of the nation’s two largest teacher union federations. It is a good example to follow.

The charter movement also needs to address profiteering. The most common scam is for unscrupulous charter heads to use taxpayer dollars to buy or rent property from business partners, generating windfall profits, but it doesn’t end there. Michigan’s charter regulations have few prohibitions on conflict of interest, and the state has no power to audit the schools, resulting in numerous incidents of property flipping and cronyism.

Too many charter advocates have opposed regulatory oversight. Although a few states are strengthening their oversight laws — most notably in Ohio, where in a bipartisan effort, legislators are pushing to strengthen transparency and accountability — the rash of recent charter school exposés has not yet stimulated widespread reform. 

Creating a united front

The rise of charters has balkanized district budgets, leaving traditional schools less money. A 2014 report from the Journey for Justice Alliance notes that “the number of students enrolled within charter schools has nearly doubled just within the last six years.” This growth (no bad thing on its own) has accompanied and at times accelerated a spate of school closings across the country — 47 traditional schools in Chicago in one year, dozens of schools in Baltimore in the last 10 years and 23 in Philadelphia in 2013.

When so-called education reformers insist that “throwing money at education isn’t working,” as Kristen De Peña put it in a report for the Sunshine Review, they ignore the vast divide in resources that separates well-heeled suburban schools from cash-strapped inner city districts. Moreover, the rhetoric that more money doesn’t work serves as an excuse to scapegoat teachers for problems clearly linked to stratifications of race and class — and to deny the fact that schools are being starved in the first place.

Speaking of teachers: The original charter advocates recognized their role and sought to use the insights of front-line teachers to improve public schools as a whole. Today the National Association for Public Charter Schools insists, “Charter schools are neither pro-union nor anti-union: They are pro teacher.” But the charter movement has attacked unions and used public money to denounce teachers who believe teachers should have a say in their schools’ policies. 

At Aspira charter in Philadelphia, for instance, school managers “pared back instruction and parent-teacher conferences so staff can attend mandatory [anti-union] meetings,” reported The Philadelphia Daily News. In Los Angeles the 26-school Alliance charter chain has similarly gone on the attack. According to a complaint filed by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, school managers are “using the funds that could be used for student education to hire high-priced PR consultants” to wage a campaign attacking the teachers’ decision to join the union.

Real input from teachers is consistent with the original vision for charters. Many of the charter schools Kahlenberg and Potter profile as following best practices for charters today feature unionized teachers as part of an innovative governance strategy to improve students’ experiences. 

There are admirable charter advocates working to end exclusionary polices, support teachers’ voice and form a united front on public education funding. If these leaders can reclaim the movement’s original vision, charter schools can still be an important part of our public education landscape. If they can’t, we risk further fragmenting our education system, increasing the inequities of our school funding and foreclosing on the dream of a free and quality education for all. 

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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