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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Charter Schools, Politics, and Democracy (Part 2)

Deborah Meier offered her views on the purposes of publicly-funded charter schools in Part 1. Part 2 offers views of others who have supported and opposed charters over the past decade. Before offering their views, however, I would like to frame the overall back-and-forth on charters historically–a debate that has been ongoing since their origin in Minnesota in 1991 but stretches back to the beginnings of compulsory, tax-supported public schooling.

  1. Compulsory, tax-supported public schools are political inventions. They have been established to achieve political, social, and economic purposes. Publicly funded charter schools are the most recent incarnation of this fact. Current political debate contests the different purposes of schooling in a democracy. So in Part 1 Deborah Meier says: make all public education less selective, less tracked, and more consciously democratic. That is a political purpose for public schools. The political split among charter supporters and opponents, many of the former pushing an economic, marketplace-driven purpose for schooling and some of the latter a democratic, civic engagement one, tries to elevate one historic purpose of public schooling over another. Politically contesting the purposes of compulsory public schools is neither new nor transient: it is constant.
     
  2. Charter schools are here to stay. After every reform movement in the history of U.S. public schools, some reforms have disappeared (e.g., the Platoon School and the Dalton Plan) and some have stuck (e.g., age-graded schools, kindergarten, standardized tests and accountability). Charter schools will stick. In expanding parental choice, publicly-funded charter schools have found a niche (currently six percent of all public schools) in urban districts. As long as there are urban and suburban schools that fail their students (as measured by test scores, graduation rates, well-being of students, etc.), charter schools will flourish.
     
  3. Variation among charter schools in quality–however measured–is similar to variation in regular public schools. Whether the yardstick is test scores, graduation rate, college attendance (all three, or add one of your choice), there are high performing, middle range, and low-performing charters and conventional public schools. Percentages may go up or down but the variation remains constant in each realm.

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I use these statements to frame the initial post by Joe Nathan on March 26, 2015, part of Deborah Meier’s response (Part 1) and then other comments that were posted to a threaded discussion by a group of Meier’s colleagues. First, Joe Nathan.

Deb, we’ve agreed to discuss what I call “chartering” and the “charter public school movement” represents. Here’s what I see, both good and bad.  As Ted Kolderie, one of the founders of chartering explained, it’s a “simple yet radical idea: allowing enterprising people — including teachers and other educators — to start innovative public schools.” I’d add that chartering permits people to create new public schools within some limits. The schools must be non-sectarian,  open to all, no admissions tests permitted, and required to have a contract (also known as a charter) specifying results to be achieved over a set period. In exchange for explicit expectation for results, charters receive waivers from many state requirements. Charters are required to use buildings that meet state requirements, take state assessments, and follow federal laws.

Thus, chartering does not represent any single curriculum, instructional approach, or philosophy about the best way to organize learning and teaching. There’s no “typical” chartered school.

Charter laws vary, but these expectations are included in the model state law that some of us developed, and which has been refined by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

At best chartering provides:

  1. Opportunities to help youngsters like Pierre and Alia.These were high school students who had not succeeded in traditional high schools.  They blossomed at High School for Recording Arts, a terrific charter in St. Paul that St. Paul that helps youngsters use their love of music to create videos, as develop stronger academic and social skills. This school doesn’t have a terrific four-year graduation rate or high test scores.  But it has helped hundreds of previously unsuccessful youngsters “find themselves,” graduate and enter some form of further education or work. 

    The same is happening in many charters.  I’ve charter all over the nation, such as Grizzly Prep in Memphis and Codman Academy in Boston.  Both are great inner city schools promoting character development, arts and academic excellence. Among many other examples are the Yes Prep group of schools in Houston.  This is a group of junior/senior high school charters with many youngsters who report they are doing far better than they did before. Yes Prep also has encouraging statistics about the percentage of their students from (mostly) low income families who are continuing and graduating from some form of higher education.

    I’d say the same for several of the KIPP schools that I’ve visited. In many, art and music are strong promoted, along with strong academics and a belief that young people can succeed.
     

  2. Opportunities to create professional opportunities for educators.  For example, Minnesota New Country School,  and EdVisions. This group developed to support MNCS and more than 30 other schools, are great examples. (Full disclosure – EdVisions serves as our fiscal agent). At Minnesota New Country and other “teacher led” or “teacher powered” schools that MNCS has helped develop, teachers are a majority of the board that runs the school. They set their salaries, hours and working conditions. A poll last year found that a majority of teachers would like the opportunity to work in such a school.  There are other examples of conversions from district to a chartered school.   For example, Yvonne Chan and Vaughn Next Century Learning Center converted from a Los Angeles United district school. Educators were able to obtain equipment and supplies much more quickly and sometimes less expensively by negotiating directly with companies, rather than through the complex district process.
     
  3. A new environment in which sometimes districts respond to chartering by providing e new opportunities to their own educators. For example:

    * Boston (District) Pilot schools, initially suggested by the Boston Teachers Union and rejected by the local school board. But when Massachusetts’ legislature adopted a charter law, the local board reconsidered and approved the Pilot idea. The Center for Collaborative Education has done a wonderful job documenting what’s happened with Pilots.

    * A Minnesota law suggested by teacher unions allowing them to create new district options. We’re currently working with unions to obtain startup funds.

    * Traditional districts that asked their educators to create, for example, Montessori or Core Knowledge options after parents proposed them, were rejected and discussed creating charters.
     

  4. Interest in broadening how student growth is assessed.  Some charters use, for example, portfolios, performance and other, broader approaches along with state tests. This is in part because they have contracts for performance and are expected to show progress with students. Responsibility for results beyond anecdotes helped produce a recent report on how to assess “alternative” public schools. Another is the effort to assess persistence and goal setting, called the “Hope Survey.” 
     
  5. Support for two deep, important beliefs:  First, that a wide variety of youngsters, regardless of background, can do better. I think this is one of the reasons chartering has grown so far in the last twenty years. It’s not a belief that schools can solve all of society’s problems.  But it’s a belief that we can do better. Second, a belief that educators should have opportunities, within some limits, to create the kinds of schools they think make sense. Teachers legitimately complain that they are being held accountable for results but often are not given opportunities to organize schools as they think the schools should operate.
     
  6. Alternatives in rural communities to school consolidation. Some of the finest charters are in small, rural communities which were threatened with, and in some cases, had their local school(s) closed by school boards that bought into the “bigger is better” or “bigger is less expensive” ideas. Often, neither is true.

    Those are good things. Now here are a few of the things that concern me:

  1. Failure to skillfully, successfully monitor how some charters operate.  You’re familiar with scandals involving charters.  Some people have exploited opportunities. This happens in some traditional schools and teacher unions too.  But it is infuriating, wherever it happens.  We are learning more about how to monitor schools.  But there have been scandals and unacceptable exploitation of opportunities that chartering provides.  
     
  2. Abuse of freedom to sometimes make huge profits and pay unseemly salaries.
     
  3. Some over-reliance on traditional standardized measures.   You and I have agreed on the importance of multiple measures.  Some involved with chartering agree.  Others promote their schools primarily on the basis of test scores and/or graduation rates.
     
  4. Unwillingness in some cases to work creatively with students with special needs.  Again, I see this in the district sector as well, with creation of district or regional magnet schools with admissions tests that exclude many youngsters with special needs.  Public schools, district or chartered, should be open to all.
     
  5. Unwillingness, sometimes, to learn from some district school successes, and previous efforts to improve schools.  There are some great district schools and educators.  We all need to respect and learn from them.  So a big “shout out” to Educators for Excellence-Minnesota.  They regularly convene district and charter educators to learn from eachother.
     
  6. Unwillingness by some charters to share information about public funds are spent. Most state laws requre yearly financial audits, made available to the public. But some schools resist providing information about how they are spending public funds.

These are not my only concerns. But any fair assessment of chartering ought to acknowledge strengths and shortcomings.

My apologies, as I’ve gone on too long. But you asked important questions.  So I wanted to try to give comprehensive answers. 

On balance, I think chartering is a lot like America.  Freedom provides great opportunities for creativity, innovation and progress.  However, among our biggest challenges are to maximize constructive use of freedom, and minimize abuse. 

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

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Next is Joseph “Jay” Featherstone, professor emeritus of teacher education at Michigan State University. He was for years faculty co-leader of one team in the MSU teacher certification program. He is the author of Dear Josie, Witnessing the Hopes and Failures of Democratic Education (TC Press, 2003), and co-editor with others of  Transforming Teacher Education, Reflections from the Field (Harvard Education Press, 2007). This appeared April 6, 2015 in response to Joe Nathan’s post and Deborah Meier subsequent email.

I’m a critic and  opponent of the national charter movement,  but I also worked for three years to start a k-8 arts oriented charter serving a population that included special needs and free lunch kids  in Mass.   I know  there are outstanding charter schools serving what I think of as genuinely public functions (teaching poor kids,  special needs kids, experimenting in curriculum and other useful and promising ways),  but I am also dismayed by the growth and power of a charter movement nationally that is  privatizing,  anti-union, anti-public school, promoting further segregation, and so on.   The real damage from  charters  to public education places like Philadelphia is evident.  I also know there are some states where charters are carefully regulated (Mass, where I live, is one) and other states where charters have been tossed out like candy bars  to for-profits, religious schools, and anyone else,  with a complete disregard for competence, honesty, or any public purposes. (Michigan, where I ran a school-based teacher education program at MSU is a sad example of the latter.)  I also see that the charter movement nationally fits in all too well with the resurgence of right-wing, privatizing anti-government, anti-public education  politics in extreme form. I don’t think we can ignore the way that charters have become integral to the more general campaign on the part of wealthy and powerful interests to roll back government and public services in politics more generally.  Republican governors around the country have a list that invariably includes expanding charters at the expense of regular schools, and is invariably a version of teacher-bashing—and invariably has the same list of big donors. 

            One way to begin a dialogue within the charter movement and maybe with educators more broadly would be to revisit the role of charters and try to get clear about who deserves to get a charter from the state.  I go back to Al Shanker and Ted Sizer who proposed a vision of charters that would fulfill public purposes in two ways:

  1. Serve populations not now well served by the district public schools, and or
  2. Experiment in some way that might further open thought and possibilities in education and practice,  e.g. curriculum or educational design.  

By these two public standards, many current charters would flunk, I believe.

Next is Diane Ravitch:

I agree with Jay Featherstone. 

 Charters have something to contribute if: 

  1. They stop boasting about test scores
  2. They take the kids with the greatest needs
  3. They collaborate with Public Schools instead of competing
  4. They were not allowed to push out kids who have low scores
  5. For-profit charters were banned

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The language and emotion contained within these excerpts do show clearly the political conflict over the purposes of compulsory, tax-supported public schools in a democracy. Charter schools has been a top-of-the-agenda item on Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama’s list of things to do in education. Moreover, the charter  school political coalition includes Republican governors, the Walton Foundation and other donors, U.S. Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And I did not even include the American Federation of Teachers or National Education Association as longtime opponents. Those contending coalitions only underscore the current political contest over charters.

Some supporters and opponents, however, not only call for less competition and more cooperation between charters and regular public schools, but actually do it (see here, here, and here, here. Toning down the “charter school wars” and getting past the rhetoric is a crucial next step in the political process. Another is to reframe the question of which purposes of U.S. public schools should guide charters to another question:

The relevant question today is no longer whether charter schools are good or bad as a group. Rather we ask, can charter schools be taken in a better direction—one that finds inspiration in the original vision of charters as laboratories for student success that bring together children from different backgrounds and tap into the expertise of highly talented teachers?

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...