Charter Schools, Politics, and Democracy (Part 1)

As public charter schools have grown across the country since the early 1990s to more than 6,400 still largely located in big cities (there are 100,000 regular schools) , the debate over their existence, quality, and direction has continued unabated. Charters, enrolling over 2.5 million students (over 50 million attend U.S. public schools) continue to expand mostly in urban districts. Most charters are non-union, a few have joined teacher unions.

As public schools receiving funds from a district’s budget, charters span the universe of schooling. From for-profit cyber charters to company-managed chains of non-profit charters to ones established and operated by teachers, these schools have given low-income and minority parents choices they have not had when the only school available was the neighborhood one.

In the U.S., charter schools vary considerably in test scores. Some studies of charters claim that children do better in these schools.     Other studies reject those claims and point out that students in public schools outscore those in charters. Headlines such as “Charter Schools: Two Studies, Two Conclusions”—offering contradictory outcomes—give little confidence to those interested in whether these schools help, harm, or don’t make a difference in student achievement. For the immediate future, even with the most recent CREDO study (2015), no clear answer to the question of whether charter schools are better–that is, score higher on standardized tests than traditional public schools–  can be found in research.

Some have gone bankrupt academically and fiscally. About 15 percent of all charters that opened since 1992 have closed for financial, academic, and other reasons (2011).

Then there is the question of whether districts that established charter schools responded to the resulting competition by reducing the number of low-performing schools and increasing the high-performing ones? Here again, the evidence is mixed. Some researchers claim that district officials, fearing the loss of state funds, have introduced novel programs to stem the flow of students to newly chartered ones. Other researchers have found little evidence of districts with many charter schools and Educational Management Organizations (e.g., Aspire, Green Dot) launching initiatives to retain students in existing schools.

Over the past two decades, I have supported charter schools because as someone who has spent a quarter-century working in urban schools as a teacher and administrator and another quarter-century researching urban schools, I want low-income parents and students living in urban districts to have choices among schools that parents with more resources already have. I have visited many charter schools over the years to see how they are run and how teachers teach in them. To learn more about charters, I served for three years on the Board of Trustees of a Northern California organization called Leadership for Public Schools that operates four charter high schools. I was most impressed with my colleagues on the Board and CEO Louise Waters. I also know some the glaring shortcomings of charters across the county–Joe Nathan’s recent post in Education Week crisply lists them.

So I do have a sense of what the major questions about charter schools are, the contested answers to those questions, and the simple fact that charter schools are a political invention. And that is the point of this post.

Public schools from their very origin two centuries are (and have been) political institutions. Primary purposes for tax-supported public schools have been shaping citizens, preparation for jobs, improving society and the well-being of students in school. Political support for one or the other of these multiple (and conflicting) purposes have shifted over time. For the past thirty years, the over-riding goal for public schools has been better preparing the nation’s youth for the labor market and to strengthen the economy. This to-do item has been on every U.S. President’s agenda beginning with Ronald Reagan and continuing through Barack Obama. So charter schools are political innovations.

Yet, and this is a big “yet,” public schools in a democracy, juggling these multiple purposes, are expected (and have been for two centuries) to also conserve national and local traditions, beliefs, and values and, at the same time, help students to grow and change those very traditions to improve the community and nation. To conserve and change at the same time ain’t easy to do in a democracy. Nor is it for charter public schools. The political character of schooling becomes clearer when advocates for one or the other purposes of schools  overlook the complex tasks facing all public schools in a democracy.

In an exchange of recent posts and emails, I have read what both champions and opponents of charter schools have written. I want to quote from one of these exchanges between Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan and other strong supporters of charters. I received permission from Deborah to quote what she wrote recently to nearly two dozen of her friends, some of whom support and some of whom oppose charters.

If charters were only what [charter advocates] have had in mind what a wonderful world we’d be in!  But they are not that–or just that.  They are ALSO something quite different which is neither innovative nor democratic nor compatible with the idea of a public and democratic educational system–and that is happening in many countries (western democracies).   

 Maybe half the US charters–which is a major accomplishment–are what you both hoped for.  But half (and I believe the half who are in the driver’s seat since they have the money, influence and power to represent charterdom)  have other motives and beliefs, including eventually replacing public education with a completely “free” market of private institution, ideally for profit, aided by public funds.   They believe in this not merely out of greed but out of conviction that the market place is at the heart of democracy, it’s essential core.  And that, in the long run, it’s best for everyone.  They probably wouldn’t argue that it leads to equality, or anything like it, but that’s an honest disagreement since they do believe that it will overtime lift all boats.

 I wish wish wish that those like you, and so many others would find a way to separate yourselves from “the charter movement” which speaks loudly “on your behalf” and is funded largely by ALEC-style groups and individuals, plus well-meaning liberal foundations.  You might even get funds from some of the latter as a token contribution toward another view of charters.

Or, at the least, I wish you’d issue a statement at some time, with as many charter names as you could, stating an alternate view–one that excludes vouchers and profiteering and selectivity and privatism.  And, in fact, that represents part of its task to make all public education less selective, less tracked, and more consciously democratic.  That  together you represent an interest in demonstrating the many successful ways (plus some lessons from failures)  in which schooling can represent a form of democratic governance serving democratic purposes including the preparation of the young for active engagement in the politics of their worlds.  

A divided house…and all that–hardly helps our shared vision.    And we are often brutally divided now, denouncing each other, looking for gotchas.  That’s a prescription for our mutual failure.

Forgive me for preaching.   I am probably over-emoting–at least in part because god-knows how much longer I will be able to emote!!!!  I wish you guys could put together a gathering of maybe a few dozen charters to discuss these kinds of ideas–and invite me.  Parker–Ted Sizer’s baby–is one.  I’m on the board of a charter in NYC started by Todd Sutler that I love.  My ally and Mission Hill co-founder Heidi Lyne is a principal of a fine charter in Boston.  Paula Evans, and now former CPE graduate Caleb Hurst run one in Cambridge, and on and on.   

A number of Coalition [of Essential Schools] are charters.  As are many of the MET and Expeditionary Learning network schools.   Many urban districts are not open to what we did within the system in Boston or East Harlem, etc. because  many are “in bed” with the spread of charters, including some of the most offending ones.  [Governor Andrew] Cuomo (NY), [Mayor of Chicago ]Rahm Emanuel, [former Mayor of New York City Michael] Bloomberg, [former Chancellor of New York City schools Joel] Klein, et al. hardly share our vision of MORE democracy.

Let’s start a broader discussion about how we might lower the temperature of warfare between “our” side and up the temperature effectively against real enemies.  

In part 2 of this post, I offer some responses to Deborah’s points and my own reflections on charter schools.

9 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

9 responses to “Charter Schools, Politics, and Democracy (Part 1)

  1. Professor Cuban:

    Thank you for this essay. As a law student I feel compelled to address the use of a phrase that was coined by the charter school sector’s marketing minds—namely “public” charter schools.

    While representatives of the lucrative charter industry claim they run public schools, entities tasked with using precise legal definitions all say otherwise. This includes the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the California Court of Appeals, and the National Labor Relations Board, all of which are on record stating that charter schools are not public entities. The most authoritative framing of this issue comes from the U.S. Census Department:

    “A few “public charter schools” are run by public universities and municipalities. However, most charter schools are run by private nonprofit organizations and are therefore classified as private.”

    The language is important as it addresses the inherent ideology of neoliberalism, that the private sector can and should replace the public commons. Charter schools are no more public than Blackwater is a branch of the service.

  2. A new article this morning from Education Next (and their blog post, “Could an Influx of Middle-Class Parents into Charter Schools Emerge as a Political Game Changer?”) underscores your point: http://educationnext.org/middle-class-families-choose-charters/

  3. A recent article in NYT about Success Academy. It’s a fairly scathing review of what their practices and culture. It’s frightening what those in power are willing to do in pursuing their goals (achieve high test scores)– created by the powers that be. It’s behaviorism at its worst. Prisoners have more freedom than these kids. Would love your thoughts on this set of charters.
    http://nyti.ms/1NXbI6w

    • larrycuban

      Tina, I am working on Part 2 of the charter post and, like yourself, have read the NYT piece on Success Academies. Don’t fully know yet what I will be saying but thanks for the comment.

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