Reading about Success Academy, I found myself wondering what charter schools are for, anyway. What role do they play in our educational ecology, both intentionally and unintentionally? No doubt, you, Dear Reader, know much more about this than I, and if so, please bear with this series of posts as a record of self-education, and skim through them, looking for good links amidst my ruminations. “Charter schools” have generated a vast literature, including some peer-reviewed research, many many reports in the “gray literature” — white papers, reports by agencies, commissions, and “commissions”; blog posts, and books more or less polemical, theoretical, or programmatic. I will organize my thoughts around three realizations that I have come to in my searches. , which I list briefly before a caveat. Each of these will be addressed in subsequent posts, with links to evidence, and I hope not to lose site of Success Academy along the way. 1. Charters started out as a radically democratic idea, and have now become (by and large) identified instead with market radicalism; I will sometimes refer to this predominant model as “neo-charter.” 2. The neo-charters have not made a compelling educational case for their own existence, in terms of improvements of the educational system, and there is abundant evidence that their role as the alternative-of-choice for public education has invited many kinds of bad practice. 3. The predominance of market ideology in American society is nevertheless driving an increase in the number of charters (both for-profit and non-profit). The Caveat (consider this an amuse-bouche before the actual dinner is served): There are a lot of efforts called “charter schools” across the country. Some of them are successful on many measures — they are experimenting with alternative models which in actuality are used to improve education for all, not just those lucky enough to be in the charter school; they are actually transparent in their operations, and not rapacious in their administrative costs; they do not have an exploitative or adversarial relationship with teachers and parents; they stress inquiry and democratic process, and student growth in other skills necessary for a more just, imaginative, and fearless society — not just focusing on individualistic “college and career readiness.” Do you know of any like this? Tell us! Let’s start with the first item on my list: 1. Charters started out as a radically democratic idea, and have now become (by and large) identified instead with market radicalism; I will sometimes refer to this predominant model as “neo-charter.” Albert Shanker, long-time leader of the American Federation of Teachers, is generally credited with first sketching the idea of “charter schools,” in a speech to the National Press club in 1988. Actually, the record shows that Shanker was advocating an idea first originated by Roy Budde, a Massachusetts educator who died in 2005. Budde proposed the idea which Shanker trumpeted as a way to foster teachers’ creativity in the service of educational improvement. In Budde’s (and Shanker’s) view, the charters would be teacher-led experiments, authorized and overseen by the school district, to try out novel pedagogical, curricular, or organizational ideas, on behalf of the district as a whole. This seems to me to be in the spirit of “teacher research,” an integration of research and practice not used widely enough. It was not long, however, before the idea came to the attention of educators with a different view of what education improvement should look like. As recounted here by one educational historian, Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie, in the course of writing proposed legislation in Minnesota, transformed the idea into the currently dominant model. For a brief account of the differences, I draw on an interesting article, by Kahlenberg and Potter, which you can find here on the AFT website. 1. Rather than a charter being a kind of inquiry, based on local interest or need, the current version casts charters as products, in market competition (largely) with the public schools. Whereas Budde and Shanker emphasized the way in which charter schools could serve as a laboratory for testing ideas that could improve public schools, many conservatives saw in charters the potential to inject greater competition with public schools, forcing them to improve, or (in more radical visions) or be replaced by charters (public or private). As Paul Peterson writes,
Nathan and Kolderie instead proposed that schools be authorized by statewide agencies that were separate and apart from local district control. That opened charter doors not only to teachers but also to outside entrepreneurs. Competition between charters and districts was to be encouraged.
The second dramatic shift in the charter school vision came in the critical area of teacher voice. Budde proposed charters as teacher-led initiatives, which would drive teacher development and learning, as well as district learning. Shanker, of course, as a proponent of teachers’ unionizing, also saw this as an important virtue of the charter model. In the long struggle to professionalize teaching, this view of charters has a lot to offer. However, the Nathan-Kolderie re-imagination moves away from the original idea of teacher initiative within a district context, in two ways (at least). First is the proposal found in the quotation above that charters be “separate and apart from district control.” This has been widely adopted, and firmly moves the chartering process out of a local context, into a much broader arena of political maneuvering. Note that this is actually a double step: from local to state, and from an initiative by educators within their district, to a process that welcomes or at least permits non-educators to take an “entrepreneurial” role. There is a second way that this formulation counters the importance of teacher voice in the Budde/Shanker vision of charter schools. Again, Paul Peterson (cop.cit.*):
All of a sudden, charter schools were free of the constraints imposed by collective bargaining contracts districts negotiated with unions.
Peterson, and most cheerleaders for neo-charters and related “reforms”, think of this as a great step forward. I don’t think so, for several reasons, not least of which is the lost opportunity to deepen and further develop an understanding of teacher professionalism. This, in turn, is related to the “marketization” of education in its various manifestations, whose value is seriously debatable. The third aim of Shanker’s original vision was to combat segregation— racial, economic, or other kinds of separations that do harm to individuals, and at the same time weaken our democracy. One suspects that once the first two changes were made in the vision for charters, this one would be inevitable, given the deeply structural nature of racial and economic stratification in society. From the revolutionary theorists of the 1700s, to John Dewey, not to mention many others, the message is clear: Democracy is a process, not a product, and the process requires all our diligence, ingenuity, and commitment to make progress. Some people have all the democracy they need, I suppose, and so they may not be as aware as they might be of the deleterious effects their “markets” have for others’ life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Be that as it may, the evidence is that in many cases neo-charters reproduce undemocratic structures; for a recent example, see Ladd, Clotfelder, and Holbein here (Warning! Pay wall!). Kahlenberg and Potter (cop.cit.) write
How did a policy that began with the idea of promoting diversity end up exacerbating racial and economic concentrations? Fundamentally, charter school advocates suggested, integration and school quality are unrelated and distinct priorities, and quality matters more.
This pithy assessment, of course, contains yet another buzzword that is part of the semantic field in which “charter school” is situated — “quality.” (Where is our Orwell, to write the essay on “The politics of education and the English language”?)
*copula citata. I propose a new bibiolographic abbreviation (cop. cit.) for use in blogs and other places where one may refer more than once to a specific link. It comes from the Latin, copula “link” — ablative case, if you want to know, just as in op.cit. “opera citato.”