Why a Charter School? and Related Questions

The Ramones, “Questioningly” (click to listen or download)

I often find the rhetorical device of “asking questions” annoying.  However there are times when the conventional wisdom becomes so pervasive that it is necessary to step back and ask some of the most basic questions.   This has happened with Charter schools.  The most basic question is “Why a Charter School?.”

This hit me while I was watching the discussion of the Badger Rock Charter School proposal at last Monday’s Madison Board of Education meeting (video here).  At one point Beth Moss said something along the lines of (paraphrasing), “This is the kind of innovative thing that we can’t do with district schools.”  Marj Passman says something similar in an Isthmus story.  This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you believe that innovations are beyond the district’s capabilities,  then they will be beyond the district’s the district’s capabilities.  One of my related questions is “why not, why can’t the district do innovative things like Badger Rock in the absence of a Charter?”.

Before going forward I should say three things.  First, our older son attended the Charter (in name only) JC Wright Middle School.  The only relevance that I see in relation to this is that the experience  informed my thoughts, others may think it makes me a hypocrite or something so I thought I’d put it on the table.  Second, this isn’t directly about “why not a Charter?  That’s another topic and one that I’ve hit pieces of in other posts.  Third, I want to say that I agree with many who have expressed admiration for the Badger Rock proposal.  There is much that is creative, innovative, thoughtful and good.  As the discussion on Monday made clear there are still unanswered questions and some issues that will be difficult to resolve.   I do not oppose the recommendation to seek the planning grant on the agenda 12/11.  This is only indirectly about that proposal.

What it is directly about is re-starting a discussion or consideration of the advantages of Charters as a policy choice and extending that discussion or consideration to include ideas about what districts can and cannot do.  The current assumption that thoughtful innovation requires Charter Schools bugs me.  It bugs me even more that the the preferred path for community partnerships like the one envisioned by the Badger Rock group has become Charters.

There was a time when districts, communities and even corporate partners initiated exciting educational work in the context of traditional district schools, district magnet schools, district laboratory schools, embedded programs and other non-Charter ways.  In Madison Shabazz and Spring Harbor are obvious examples that this can be done.  I attended a district Magnet, Laboratory School in Evanston Illinois, where more recently they have created embedded Dual Language Immersion and Afrocentric programs.  It can still be done.

The “we can’t do it without a Charter” attitude seems lazy.  First I’d like to know in some detail why it supposedly can’t be done without a Charter.  If that proves to be the case,  than in most instances wouldn’t the best policy be to figure out why and change things so that the benefits of innovation could be achieved through district programs?  It is sad that so many have given up on the reforms that would benefit all students in order to pursue those that will only touch very few (even the staunchest Charter advocates understand that for the foreseeable future the vast majority of American children will attend district schools).

I’ll offer one answer to the titular question: Money!  Unfortunately Federal policy-makers, foundations and many others are all acting on the unexamined assumption that innovation or even diversity of educational programing requires Charters.   I have a friend who is a Superintendent of a small district.  He is justly proud of an environmental Charter school he helped create.  We’ve never talked about it much, but a  couple of months ago he started describing how the only reason to have it be a Charter was the money.   This is pragmatic, but it only shifts the question to “Why is money available for Charters and not district-based creative programs?”

Let’s ask the questions and examine the assumptions and do what we need to expand creativity and energy in districts and district schools.  Let’s also make sure they have the resources to do this.

As I was finishing this I saw a great post on a related topic from Richard Kahlenberg (hat tip Jim Horn, Schools Matter).  Among other things Kahlneberg contrasts the segregative  impact of Charters with the  desegregative history of magnet schools.  Worth reading.

Also worth reading is Madison Board Member Lucy Mathiak on the Badger Rock proposal (welcome to the Madison EduBlogoSphere Lucy).

Thomas J. Mertz

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1 Comment

Filed under "education finance", Arne Duncan, Best Practices, education, Equity, finance, Local News, Uncategorized

One response to “Why a Charter School? and Related Questions

  1. Robert Godfrey

    I wanted to add to Thomas Mertz’s thorough take on Charter Schools with a comment that doesn’t necessarily require a second blog entry. An editorial in today’s New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/11/opinion/11mon3.html?ref=opinion section raises some additional points that I hope our school board continues to keep in mind. As I reported here https://madisonamps.org/2009/10/29/reform-is-in-the-air/ a Stanford study from last summer had challenged some conventional thinking about the efficacy of Charter Schools in general and was picked up by the Times as they noted how it had “startled many education specialists …[and] showed that a large number of charter schools are failing to deliver on their promises. It compared the performance of charter schools and traditional schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia and found that only about 17 percent of charters offered students a better education than traditional schools — and that 37 percent were worse.” The piece continues on with a question as to why, by and large, Charters do better in New York, comparatively, than other places. They suggest that there, there is a “rigorous mechanism for licensing charters as well as strong oversight of performance. The city also gives charter operators free space, and provides them with administrative support so that they can more easily get up and running and comply with state and federal education law” and suggests that Charters will only be effective “if they are closely monitored and held to high standards.”

    I continue to remain skeptical that we have the commitment to providing a rigorous mechanism for licensing charters, monitoring their performance and providing the “extra free space.” I think that, not because I don’t think we have capable people, but simply because we have little money for any new initiatives (4 year old kindergartens for example). We are already stretched to ridiculous lengths just to maintain our current schools and programs because of the school finance malaise we highlight all the time on this blog. I worry a great deal that initiatives such as these continue as part of a trend in education for the past 50 years to become distracted by the latest loud and sparkling new band wagon to pass by in which to jump onto, while perhaps being in danger of leaving behind the essential mandate of a good public education for all its citizens in a robust democracy.

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