WE Won’t Be Fooled Again
by Sarah Bluver
Unlike many prior educational reform efforts that often went unnoticed but for a few talking points, the charter school movement (and the on-the-surface, extremely seductive idea called School Choice) has taken the country by storm, settling right in as an accepted part of our educational landscape. Everywhere you look new charter schools are popping up and the media has become saturated with stories about them. But what makes the charter school system different from similarly flawed programs that never got the same explosive support? To truly answer this, one must trace the movement back to its surprising origins—surprising mostly in light of the fact that today we are witnessing teachers unions striking, one after another, as they begin to fight back against the tyranny of the charter school movement itself.
In fact, The Untold History of Charter Schools explains that in 1988, it was the president of the national teachers’ union, Al Shanker, who had suggested a new kind of school that would be publicly funded, but managed internally. He envisioned a project where educators could be experimental, allowing them to identify the ‘best’ instructional methods which then could be could be brought back to public schools. So yes, “Charters were first and foremost the brainchild of teachers’ unions, the very same groups that would become the schools’ greatest foes.” The very corrupted movement that is decimating an already complicated and difficult public system is turning into a failed experiment coopted by those with visions of the future that always leave out what’s actually happening now.
Anyone actually working in schools can see that the original vision behind the charter school movement doesn’t match the government’s eventual execution. The American public has been sold on educational theory, not fact. This has resulted in societal misconceptions that must be debunked, otherwise public education will continue to deteriorate in future generations. The first myth stems from widespread ignorance in regard to what charter schools are. For instance, there is a common belief that they’re a new form of private schools. This is simply not true. The government funds charters the same way they fund public schools. And with the same money. The difference is that charters aren’t held to the same curriculum standards or discipline practices as their public counterparts, and these disparities have fostered the vast skepticism and resentment among public educators.
Putting it bluntly, working in a public school can be horrific; teachers are overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, and most insultingly, overly policed and scrutinized. Despite these toxic conditions, public school teachers have, for the most part, remained focused on the number one priority- the students. But when the discrepancies between the systems’ treatment of teachers became publicly known, many felt confused and hurt; why should organizations that are funded by the same source, with employees who received the same training, not be held accountable to the same laws? For personal salvation, many veteran teachers flocked to charters in search of higher pay, advancement opportunity, and less creative restriction.
In turn, public schools have been stripped of some of their most talented employees, resulting in the lowest performing schools being left with mostly new teachers who are less equipped to deal with the day-to-day issues. What’s even worse is that the young professionals lack the learning opportunities and mentorships that accompanied collaborating with respected seasoned colleagues, therefore stifling their professional development entirely. School Choice has not only reallocated funding that public schools desperately need, but has also robbed them of the people that kept their schools afloat in the first place. Let’s not forgot that this usually applies to schools in the poorest areas of the country, which leads to the next danger the charter school movement presents.
For a long time public school enrollment functioned based on geographic zoning- students were assigned to the school in closest proximity to their home. Although it’s efficient, this system is flawed because it was developed before the fight for racial equality in America when minorities were forced to live in underdeveloped communities with low quality schools. Such inequity is what charter schools aim to alleviate, but systematic racism is too deeply ingrained in society for a singular reform to dismantle it. Not only does school choice fail to address this reality, but it’s also caused another harmful misconception about charters.
“School choice” implies that all parents have a voice in their child’s education, but anyone with common sense can see this isn’t logistically possible. For one, charter schools primarily exist in urban locations- they aren’t common outside of major cities, and therefore aren’t an option in most suburban/rural areas. Also, the families who do live in urban areas don’t just magically receive a long list of schools to choose from. What if too many parents in the same community would want their kids at one school? And what if there were no options that appealed to a parent? And what about special education- shouldn’t those with special needs be considered? Charter schools aren’t the miracle solution people have been led to believe they are. That’s the problem with movements.
In reality, most charter enrollment systems are based on factors like academic history and test scores. Plus, charter schools don’t have enough space for every applicant, and those who aren’t selected (and were never told to have a backup plan) are merely assigned to a public school close to home, ironically leaving those parents with no choice at all. For that matter, an NAACP report points out that charter schools close down pretty frequently. It highlights an example in Detroit when three charters closed down out of the blue, leaving those families scrambling for a new school. The report states, “charter school closures can seriously disrupt students’ learning, especially when closures occur during the school year.” Since charter schools’ practices are individualized based on the specific school, students who are used to those methods become disadvantaged when they have to learn a new way. It’s also important to note that charter school students are more likely to be from low-income areas, as a national study has revealed:
So when a charter school closes down or leaves specific students behind, they’re forced to attend a school in their own community. If they come from an underdeveloped area, their options are likely not that great. By piling disadvantages on top of more disadvantages, charter schools are actually perpetuating the segregation they were originally designed to eliminate, rendering them pointless.
But arguably what’s most problematic of all is that charter schools have been gifted with the reputation of being more innovative than ordinary public schools. Many are attracted to the idea of an expansive curriculum that incorporates more variety into learning experiences like electives, hands-on research and mindfulness. However, this doesn’t reflect reality. This is not to say that no charter schools experiment with new ideas and there are certainly examples of innovation happening in some charter schools. But what does need to be clarified is the delusion that all charter schools employ groundbreaking practices. It also needs to be understood that innovation isn’t necessarily synonymous with high quality instruction, as many charter schools have abandoned teaching basic life skills in the name of innovation.
Two of America’s most prominent charter school systems are Uncommon Schools and Success Academy. Many teachers working in urban public schools know other educators at these organizations, and their curriculum has been passed around. Some public educators are uncomfortable with their methods, but the more prevalent response has been utter ridicule. And for good reason. Some of these instructional resources are, for a lack of a better way of putting it, just fucking stupid.
Take Uncommon Schools’ usage of the curriculum book Teach Like a Champion, for example. It presents an argument for using nonverbal cues to keep students engaged. It makes sense in theory. Why should a discussion be interrupted every time a student agrees with an idea? But, yet again, the vision behind these tactics doesn’t reflect their actual implementation.
Methods like these do a huge disservice to students. On what planet would you see a team in an office using hand signals like these during a meeting? Children need to learn to communicate organically, and having students learn to collaborate with these strategies doesn’t prepare them for life outside the classroom. Although methods like these are created with good intentions and may provide temporary value, they limit a child’s understanding of how to be a functioning citizen in society.
On the topic of restriction, charter schools also have a reputation of being stricter with misbehavior than public schools. Success Academy in particular is known to be tough in regard to discipline. But how tough is too tough? In 2014, an assistant teacher secretly taped her co-teacher berating a first grade student. This woman took an authoritarian approach to the freakish level of publicly ripping up her student’s paper for not understanding a math problem. She concluded her tirade by sending the child to ‘the quiet chair’- a classic charter school term that’s comical for the same reasons as the hand signals. Do the euphemisms for solitary confinement need to be that childish- is calling it ‘time out’ not enough? Regardless, this video sparked outrage across the nation, as the teacher’s behavior was absolutely repugnant and abusive. When faced with scrutiny over that video, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz “dismissed that teacher’s behavior in the video as an anomaly.” The inquiry of Success Academy seemed to end there.
However, this incident sheds light on a much larger problem because charter schools aren’t required to use government prescribed practices, they are free to treat students however they see fit. This brings an important idea to the forefront of school choice. Charter schools, and other education alternatives, absolutely need the same regulation as public schools. Without it, students don’t learn to behave in a way that aligns with real-world expectations. In this instance, they learn to act based on the fear of punishment. Overall, charter schools aren’t more innovative than public schools; the only differences lie in the levels of operational freedom.
Because of this autonomy, charter schools have also been known to lack financial transparency and for profiting from lax supervision. This is mainly applicable to the governing boards of the schools, which are often comprised of exceptionally wealthy and privileged private citizens. In the end, they decide how and where to spend the money. Eventually, through favors and corruption, many charter schools and their board members merely help the rich get richer and aid in increasing their power and influence.
Furthermore, one of the primary arguments in favor of school choice asserts that a school’s community members should dictate its practices. They believe parents know what’s best for their children. But… do they, really? Many well intentioned people don’t even understand the definition of a charter, and parenting alone doesn’t make them experts in educational policy. Only those who have professional experience in public schools today can truly see the actual conditions of the system.
Additionally, the promotion of charter schools also signals that America has largely disregarded the value of commitment in favor of futuristic and inapplicable disruption. Rather than improving existing systems, the norm has become abandoning them. For example, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal Program to ‘fix’ failing NYC public schools was recently terminated after $773 million was wasted on regulating low-achieving schools with little success. But what now? Do the failing public schools in NYC no longer need support? This event, just like the charter school mania, reflects our present societal tendency to give up when things get tough.
Let’s not forget that before charter schools were at the forefront of educational dialogue, there was the Common Core. And before that Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative. And before that it was George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. With each government new reform initiatives were developed. But in actuality, each program was the same as what came before it, just with a new name and subtle variations in political and cultural rhetoric. In the end the whole charter movement and the false concept of this supposed “school choice” is nothing other than the next item on the laundry list of educational reform attempts throughout history.
So what comes next? Is all hope lost, or can American education be saved from itself? Not all charter schools are bad, but when considering the sentiments that sparked their rise to prominence, a logical solution is clear. A lot of this debate has to do with the relationship between schools and parents, and the fact that society is somewhat being misinformed from all sides. Maybe society needs to just focus on improving what is, rather than getting lost in the idle fantasy of what could be. And educating the public about the truths of both public schools and charter schools would be a great place to start.