A few presidential cycles ago I was invited by the League of Women Voters to participate in a panel discussion of charter schools which they were hosting to inform their position on the issue for the upcoming election. In addition to me, the panelists included a union activist, a representative of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools and an academic researcher specializing in the comparative effectiveness of charter vs. neighborhood schools. I was billed as the founding director of one of Chicago’s early charter schools.
The assumption was that my charter credentials would balance out those of the union rep who was sure to be an outspoken opponent of charter schools. So, the moderator was a bit taken aback when my opening remarks included some stinging criticisms of charter schools, the nature of which I will elaborate on a little further along. The experience for me was one in a long chain of frustrating conversations on the subject which were lacking in even a trace of nuance or complexity. People were expected to take their positions at either end of the spectrum – pro-charter vs. anti-charter – from which they could lob their volleys into the opponent’s camp.
So, I was delighted to come upon Eve Ewing’s op-ed piece in the New York Times on February 23rd entitled “End the Fight about Charters.” For those who are not familiar with her work, Professor Ewing is a sociologist and a poet who teaches at the University of Chicago. Her book called Ghosts in the Schoolyard, about the impact of the mass closings of 50 Chicago schools by then Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is one of the most important additions to the literature on urban schools in recent years. Ewing is also weary of the polarized battles around charter schools, exhorting both sides to declare a truce and look more closely at the research evidence on the effectiveness of charters vs. neighborhood schools which shows a confusing array of results sometimes favoring one over the other and then the reverse, with differences resulting from the variety of contexts in which the schools are serving children. Neither charters nor neighborhood schools consistently come out on top if the measure of success is scores on high stakes tests, which is a problem in itself.
One of the many problems with the comparison game is that the term charter schools covers a wide array of disparate entities which, when lumped together, create some strange bedfellows. There are stand-alone single -campus charters, what I like to call Mom and Pop operations, often driven by some innovative pedagogy or philosophy. They come close to the original idea of charters as beacons of change which could then spread to existing schools. Then there are charters that are part of networks sometimes large enough to resemble sprawling school districts and often serving no Gods other than higher test scores and, in many cases, union busting. They are by no means uniform in their approaches to educating their students. Some are so-called No Excuses schools with punishment and expulsion systems that have opened them to harsh criticism despite the impressive test scores they put up. Others have developed strong curricula without resorting to draconian disciplinary measures. Then there are the virtual charters with very little student/teacher interaction, resulting high profit margins. And, oh yes, there are both for-profit and not-for-profit schools. Some operate in states with well-defined systems of accountability, others in states where it’s the Wild West – no accountability at all.
I can lay out a similar spectrum of difference for neighborhood schools, ranging from Dickensian to inspiringly visionary and child centered. So, we have to step away from broad pronouncements about charter schools and neighborhood schools and look more closely at whether particular schools are preparing children, particularly Black and Brown children, to be successful citizens in a democratic society. The non-profit, university -sponsored charter school which I helped found was testing the premise that low -income children of color on the South Side of Chicago could perform at high levels if provided the proper conditions and resources for learning. At its founding in 1998, there were few good options for children in our area, and there is strong evidence to support the fact that we succeeded and continue to succeed in that mission. (See The Ambitious Elementary School by Elizabeth McGhee Hassrick, Lisa Rosen, and Stephen Raudenbusch). At the same time other charter schools were underperforming matched neighborhood schools. My school just didn’t look like the stereotypic charter schools described by people like the union rep on our panel, and I wearied of those conversations that made no allowance for that complex reality.
All the heat around the charter school issue is a diversion from the deeper and more fundamental issues affecting ALL schools — the availability of resources to provide every child with the education they deserve. I thank Dr. Ewing for the reminder that only 6% of students in the country attend charter schools, so the first question asked of the new Secretary of Education shouldn’t be about his position on charters, but on how he’s going to secure the funding to provide all students with the teachers, facilities and materials that will level the playing field between well-resourced suburban schools and the urban and rural schools serving low income students, usually but not always children of color. In the multi-trillion-dollar Covid relief and infrastructure bills there doesn’t appear to be anything that addresses more than the cosmetics of school buildings, nothing that goes on inside them. And when all these moneys are committed, there’s not going to be much will for spending on a scale that could have a measurable impact on teaching and learning. Ironically the flurry of voucher bills being considered in every Republican-controlled legislature threatens to sap available resources from both neighborhood and charter schools, leaving them to operate at a net loss, rather than with new resources.
And yet, I can’t leave this subject without reminding Dr. Ewing of some of the collateral damage inflicted by charter schools, even those like the one I helped create. First, despite recent successes in unionizing charter school teachers, charters erode the strength of teacher unions and, despite occasional missteps, strong unions and strong teacher voice in educational decisions can be a force for good in children’s education.
I also wanted to hark back to Dr. Ewing’s remarkable book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, and suggest that one of the factors that led to the closing of many of those schools was the arrival of charter schools in those communities which hollowed out the population of the neighborhood schools and made them vulnerable to closing on the grounds of underutilization. For these reasons, I’m still not completely ready to forgive charters, including my own, for the harm they’ve caused. Yet, the fact remains that they are now a permanent presence on the educational landscape and all schools operating on public funds need to join forces to insure excellent educations for all their children.