Charters Again? Oh, no!

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The other day I received this email from the Illinois Network of Charter Schools:

The other day, I received this email from the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

  Charter advocates,
The charter school community needs you to act now! The U.S. Department of Education recently proposed new regulations that would create roadblocks to make the federally-funded Charter Schools Program almost completely inaccessible—particularly to new schools in Black, Brown, rural, or indigenous communities. These new regulations, if enacted, would severely narrow what types of schools could apply for federal funding for startup or expansion grants and empower districts to refuse to cooperate with new charter school openings. Other proposed changes could also have a dangerous downward ripple effect in states and districts, including:  Prioritizing the financial needs of school districts over the needs of students in the community Creating new mandates for charter schools to comply with as a condition of funding Require extensive reporting requirements on the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the students and teachers in the school compared to the district  Charter schools in Illinois continue to prove their value and impact on their students, families, and the communities they serve, yet still face roadblocks from legislators who fail to listen to what families and students really want for their education.  It’s time to let your voice be heard by the U.S. Department of Education! INCS has filled in the email message below, just click the button, fill out your name, and support our students, schools, and communities.  One Team, XXXXXX (name deleted)

Now, INCS, the Illinois Network of Charter School, the organization responsible for this note, has performed some valuable services in behalf of charter schools, their students and families in Illinois, but lobbying groups (and there are many of them nationally promoting and protecting the interests of charters) tend to adopt a black and white view of the world. Think, for example, about the gun lobby, NRA, or AIPAC, which lobbies on behalf of the interests of Israel. I am not intending to equate the causes represented with that of INCS, but they all share a fiercely protective stance on behalf of their clients. Any criticism or disagreement must prompt a counterattack because they fear that unchallenged disagreement will open the doors wide for further erosion of their constituents’ interests. So, here was my response to this appeal from INCS and all the other charter school lobbyists, along with editorial page editors of the Washington Post who are part of the well-organized campaign to defeat these proposed charter school regulations. It is addressed to my fellow board members of the Montessori School of Englewood, all of whom received the INCS call for action.  

Dear MSE Staff and Board Members,   I wanted to explain why I have problems following INCS’s call to arms in opposition to the proposed new charter school regulations. It goes without saying that I am an ardent supporter of MSE, as I think my years on the board attest to. Similarly, I invested a good chunk of myself in the North Kenwood Oakland Charter School of which I was the Founding Director. In both instances, I felt that going the charter school route was really the only viable way to achieve the particular educational goal that was our mission   However, that does not mean that I am an unqualified supporter of the charter school movement, which, rather than being a coherent force, is actually a collection of strange bedfellows, many of whom stand for things I don’t believe in. I fear that supporters of charter schools are, intentionally or unintentionally, endangering the future of public education in our country. Our public schools have been the glue that has kept our diverse and fragmented country together over the past two hundred years. An unchecked and unregulated charter school presence saps the resources from our public schools and opens the door not just for more charter schools but for an expansion of vouchers and home schooling, relegating various segments of our population to separate silos, thereby loosening the bonds that are already barely holding us together.  

As a long-time teacher, I am also an ardent supporter of teachers’ unions’ role in protecting and defending teachers’ rights and, in many instances, being a voice for demanding the resources that are needed to serve children as they deserve. I sometimes disagree with particular positions taken by unions, but they are democratic institutions, in which there are mechanisms for dealing with disagreement. Many ardent supporters of charter schools are motivated by a desire to destroy and eliminate teachers’ unions – in fact all unions. Some of you on our own board may harbor these anti-union views, with which I respectfully disagree.  

Now, let’s take a look at the new regulations we are urged to protest against. There are parts I disagree with in the regulations, particularly the efforts to promote diversity. I would have been thrilled to have served a more diverse population at NKO and I think the same is true at MSE, but that desire doesn’t conform to the reality of the demographics of the communities we serve, particularly in a segregated city like Chicago. I’m guessing those provisions will fall away as Congress considers them. But let’s look at some of the other provisions in the regulations: It seeks to control and limit the presence of for-profit entities in the charter school communities, either as grantees or as sub-contractors. It calls for more transparency in a wide variety of areas of charter school operations, something which has been sorely lacking nationally. It calls for a return to the roots of the charter school movement where teachers and community play the central role in the design and governance of charter schools. Look around and see the extent to which charter school management organizations have wrested control of those schools from the hands of staff and community representatives. It calls for greater collaboration between charter schools and public schools. Charters were intended to be beacons of innovation which could be adopted by public schools. That has fallen by the wayside in the decades since charters began.  These are all worthwhile objectives, but too often charter school lobbyists are unwilling to accept any changes in their universe. They seem to operate with a domino theory mindset. If we agree to these changes, they will be followed by more, endangering our free market beliefs about what makes charters work, when they do. I encourage you to take a closer look at the new regulations before you hurry to endorse the actions that INCS is recommending in the letter below. Best, Marv

I often feel that I am caught in a Groundhog Day loop where I am forced to repeat yet again that my past and present involvement with specific charter schools does not preclude my ability to be a critic of the “movement” who has the right to point up its shortcomings and its harmful effects on our public education system. The truth is that locally, in Chicago, the creation of new charters has come to a standstill, as the willingness to phase out failing charters has grown. But that is not the case nationally. Legislation favorable to charter creation and funding is proliferating at the state and federal levels, which is why I feel like the proverbial broken record when I restate yet again my belief that charters are not the unqualified good its supporters suggest and in fact may be harming the very fabric of our American democracy. We need to maintain our focus on and commitment to the 90% of our student population who attend traditional public schools. They need and deserve the resources to prepare our next generation of active and informed citizens.  

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Marv Hoffman

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