Charter Schools: Reform Model or Privatization Scheme?

The following is condensed from an interview with Ann Bastian, a Senior Program Officer at the New World Foundation in New York. Bastian is also a college history teacher and an education policy analyst. She was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.

You hear the term “charter school” a lot. What exactly is a charter school?

The term “charter” means different things to different people. There are good, exciting versions of charter schools and others that are destructive to the goal of a quality public education serving all children.

In general, there are three broad categories:

First are charter schools that are created out of existing public schools by teachers, parents, and community members and that take on a new mission, or charter, and create a new kind of school. Such charter schools operate under the umbrella of the existing public school district and generally within existing regulations and union contracts. They are often called charter schools, although they may not have a separate legal “charter” or special contract.

A second kind of charter school would be new schools that are started from scratch within the public school system and run under a special “charter” or contract with either the local district or the state. They tend to operate independently while still being part of the public school system, and may be exempted from some state and local regulations.

A third kind of charter, related to the second, is a newly created, independent school run by a private entity or business — the type of charter schools, for example, that would be run by the Edison Project of Whittle Communications. This type of charter may become legally part of the public school system in a contract with the state or district, but it is not governed by the same regulations and accountability mechanisms.

Within any of these categories, you could theoretically have a good or bad school.

However, I believe that the first category — which has to do with innovation within the public school system — is far more able to build and strengthen the entire public school system. In the second two categories, there tend to be more gray areas around whom the charter schools are accountable to, what educational regulations the school has to follow, and whether the charter school has a program that can be replicated in other schools and therefore can offer a true model of reform.

Who are some of the different groups that might support charter schools?

The charter school movement is coming from different places, which is one reason why it has such different meanings.

One group that tends to support the first two types of charter schools has its roots in the effort to restructure public education. This restructuring movement generally is being spearheaded from within: from teachers, parents, administrators, and community people pressuring for better, more responsive public schools. This movement has its roots in the community control movement, the restructuring schools movement, and the school-based management movement. It has created a demand for innovative and diverse schools, arguing that there isn’t just one model but multiple models that serve children, and that we need a much greater degree of diversity in what public schools offer.

Another group that often supports charter schools is based in what I call the “establishment center” of the education reform debate. These are the folks, some in business and some community people, who are genuinely concerned about the state of public education but who tend to have a narrow view of what they want to achieve. They tend to be not so much concerned with improving the entire system — which means to bring up the bottom, where the real crisis is — but with further improving education at the top. Charter schools appeal to such people because they are a way to create elite options within the public school, such as selective high schools or magnet schools, which often function as a way to further track and sort students in a way that the so-called “best and the brightest” get special treatment.

There is a third group that supports charter schools, which is the conservative and Far Right wing of the education debate. They have a very different agenda from the other two. These are the folks who would prefer to have vouchers and to privatize the system. But since they haven’t been winning on that issue, they are turning to charters as a way to create quasi-voucher schools that will compete for tuition dollars and will escape regulation. Their version of charters is based on the marketplace; they want to increase the amount of schooling that is beholden to the marketplace, not to local democratic control and accountability.

Politics makes strange bed fellows, and people with different agendas may unite around a common charter school proposal. For example, those interested in restructuring and innovation within public schools may decide to tactically align themselves with marketplaces forces. They may be uneasy about the alliance, but figure they will be able to use the conservatives to help get some innovation accomplished. The question often becomes, however: who is using whom?

How do you evaluate what’s a good charter school?

You have to look at the specific proposal. It’s not enough to be for or against charter schools based on some abstract principles. In fact, the more abstract the debate, the more it becomes an ideological battle rather than a debate on education.

I use eight principles to evaluate any charter school plan. The first principle is whether a particular charter school strengthens or weakens public education as a whole. Does the charter school put as much back into the public system as it takes out, in terms of resources, money, energy, attention from central office, selection of students, the kind of exceptions that are made for the charter school but not other schools, and so forth. Does the charter not only create a decent school but do so in a way that helps other schools? Is it an exclusive island separated from the rest of the system, rewarding only the privileged or the lucky, or is it a beachhead for improving all schools?

The heart of this principle is establishing that the charter school cannot be a stealth mechanism for a new kind of elitism. This then becomes a framework for more specific questions such as: Does the charter school have open admissions? Are there nondiscrimination protections around creed, language, race, gender, academic achievement, and so forth? Does whatever applies to the public school system — in terms of dealing with the needs of special students, or bilingual students, licensed teachers, and so forth — also apply to the charter school?

Such an approach also leads to the second principle, whether the charters are models that can be replicated or whether they are so unique that other schools have little to learn from them. Clearly, our goal should be to strengthen the system as a whole and create innovation within the system, not set up an outside structure that has little effect on the system.

I also believe very firmly in a third principle: that the charter school has to be considered a public school and therefore must be nonsectarian.

A fourth principle is whether the charter school is truly innovative and whether the charter meets an educational need that’s not already being met by an existing public school. For example, New York City has just launched its New Visions High Schools. These are public schools that are semi-autonomous with strong school-based management, and that work in partnership with existing civic and community institutions. There are New Visions high schools developed in partnership with museums, parent organizations, even the health care union. There are many other examples of innovative schools that function within the framework of public schools and which have not required special charter school legislation. These include the charter school movement in Philadelphia, the Comer schools, and the schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools. What these efforts have in common is that the schools did not opt out of the system and, in fact, are working as models to strengthen the system.

What you need is a bottom-up assessment by parents, teachers, and community members of what they need, of what exists that already works, and what needs to be developed. If you want to call that a charter school, fine. The bottom line is that there needs to be a process within the community that involves parents and teachers. That’s a different process than what seems to be happening in many places.

Therefore, a fifth principle is that charter schools must be accountable to the public. One of the inherent features in most charter schools is that they are less regulated. While this may help them be more innovative, it can also lead to unclear accountability, both financial and academic. Accountability is an important aspect of the structure of a public education system. Schools are paid for by tax dollars and are meant to be accountable not only to the students, parents, and teachers at a school, but to the broader community and to future generations of students. The tax dollars that pay for schools don’t belong to just one child or one parent but to the entire community. It is absolutely essential that charters be set up within this context.

A related, sixth principle is that charters should be governed by the local school board and not some outside authority such as the legislature or state department of education. Otherwise you lose that accountability to the community. Further, you have to think about the parents who are sending their kids to the charter school. If the schools are not governed by the local board, where do the parents go if they have a problem? As we all know, public schools are not paragons of democracy. At the same time, the local school board does provide a channel for problems and complaints. If a charter school is not subject to a process of open meetings and public information and is not under the jurisdiction of the local board, where do parents turn if, for example, their child is expelled? Would they have to file a 200-page brief to the complaints department of the state Department of Education and wait six years to get a ruling?

Principle seven is that in certain key areas, charters need to be treated the same as other public schools. They should get equal funding, not more or less. Teachers should be licensed. And the employees should have the same rights as employees in other public schools. Charters have to allow for collective bargaining, even if it means changes in existing contracts.

There’s a final principle. We know so little about how charter schools work, and few seem to be set up with sufficient sensitivity to the principles I have mentioned. Therefore, I believe charters should only be introduced as pilots at this point. We need to see how this all plays out a bit, especially what impact charters have on the viability and improvement of neighborhood schools.

If you require teachers to be licensed, doesn’t that unnecessarily restrict the pool of potentially good teachers, in particular teachers of color?

People have a right to be skeptical about the way that credentialing creates barriers. The solution is not to get rid of licensing and teacher standards, but to attack the barriers and open up the profession.

I think we need to address alternative routes to licensing. There are many people in the community who are natural teachers and role models. There needs to be a new career path for teaching that allows them to come into the profession and to use past experience to get licensed. We need to ensure that such people have a chance to get certified and licensed, whether by alternative certification, or subsidized tuition for higher education, or a subsidized career ladder based on in-school service.

The important thing is to bring people in with some accompanying process of training and support to do their jobs well.

If kids learn, what’s the difference if it’s a charter school, or a for-profit school, or a public school? Isn’t a good education the bottom line?

In the short term, for a small group of children, it may not make a difference. But in the long run, and for all the children that the system needs to serve, it might make a profound difference.

One of the things about public schools, whether or not they complete this mission, is that they are expected to serve all students. One danger with charters is that they will become elite islands. There are those who will seek to control admissions and cream students — and that can be done informally as well as formally. You can have a great nondiscrimination clause and a wonderful open admissions statement on paper, but there are many subtle and not so subtle ways that children get selected — whether it’s who gets the information, who is retained, what culture the school speaks to, how much the school is able to integrate with the needs of families and communities, and so forth.

There is an ever-present pressure within our public schools to create islands for elites, and not only on the basis of color but for the middle class in general. If charters become another form of a magnet that attracts those who already have some advantages and then gives them special resources, we are not solving the problem. This is one reason it’s so important we create charters that strengthen the system as a whole.

One of the most prominent forces linked with the charter school movement, the Edison Project, specifically states that it is against tracking and for open admission.

I have a certain level of skepticism, the same feeling I had when the Reagan administration tried to introduce private school vouchers and tuition tax credits through the Title I program in the name of serving low-income children. It was a hypocritical maneuver to try to get vouchers in through the back door. Further, key collaborators in the Edison Project such as Lamar Alexander [former secretary of education under the Reagan administration] have not shown a historic concern for equity in education.

But even if the Edison Project is sincere, you have to ask yourself why you need a for-profit venture to reach your goal. There are many ways to implement good schools without using a profit incentive — it’s already happening in scores of urban districts. In fact, many of the positive features of [the proposed] Edison Project schools have been pioneered in public schools. So why should public schools be paying a for-profit premium to do what they can do under a public school system?

But Edison seems willing to put extra money into the system, for example by promising to put a computer in every student’s home. Why would a district turn down such an infusion of resources?

If the only way Edison can succeed is by tripling the resources available and using private sources to bolster their finances, then they are not building a model that can be replicated by other schools. You can be sure they would not make those resources available 200-300 times over for the other schools in a system, unless of course they cut money elsewhere, such as on wages and staff-to-student ratios.

If Edison shows that a school can work if it is bombarded with resources and new technology, then the issue becomes how to ensure such funding for all schools. That’s a far better route than becoming brokers with the private sector, so that profit-making concerns can claim that only private business holds the solution to education.

The only way a for-profit model will work is if they succeed in privatizing large chunks of public education, which would have disastrous consequences for public education. For-profit companies need more than a handful of schools, although for the moment they are concentrating on building models of privatization as a way to argue that the whole system should be privatized. In business parlance, it’s called establishing your market share.

Ultimately, these for-profit model schools are a backdoor approach to privatization.

They are not grappling with the fundamental problem of financing. It may lead to a few good schools in the short run, and it is certainly a temptation. But what about the other schools? And who is calling the shots, the district or the company? District officials may be very cocky, thinking they are using these companies. But I fear that one day they will find that they got used instead.

Charter schools also promise to cut through the enormous amount of red tape and bureaucracy afflicting public schools. Isn’t that good?

Bureaucracy — whether it’s administrative bureaucracy or union bureaucracy — is a real blight on public education. It drains away resources and saps peoples’ energy for change. The charter concept has helped focus attention on the need to reduce bureaucratic regulation and create new spaces for innovation. Charters also focus on the need for school site decision-making. Of course, a lot of other models of school restructuring within the public school system also change the rules and support school-based decision-making — look at the sweeping local council reforms in Chicago. So charters shouldn’t be seen as the only approach to fighting red tape.

The danger is that parts of the charter movement want total deregulation — a pure free market for education. Their version of charters would bypass local school boards, basic standards of school performance, and rights to public oversight.

Will the dragon they slay be the bureaucracy or community accountability? Will their kind of deregulation shake up the teachers union or just let charter school managers replace teacher aides and cafeteria workers from the community with a low-wage contract labor force? Will their kind of charter deflate district bureaucracies or just create a new layer of charter-issuing bureaucrats at the more distant state level?

The real question here, and in the whole debate about charter schools, is: What kind of charter are you getting? Parents, teachers, and concerned people in the community should look beyond the slogans to examine exactly what form of charter is being proposed, starting with the question: Will this kind of charter help to improve all the schools in our system?

Unions often block innovations that might improve public schools, for example by enforcing strict work rules or inflexible seniority plans. If charter schools help get around union regulations, isn’t that good?

I think it’s a mistake to see unions as the only obstacle to change. There are two other equally important obstacles that don’t get dealt with as viscerally. One is the enormous amount of administrative bureaucracy. In California, for example, the state and local regulations are bigger than the Manhattan phone book.

The second critical problem is money. And charter schools do absolutely nothing to address the very real and pressing issue of increasing resources to urban schools, where the cry for charter schools tends to be the loudest. Because charter schools don’t even pretend to resolve the problem of inequitable resources among schools, one should not have any false hopes that charters will shift the entire terrain of education.

As far as unions go, there is no question that unions have to adjust to a new climate of school reform. Almost any attempt to restructure, such as school-based management, can challenge how a union traditionally functions. Some unions are responding to this new climate and are looking at how to be advocates for education reform. And too many unions are engaging in traditional stonewalling. Such stonewalling has to be dealt with directly.

I don’t think an end run like unrestricted charters is the most effective approach in the long run; it just deepens union entrenchment and defensiveness. It also may lead to a lousy school. I would think, for example, that those reforming education would want teachers to have academic freedom, to be decently paid, to have planning time — protections offered by a union.

If you want to deal with the problem of seniority, deal with it straight on. If you do so by completely deregulating schools, that leaves schools unaccountable. So you’re just solving one problem by creating one that’s potentially worse.

My advice to the administration is that if you allow teachers to become involved in the process of change, that will create internal pressure on the union to be more flexible. But you have to involve teachers, not alienate and scapegoat them for all the problems of education. The most effective way to change a union is to make change happen among its members. That’s one force they can’t completely ignore.