The Charter Conundrum

By Leo Casey

When New York City’s public schools opened last September, they included four charter schools for the first time. Two schools, International High School and Middle College High School, were small alternative high schools that converted to charter school status. Two elementary schools, Sisulu Children’s Academy and the John A. Reisenbach Charter School, were new charter schools. Among the city’s more than 1,000 public schools, no two are more different than International High School and Sisulu Children’s Academy. Their differences highlight the complex and contradictory potential of the charter school movement, and of the need to engage that movement in positive ways.


International High School is located in Queens, in a neighborhood of commercial warehouses, small manufacturing plants, and large populations of Latin American, Caribbean, and Asian immigrants. The school was founded 15 years ago as a collaboration between the City University and the Board of Education, dedicated to providing a “multicultural educational environment” for students who were recent immigrants and English language learners. The only criteria for entrance to the school is that prospective students have been in the United States for less than four years and have scored in the bottom 20th percentile on the citywide language assessment skills test. “We are the only school which requires that you fail a test to gain admission,” International teacher Claire Sylvan jokes.

Affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, International High School has a long history of collaborative decision-making, with its entire faculty making all important decisions concerning its educational program. Its teachers also play a leading role in a consortium of some 30 high schools seeking to institute a performance-based assessment alternative to the state’s high-stakes Regents exams. International teachers were pioneers in organizing their school into fully heterogeneous classrooms, with neither ability tracking nor grade levels. Among its achievements, International High School helped trail blaze, in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a school-based staffing and transfer plan in which a school-based personnel committee, composed mostly of teachers, selects and evaluates the school’s faculty.

But the staff at International High School had become increasingly weary of the many bureaucratic regulations and directives issued from the central Board of Education and the State Education Department. They saw New York’s 1998 state law establishing charter schools as an opportunity to, above all, focus on education without interference from the bureaucracy. They wanted, in the words of principal Eric Nadelstern, “to be accountable for education, not for forms and paperwork.”

The switch to charter status also raised some contract concerns, but the UFT negotiated an agreement with the Board of Education so that staff in converted charter schools will receive the same basic rights and salaries, pensions and health benefits they would have had as school board employees.

In setting up its charter by-laws, International formalized its traditions of democracy and collaboration. For example, the Board of Directors of the charter school was constituted entirely from individuals directly affiliated with it, as faculty, staff, students, and parents, with teachers constituting a majority. All board decisions are made by consensus. While International High School is facing new challenges as it assumes the responsibilities of the business side of education, the school community is excited by the educational possibilities ahead.

In essence, the school has a well-established history of innovation and collaboration and has proven over time that its primary commitment is to serve its students. It believes that charter status has become the way to best continue that tradition.*

Across the East River in Harlem, the Sisulu Children’s Academy opened its door for the very first time this September. Sisulu is run by a completely new for-profit corporation, Victory Schools, which has no track record in education and which had just been licensed to do business in the state a few weeks before school began.

Victory Schools was started by Wall Street financier Steven Klinsky, a partner in the high-profile investment firm of Forstmann, Little & Co., who is known for his role in leveraged buy-outs. Klinsky is not shy about admitting that he has capitalistic, as well as philanthropic, motives for this venture.

Only a large corporation, he told The New York Times, can overcome the financial and logistical hurdles of starting up new schools; the profit will come when he achieves an economy of scale by opening up other charter schools. Already, Victory has submitted virtually identical applications to start five more charters schools in New York City during the 2000-2001 school year.

Klinsky’s Victory Schools, the Times concluded, “intends to propagate schools as efficiently – and if its owner realizes his ambition, nearly as profitably – as McDonald’s makes hamburgers.”

To help achieve that profitability, Victory Schools used a carefully designed loophole in the state law and enrolled fewer than 250 students in the first year so that automatic union representation of its staff would not kick in. Consequently, it was able to hire a faculty that consists largely of novice teachers. The move appears to have been dictated by financial concerns, not by a desire to tap the enthusiasm of the young. The teachers are being paid well below the New York City salary scale and do not have the same health or pension benefits as other public school teachers.

On the pedagogical front, Victory is borrowing from the McDonald’s approach of undeviating uniformity by employing a pre-packaged curriculum – a combination of E. D. Hirsch’s “core knowledge” and a method known as “direct instruction.” For seven days before Sisulu opened, its teachers were trained in the “direct instruction” method, which prescribes in exacting detail, down to their very hand gestures, what they will do and say in their classes.

While both E. D. Hirsch and direct instruction have their educational advocates and critics, the decision can be seen as primarily financial: A pre-packaged curriculum with novice teachers is less expensive than hiring experienced teachers who have the know-how to move beyond the pre-packaged curriculum and respond to individual children’s needs.

This lack of concern with hiring experienced teachers also provides a potential explanation for a quite curious aspect of every proposed Victory charter school: that it consists simply of kindergarten, first, and second grades. When one understands that the state’s standardized literacy tests “kick in” for the first time in third grade, it becomes apparent that Victory will be able to pass all of its students on to another school which will then be held accountable for any of Victory’s failures to prepare its students to reach the state reading and writing standards in language arts.

Conscious that such a school profile may not be well-received in Harlem, Victory took a number of steps to give itself the aura of an authentic, community-based institution. It has named its school after a hero of the South African liberation struggle, Walter Sisulu, and rented its school building from a religious mainstay of the community, the Canaan Baptist Church. Despite the lack of any formal organizational or legal link, Victory Schools deliberately leaves the impression, with the willing assistance of the church pastor, that Sisulu Academy is somehow sponsored by the church.


The contrast between International High School and Sisulu Academy is telling, precisely because it points to the disparate social and political forces currently involved in the charter school movement.

First proposed in the early 1990s, the charter school idea grew out of the “public school choice” movement. The idea was to create distinctive public schools funded by public money but free of excessive regulation and bureaucracy. Each charter school would become, in effect, its own school district, responsible only to the chartering agency for its educational results. The idea was that this would allow the school to develop its own unique, meaningful, and innovative educational program.

It has been barely a decade since Minnesota passed the first charter school legislation and established the first charter school in the United States, but this new educational reform has already spread rapidly. According to a report this February from the U.S. Department of Education, there are a total of nearly 1,700 charter schools in 27 states and the District of Columbia, serving 250,000 children.

As it has grown, the charter school movement has become the focus of many disparate, contending forces. On the one hand, the idea of establishing new public schools free of bureaucratic rule and rigidity has attracted enthusiastic, idealistic, and innovative groups of teachers, parents, and community activists who want to create successful, exciting places of learning for children. This prospect is especially attractive in inner-city neighborhoods where there are so many failing schools.

On the other hand, there is a growing array of venture capitalists and for-profit corporations driven not by education but by the hopes of profitable business opportunities. These corporate forces are joined by conservative politicians and right-wing ideologues who view charter schools as the “thin wedge” which will prepare American society for greater educational privatization, for the transformation of public schooling, through vouchers, into a market-driven by consumer demand and corporate franchise supply.

It is precisely this confluence of such radically different forces within the charter school movement that makes it a central battlefield in the struggle for the future of American education. If teacher unionists, progressive educators, and those genuinely concerned with educating all children abandon the charter school battlefield, it will certainly be completely taken over by the forces of educational privatization and the right.

As a starting point for engagement with the movement, one must appreciate just how different charter schools can be.

The enabling legislation for charter schools is adopted at the state level, and it varies greatly among the 30-odd states that have enacted it. State legislatures also tend to amend this legislation on a fairly continual basis, so even within a particular state, things are rarely static. Today, legislation can be as different as that in Arizona, where charter schools are, for all intents and purposes, totally unregulated, to Rhode Island, where local school districts have a de facto veto over charter schools and only two charter schools have been authorized. Even within a single jurisdiction such as New York, individual schools are starkly dissimilar in philosophy and program.

What is the significance of these differences? The more ideologically conservative of charter school advocates describe the Arizona law as “strong” and Rhode Island law as “weak,” and give their support to “strong” laws which place the fewest regulations and conditions on charter schools. Without question, a law as restrictive as that of Rhode Island undermines the very possibility of establishing charter schools.

But not all regulations are undesirable. One has to know exactly what is being regulated and how it is being regulated. A recent study of Arizona’s charter schools, for example, has shown that they have a much higher degree of racial and ethnic segregation than the traditional public schools: White students are over-represented in academic charter schools, and students of color are over-represented in vocational and “schools of last resort” charter schools. Similarly, a State Education Department study of Massachusetts’ charter schools has raised serious questions about their record of accepting and properly teaching students with learning disabilities. One Boston charter school operated by the for-profit Edison company was cited by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for its failure to provide learning disabled students with an appropriate education. Finally, a recent Michigan State University study showed that 75% of that state’s 138 charter schools provided no special education services, and the remaining schools provided minimal and inadequate services.

For a system of public education to meet minimal standards of a level playing field, all schools – traditional and charter – must be open to and prepared to teach students of color, poor and working-class students, and students with learning disabilities. Regulations that enforce these principles in minimally intrusive ways are entirely appropriate. Yet for the ideologues of the right, educational regulation is always a counterproductive evil. As an invariable rule, it should be replaced with the invisible hand of the laissez-faire market.

For conservatives, this market approach also applies to the issue of teacher quality. Give the school administration the unregulated power to hire and fire teachers at will, regardless of licensure, certification, and tenure, and let the market punish the school if poor teachers are hired and retained. The subtext of this approach is that it frees non-union charter schools to cast an even broader net in hiring teachers whom they can pay below the local salary scale.

On an even more critical issue, some ideologues oppose any formal process of accountability for a school’s educational performance, insisting that the market will discipline educational malfeasance on the part of the charter school. Amazingly, many states seem to have tacitly accepted this view. A University of California-Los Angeles study of California charter schools concluded that the state did not have “a systematic mechanism for measuring student achievement in charter schools” or for evaluating the performance of a school “against its charter.”

At the same time, it is important not to fall into the inverse error of the ideologues of the right and see regulation as an unambiguous virtue. In the hands of an inept bureaucracy, regulation can do much more harm than good. Excessive numbers of regulations, lengthy and time-consuming paperwork and reporting procedures, and poorly wrought, top-down, inflexible rules are the cause of many serious shortcomings in public schooling – and the reason the staff of International High School found charter school status attractive.

The problem is how to achieve a proper, working balance between freedom for the individual school to pursue its educational mission and vision, on the one hand, and accountability to the public – not pseudo-accountability to the invisible hand of the market – for its educational work, on the other hand.


Charter schools present opportunities for educational innovation. On a pedagogical front, the potential benefits are clear: When a school is directly accountable to those it serves, and not to layers of hierarchical authority, and when it is of an optimum size for meaningful democratic self-governance, it can become an incubator of good educational practice.

Progressive charter schools can also be an ideal setting to develop new, streamlined teacher contracts that give the school staff more flexibility in organizing its educational program and more power over educational decision-making. As they now stand, teacher contracts are the product of the factory model school system in which they were negotiated; they follow closely an industrial union model, setting out to limit management’s arbitrariness and abuse of authority with a web of rules and regulations.

But we must keep in mind there is a trade-off for this educational freedom. Each charter school becomes, in effect, its own district. It assumes all the responsibilities for the non-instructional side of education, from the procurement and upkeep of a physical facility to equipment and supplies (such as books, desks, science laboratories, computers); from personnel (such as payroll, Social Security, pension, health care insurance, unemployment insurance) to student transportation and student food; from insurance to federal and state government reports for reimbursable programs (Title 1) and compliance in the fields of civil rights, special education, and bilingual education.

Worse yet, it has to assume new functions, such as advertising and “public relations,” since it must now attract its students. There is a serious danger that these extra-instructional functions will overwhelm the educational work of the school, taking energies away from – rather than adding them to – the school’s core mission of teaching and learning.

So while charter schools do have the potential for progressive educational change, it is by no means automatic or inevitable that such potential will be realized.

Take the question of pedagogical innovation. Where charter schools follow in the footsteps of an International High School, such work is part of the very culture and life of the school. But where charter schools are turned out of the corporate franchise mold of Victory Schools, with “teacher-proof” curriculum pre-packaged like fast food and served up by a staff of inexperienced teachers, it will be a gigantic step backward from what now goes in most traditional public schools.

Could there be a starker choice, or a more compelling reason for those who truly care about children – and not about profits and privatization – to become involved?

Leo Casey taught social sudies in a public high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, NY, for 14 years. He now works for the United Federation of Teachers on high school issues.