2 Things You Need to Know about the “Charter Movement”

Everything you hear about charter schools is true.  And everything you hear about charter schools is false.  That’s what 20 plus years working with them has taught me.

They send high numbers of low income kids to college, they pick and choose students, they are safer.  They disproportionately suspend certain kids, they save taxpayers money, they are run by hucksters. They outperform traditional district schools, or they don’t.

It’s all true.  This duality was highlighted in the recent John Oliver segment, which was seen as critical of charters (and has twisted more than a few knickers), highlighting fraud and lax authorizing, but the segment started with boasting about the college going success of KIPPsters.  And both are true.

Whether charters tend to meet their promise of delivering innovative equitable education, depends nothing on the label, “charter”, but the plan and people behind it.  There is no essential ingredient to a charter, except independence, about the weakest organizing principle you can think of.

There is no common content in charter schools

Charter law varies widely between states, authorizer practices vary even more widely.  And the individual charters themselves run from end to end of the spectrum.  This is both in terms of program, and also in terms of outcomes.

Just within Oakland you have military schools, Waldorf, Montessori, arts schools, schools that emphasize testing, schools that don’t, schools that suspend a lot of kids, schools that suspend very few.  Many of these schools don’t necessarily like or even respect the educational methods of their “colleagues.”

Same with students served, some charters over-represent high needs students, some under-represent them, some outperform the district, some underperform.  It’s the gamut.  Outside of the label and resisting control—Charters don’t see themselves as some collective.  And there is no common genetic marker in the DNA of charters, just a shared birth story.

I have long argued there is no “charter movement” just a bunch of folks who want some independence from districts—for all range of motivations, most good, some bad, some the jury is out on.

So charter folks honestly need to lighten up when a comedian pokes fun at some real malfeasance (and clean the house).   I don’t defend “charter schools” some charter schools are horrible.  Look no further than Livermore.

I have lobbied for charters to be closed and others not opened.  There is nothing magic about the label “charter” that makes a school better.  Or worse.  More ethical, or less.

The charter=good and charter=bad worldviews are both wrong some of the time.  And they will continue to be because there is no essential content in a “charter.”  So we need a new paradigm.

It sounds trite, but we really do need to discard the content-less labels and look transparently  at school quality, ethics, and equity.  That is exactly what families care about—if anyone bothered to ask them.

The Best NYC Charter School Story You Haven’t Heard

A predictable war of words has erupted around interpreting the latest set of NYC test scores. The charter sector has touted its successes, with Success Academy Charter Schools front and center, and the mayor has increasingly pushed back, critiquing the results, Success Academy itself, and broadly tarring the sector.

Missed in the battle of the elephants are some other remarkable outcomes. First and foremost among them is an autism-inclusion charter school in Harlem that posted the top scores for any independent charter school, all while serving high-needs students in an authentic and responsive way.

I have written about Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem before. A school our Incubator helped start that deliberately recruits and reserves spots for students on the autism spectrum. The school has a robust program of support that integrates students on the spectrum and helps them develop socially in a safe and staged way. 

This is crucially important work from a societal standpoint and would be worthy of applause for even taking on the challenge. But when you see the development of students and also the awe-inspiring outcomes, this is a lot more than a social development program, it is one of Harlem’s highest performing schools.

Outstanding Results

Take a look at the scatterplot below provided by the NYC Charter Center. Neighborhood Charter shines.

Scatterplot of test scores for NYC independent charter schools

While the analysis does not take into account differences in student populations, and schools that tend to serve more disadvantaged students tend to have lower overall scores, nobody can argue that Neighborhood is “creaming” kids. And the work it is doing is much deeper than a test score.

One story from the school really struck me. A parent was talking about how her son was basically mute in school, but at Neighborhood he had started to open up, talk, make friends, and develop a previously nonexistent social circle.

The joy and contentment is evident on kids’ faces when you visit, alongside a responsive design where every class has individual supports for students.

And the results are really remarkable—75.4% of their students are proficient in math, compared to 16.7% in the district. 69.7% of kids are proficient on English language arts, compared to 21.5% for the district.

After the Rhetoric

So let’s move beyond the mayor’s history of talking loud but carrying a small stick on school reform. It really is not about charters versus district schools—at least parents don’t see it that way. And somewhere along the line I heard that this was supposed to be about parents.

It’s about good schools that treat families fairly. So please, let us move beyond the education wars in NYC, and the personal battles between the Mayor de Blasio and Ms. Moskowitz. You guys don’t like each other. We get it. We don’t care.

A good first step was the mayor’s visit to DREAM Charter (full disclosure: I was on the founding board), and I hope he goes out and sees some of the other great work happening in the community. 

These fights may make us feel important as adults but they do nothing for children. And if we are honest, there is so much need in NYC that we don’t have time to waste tearing each other down, when so many families need us to work to build something better.

Humpty Dumpty and “Public” Charter Schools

Some people in Oakland don’t like charter schools, most of them seem to live in the Hills, and have good neighborhood choices. Meanwhile many Flatlands families are voting with their feet, choosing public charter schools.  Lost in this debate is the fact the families at charters are more likely to be low income, people of color and English language learners than District school families.

But what is the real meaning of “public” schools and why does it matter?

An author attempted to address this in a recent editorial in the Oakland Post ‘There’s No Such Thing as a “Public charter school.”’  First I think the state legislature (who is the elected representative of the people) disagree, they explicitly defined charter schools as public schools in the law.  But let’s dig into the claims.

The PR conspiracy and the Purported Origins of Charters

According to the author,“ the term “public charter school” was developed by a PR firm to reframe the way we understand schooling in relationship to “public” and to democracy.”

Really?  Albert Shanker from the AFT is the philanthrocapitalist who founded this atrocity?

Here’s what the tubes in the interwebs say,

In 1988, education reformer and American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker proposed a new kind of public school—“charter schools”—which would allow teachers to experiment with innovative approaches to educating students. Publicly funded but independently managed, these schools would be given a charter to try their fresh approaches for a set period of time and be renewed only if they succeeded.

Far from a PR conspiracy by billionaires—charters can be laid at the feet of the teacher’s union.  No multiple shooters in grassy knolls, just the union trying to innovate and  empower stakeholders, which they should be applauded for.

Democratic Accountability by Voting Makes Something “Public”

The author further states,

Public institutions—schools, libraries, zoos—are, at least in theory, funded by 
taxes from all the people in its jurisdiction—local, state and national—and are held accountable to and by those people through that fundamental process we in a democracy call voting.

Personally I don’t remember voting for the zoo board or have any sense of its accountability publicly.  And if you want a philanthrocapitalist conspiracy look no further than the public libraries—the robber baron Carnegie founded that system.  And even with the schools.  So the OUSD traditional public schools stopped being public schools when we were under receivership, and the State ran our district?  Really?

I don’t see voting and democratic accountability consistently in any of the examples that the author gives, and indeed we are in a republic whose founding fathers explicitly rejected a democracy by popular vote, however you may feel about that.

Charter Boards Suck and District Board’s are Awesome

Again from the author,

Most public schools are accountable to an elected school board made up of community 
members. Residents of that community have the right to be present at Board meetings, weigh in 
on votes and debates, and access public financial documents.

Charter schools are run by executive boards, committees or corporations whose members often 
live outside the community in which they are located and are not accountable to parents or 
the taxpayers/community members who fund them.

From the first line here there is an admission that some public schools aren’t accountable to an elected school board, which seems to undermine the overall argument, but anyhoo…

In terms of process they are wrong, charters, as far as I know, follow the Brown Act (Open Meetings Law), they hold public meetings, must have public comments, and must share financials and other documents.  All of mine do. The boards I am on have parents elected from the whole parent body (not just voters), do District’s require that?

And when families or staff or anyone shows up or comments it is listened to and matters, we are a community, and listen to, and care about stakeholders.  And I guarantee you families that come to our meetings prefer them to the chaos and waiting of the OUSD meetings, where folks from outside the community hurl invectives that I wouldn’t allow at the dinner table at our elected representatives.  I can’t speak to every charter.

What Are the “Public” Schools Really

Democracy often means two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.  Don’t get it twisted, poor Black and Brown folks have made up the meal historically and still do.

When schools were legally segregated—those were the democratically accountable public schools.  When I worked as a public interest law firm and helped sue OUSD for failing to serve English learners—and they fought and fought not to serve kids, paying lawyers rather than teachers—those are democratically accountable public schools.

When we have a set of enrollment rules that allocates educational opportunity by zip codes, zip codes created by redlining and segregated housing and reinforced through structural racism- those are the democratically accountable schools.

If I wanted to create a system that would guarantee segregation, guarantee that the kids with the most needs are typically in the weakest schools and the kids with the relatively least needs are in the strongest ones.  I would build it the way the traditional democratic system is—by neighborhood.

And let’s carve out the most exclusive island for those not even satisfied with the segregation of the Hills- Piedmont.  Where they get 5k more per kid, and the admission price is $1,700,000 for a home.

This “public education” system is systematically unequal.  I challenge anyone to show me more than 3 urban districts where more than 50% of Black boys graduate in 4 years.  When you look at the NY Times analysis of test scores in “public schools” nationwide—you can’t find a single district where Black students are at parity or above White ones, and poverty is an almost equally common crippling condition.  Check it out click a district, every district shows these persistent inequalities.

So if democratically accountable means waiting 4 hours to give a 1 minute public statement, in a rigged system, where at least a third of our parents can’t vote for their “elected” representatives, either because they aren’t citizens or have lost the right to vote, then I am not so sure.

And again if democratic accountability is the key—our families that most systematically need high quality public schools can’t even vote.

So who is the wolf and who is the sheep.  And believe me I haven’t seen the wolves offering to change the dinner menu, none of them are offering to open up enrollment rules at their neighborhood schools, and forsake some of their well-inherited privilege.

Public Schools Serve the Public

I personally judge who the public schools are by who they serve.

Not mentioned in the Post article is that charters serve a higher percentage of low income students and English learners than traditional district schools, while also serving fewer identified special education students and receiving less State money.  So roughly the same kids, less money.

And the author admits the law says, “charter schools are public schools”, the people’s elected representatives define them that way. Folks may personally disagree but they would be factually wrong.

This isn’t some Humpty Dumpty moment when a word “means just what I choose it to mean.”   Charters are public schools.   Sometimes there are rogue schools, who should be reeled in or closed—just like with some districts or district schools.

When You Can’t Choose Housing

The parents I see, those who can’t move to better neighborhood schools, don’t have time for these academic debates.  And it is always poor Black and Brown families who are asked to sacrifice their children on the altar of principle.  They should remain in the school with a substitute all year, where the 5th grade class is broken up and put in with kindergarteners, as described at a recent board meeting, by those parents.

Or the student board director who talked about high school students with subs all year, who didn’t receive a grade.  Believe me that’s not kids in the Paideia program or kids in Hillcrest.

Or the settlement where students had “fake classes” in some Oakland high schools—literally taking the garbage out, I don’t think that counts as AP—again not in the Hills, you can guess the names of the schools where this took place.

And this is nothing against those schools and the folks working their butts off for kids, it’s the system.  We are always outnumbered and always out gunned, always getting the short end of the stick, the leftover opportunities.

So charters are public schools, but when I look at how the public schools have historically dis-served Black Brown and Poor kids, the loaded deck on a tilted playing field and the wolves salivating over dinner.  Maybe we do need a new definition of “public schools” because if the past sets the course for the future, I want no part of it.

Bad Apples in Charter Admissions and What We Can Do

Some time ago, at a charter school near you, I went to enroll a foster child, let’s call her ”Keasha.”  She needed a good school; that was smaller and more personalized.  Brushing aside my lack of legal authority, we asked the receptionist for an application.

She explained that the school may not have any spots, described the school culture in fairly negative terms, underemphasizing the clubs and afterschool, and noting that many students resented the closed campus for lunch.

I still asked for an application.  She then told Keasha that she needed to take an “admissions test”, a series of math problems.  An “admission test” or other preconditions to enrollment in a charter school is illegal, they are public schools and, by law, must admit any student who applies if there is space, holding a lottery if there are more students than spots.

Full disclosure, I am a lawyer and  reviewed most of this charter years back, including admissions, and I know there is no fracking admissions test, and as a fairly empowered Black man, I have learned it’s best to just listen sometimes, without betraying my credentials, and see how far people will go.

Keasha answers, they are graded, she does well, and then is offered a spot for admission.  Rather than blasting the receptionist, I contacted and met with Board chair, who is a colleague.  He explained, it was not an “admissions test” but one to determine placement, and the school, being small, offered only two options in terms of 9th grade math.  He earnestly apologized and would push training for the leadership and the front line staff on these areas.

I personally felt like there was also a racial tinge to the issue and the underselling of the school to a student who might be perceived as more difficult, and was a different race than the office person and the majority of the students.  I really don’t think this was a policy, but really the way a front line worker interpreted her job and chose to act, which had a particular racial impact.  And as the initial face of the school, with wide and largely unchecked discretion, these front line workers matter.

I have worked with charter schools for over two decades, and I do see the subtle and not so subtle ways that schools can and sometimes do manipulate the student bodies coming in to increase the test scores coming out, or to more generally serve “their kids”.  This is not the only “admission” test story out there, alongside subtle and not so subtle counseling out of students who may be more challenging.

Furthermore, seemingly neutral rules can also be used to screen out students; a very short enrollment window where only the chosen few are informed; creating hurdles to application, like requiring multiple meetings before providing applications to families, limited or no translation of application documents or limited distribution.  And “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” disciplinary policies, where students are given little leeway and staff are full of excuses why they can only serve the “good” kids.

I have seen schools suspend or threaten to expel students for being absent too much, homeless students rack up uniform policy violations, and other school rules that have the effect of pushing more (perceived) challenging students out.  These students are almost never expelled, instead they are threatened with continuing punishments and potential expulsion, so the parent withdraws them, interrupting their academic year, and enrolling them mid-year when better options are likely full.

These are exceptions to the rule, and a small minority of schools with a small minority of staff that act in ways that subtly or not so subtly discriminate.  The vast majority of charters are really working to meet and serve the needs of underserved students.

In NY we created the first college preparatory school that catered to students with emerging mental health issues, Harlem’s first autism inclusion program, and several schools that re-engaged students who were out of school, through sports, careers, and authentic engagement.  In Oakland, the schools I worked with, and do, are from the community, serving our kids, and trying to serve all of them.

The vast vast majority of charters are not started for the money or the glory, but to help kids.  And many charters are showing extraordinary results with underserved students.  However, as public schools, and all of the schools I have worked with deliberately tried to serve high needs populations, we all really do have to work to serve the public.  And that means calling out bad apples.

This is part of a larger systemic issue where schools often choose students while we imagine students choosing schools. It was entirely predictable which students the local District schools would recommend apply to our charters, sometimes based on a perceived match, but often on a desire to push out more difficult or failing students,  students with big thick files.

If we are honest, the game has always been rigged, with zip codes and family wealth being pretty directly correlated with educational opportunities.  Anyone who looks can see the vast disparities in the District schools, and between districts, often based on where students physically can afford to live.  If you don’t believe me, go from the deep East Oakland or West Oakland schools to Piedmont, just a few miles, but a world of difference.  Or drive from the Flatlands up through the Hills and watch the housing prices rise alongside quality school options.

In charters, the increased flexibility and autonomy can be used for good or nefarious purposes, and sometimes the line is actually fairly grey.  I remember expanding our class size to add a sibling of a current student who had just moved off the Rez, out of a very difficult and rural family situation, who would struggle in a larger District middle school.  I have also heard school leaders say how kids looked like “trouble” and were told there was no room, when there was.

We need to stop the straight up discrimination, and using admission testers, who would try to enroll more “diverse” learners at schools and record their treatment would be immensely helpful as it is in the employment context.  The trickier issues are around schools that may liberally push out the more challenging students, often based on completely legal and public school policies, that parents technically agree to when they enroll their student, even if they never read them or had them explained.

For these situations, charter authorizers should require transparent tracking and publication of attrition rates (that whole common enrollment system Oakland was previously looking at would have been great here, but politics killed it), AND schools with disproportionate rates would suffer a financial penalty that would go to the school where the student was received.  And overall we need to really track and publicize data for all the schools around enrollment, attrition, discipline, and expulsion, and this data should be publicized to parents as they make their choices.

While these measures would not solve every problem, it would catch the worst offenders, shine light on abuses, and also reset the financial incentives, which right now can be to push more challenging students down the line, with good actors increasingly carrying the weight shed by bad ones.

I sardonically joke during trainings (my day job is partially incubating charter schools and working with schools on improvement planning), that I can give school leaders the 2 step secret to the high test score performance; recruit high achievers and kick out the “bad” kids.   Unfortunately, there is truth underlying the joke, which echoes across all sectors of American education.  And while some laugh at the joke, others frown, and a third group is taking notes.

The Rhetorical War on Public Schools from the Left and Right

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. George Orwell

Words matter.  What we call something affects public support for it. Is a medical meeting, “end of life counseling” or a “death panel”, the descriptions matter   So it’s not a coincidence, that we see Republican rhetoric around “soviet-era” “government schools” as a way to undermine support for traditional public schools.

What may be more surprising is that some on the Left are doing the same thing when they deride “private” charter schools.   Charter schools are public schools by law and serve high needs students at roughly equal rates as traditional district schools, and misleadingly calling them “private” is a sleight of hand to reduce public support.

Children in public schools in both sectors need every dollar they can get, this hurts.

Republicans rail against “soviet era” “government schools”

Both on the state level and at the national republic convention the rhetoric was loud and its purposes were clear.

Let’s start at the state level, where something is the matter with Kansas, and Republicans have started to describe traditional public schools as “government schools.”   This was described in the NY Times,

Kansas has for years been the stage for a messy school funding fight that has shaken the Legislature and reached the State Supreme Court. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and his political allies threatened to defy the court on education spending and slashed income taxes in their effort to make the state a model of conservatism. Somewhere along the way, the term “government schools” entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system. ..The intent was obvious to her, Ms. Massman said. “They are trying to rebrand public education,” she said. The use of the term has set off alarms even among some Republicans, who fear that it signals still less support, financially and otherwise, for the public schools

Similar sentiments came from the Republican convention, as covered by Ed Week,

Trump Jr. blasted schools for failing American students and serving other interests.”Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now they’re stalled on the ground floor,” he said of schools. “They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.”

Trump Jr.’s rhetoric rings pretty hollow to me.  For Black folks there really was no elevator for most of our history here, and despite the huge disparities that exist, things are better statistically now than they have ever been, in terms of educational outcomes.  I don’t see some America in the rear view mirror that was so great.

But it’s not just the Right on the rhetorical warpath.

The left’s war against “private” charter schools

The Left has its own war of words with a parroting of rhetoric opposing “private” charter schools.  This is a national campaign issue picked up by Bernie Sanders, that also roosts in Oakland.

Every Oakland Unified  board meeting that discuses charters will bring out the privatization zombie.

“’Private’ charter school’, ‘private’ charter school”, the zombie repeats again and again.

Not mentioned is that charters serve a higher percentage of low income students and English learners than traditional district schools, while also serving fewer identified special education students and receiving less State money.  So roughly the same kids, less money.

As someone who has worked with districts and charters for 20 some years and a lawyer, I have to tell you, there is no such thing, as a “private” charter school, at least not in CA or NY.  Charter schools are public schools by law, the people’s elected representatives define them that way. You may personally disagree but you would be factually wrong.

Charters must admit students by random lottery and can’t charge any tuition—so they can’t pick and choose kids. They are required to meet most of the same transparency requirements as other school districts, and have to follow relevant state and federal law, including civil rights laws.

So this isn’t some Humpty Dumpty moment when a word “means just what I choose it to mean.”   Charters are public schools.   Sometimes there are rogue schools, who should be reeled in or closed—just like with some districts or district schools.  But charters serve basically the same kids and deserve the same public support.

Words can hurt

Each of these rhetorical barbs is meant to delegitimize public schools, and they hurt.  Our kids in public schools, particularly in California need all the support they can get.  School funding is woefully inadequate and depends on the kindness of the legislature.  Rhetorically trashing public schools undermines public support.

I have long argued that funding in California is insufficient to meet the needs of students, and that we need to restructure school finance.  At some point we also need to bury the hatchet in the education wars, and stop seeing these political arguments as one public school sector’s loss is another sector’s gain, robbing from Pedro to pay Paul.  Instead we need to unite Pedro and Paul and fight together to give both of them the resources they need.