As school choice advocate Betsy Devos assumes the role of secretary of education, charter school camps have formed for and against her. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools supported her, while the coalition of independent charter schools in New York City (representing over 100 schools) opposed her. And in California, while school leaders have almost universally opposed her, the state’s charter school association is sending somewhat mixed messages.
This should not be a surprise. As I’ve said before, there is no unified charter movement. There are simply many different actors who see charter schools and the autonomy they promise as a means to an end. In the big charter tent you have liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. But as I will argue, the sector still has some interests, and this nomination offers immense risk and potential opportunity.
Support for Choice in the Community
Any credible poll will show that Black, Brown, and low income families support charter schools. Many communities of color also have long histories of alternative and private schooling in the face of segregated, subpar or no public options. And a likely increase in support for charter schools and school choice from the federal government through Betsy DeVos might help free underserved communities from sometimes weak neighborhood options.
Charter schools can be our FUBU schools (FUBU stands for “For Us, By Us”—a hip hop brand from the 90s), empowering communities to control local schools and deliver high quality, culturally responsive programs to our children. It’s not that simple, and it is incredibly hard work, but many of us have been frustrated by the lack of responsiveness of the traditional public schools and wanted to do something different. Given the devil and the deep blue sea—we jumped.
Choosers and Losers
School choice is not a panacea. Choice by itself doesn’t necessarily improve quality or equity and may make things worse. There are choosers and “losers”—those who don’t choose. And the schools themselves may also start to pick and choose students, sometimes taking the “easy” ones and passing the more challenging kids on.
The federal government has a crucial role in setting some basic ground rules for equity and enforcing them. And because I don’t think we can trust local jurisdictions, those rules need to bend toward justice. Things like charter school admissions, charter authorizer behavior, as well as rules of the game in serving students with special needs or treating “minorities” with equal concern and respect. All of this can be influenced by federal spending and rulemaking.
And the secretary of education needs to be the secretary of all schools, given the reality that 47 of the roughly 55 million students in the U.S. go to traditional public schools, with 3 million in charters and over 5 million in private schools. Nothing D.C. does will change those ratios significantly. So the focus needs to be on that largest sector, and remembering the intent that charters would act as laboratories to feed practices into the traditional schools.
Evaluating the Secretary’s Reign-Quality, Equity, and Transparency
If, under this new administration, those of us who support charter schools sell our principles or forget who our master is, that stain will outlast any education secretary.
A rush to create more schools for more schools’ sake is an unwise one. Charters promise a set of academic and non-academic outcomes, and accountability is essential. Just opening the floodgates to more schools will likely reduce quality. And it won’t help families. (That seems to be the Detroit story, from my admittedly limited knowledge.)
Equity has to be at the forefront of accountability, for the sector to be credible and ethical. Charter schools have had some historical challenges in serving all students. This is a critique that hits some times and misses at others, but is equally applicable to the traditional public zoned schools or gifted-and-talented programs and specialized high schools. Authorizers and the public need to look hard at who is being served and who isn’t and why, with consequences for offenders.
Charter schools are public schools and need to be transparent with the public’s money and authority. I get that not all charters act like public schools, but they are and they should. And to build and maintain public confidence, we need to be transparent, and allow for public analysis.
The Charter School Final Exam
A school cannot serve two masters, to butcher a phrase. In this new administration, the charter sector faces new challenges and opportunities. But the real question that each school must answer is, “who is our master?”
In a time when many Black and Brown children and families are anxious, and immigration raids at schools are a real possibility, many schools and districts nationwide are declaring themselves “sanctuaries” that will defy the feds and won’t cooperate with ICE.
If that master comes calling, will the charters pick up the phone, or barricade the doors?
Charter schools were here before DeVos and will be here after her. The communities that charters draw their lifeblood from are here even longer, and communities have long memories. Charters sometimes are accused of not being of the community. If they want to assure their roots in the community, they need to pass this final test, and answer resolutely as to who their master is, lest short term gain turn to long term ruin.
This piece is adapted from one that ran in the Amsterdam News as Betsy DeVos’ Charter School Test on February 9, 2017.