Supporting School Choice and Taking Down Charter Critiques

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January 30, 2014 by juicefong

Standard disclosure: I work for Teach For America, but I blog independently, just for me. The Teach For America community has a wide range of disparate opinions about charter schools and school choice. If you want to know what the organization officially says about these matters, you can go to this page on the TFA website. I am also a board member for Democracy Prep Public Schools, a charter management organization in New York City, and I am a former charter school teacher. The opinions herein represent me, and me only. I wrote this to celebrate School Choice Week. Find me on Twitter, @jgfong

Growing up, I was the beneficiary of school choice. Though there were good and convenient school options in our hometown, my mother taught kindergarten at one of California’s best public elementary schools, a 30-minute drive away. I commuted with her each day starting in kindergarten, arriving at school before well before any other children and leaving around 6:30 every night so that I could to attend a better school. She was exercising school choice, as she had done for my brothers too. Her school district was excellent, and I’m thankful for her decision.

I have a broad definition of school choice. Certainly charter schools fall underneath this principle. When parents send their children to private schools, that’s school choice. Where they exist, magnet schools and vouchers create school choice, too. My mom sending me to her top notch public elementary school is another valid example, albeit uncommon. Anytime a parent has school options, that’s school choice to me.

Wealthy Americans usually always have school choice at their disposal, assuming there is at least a private school nearby. Middle class Americans often stretch their budgets to exercise school choice and send their kids to a decent private school when they prefer it over the local public schools. “My mom worked an extra job so I could go to Catholic school.” How many Americans have you met who share that family story? I’ve heard that so often.

But for a long time, the least well-off Americans have really not been able to exercise school choice. Unable to afford private school, they’ve had one option—their local public school. When that local school is a good school, it all works out—and we can be proud of every public school in this country that is a great option for children.

But what if your one option isn’t so good? If you only have one school option and it is lousy, well then the American dream is fiction to you. That is not the promise of public education. Every family deserves to have a good school for their child. Period.

It is unfair, it is wrong, to trap a child in a failing school, and for the government not to provide another option. This puts a chokehold on upward mobility.

The most common solution we see to this in America today is charter schools, which are independently run schools using public monies. Authorized by government or government-appointed agencies, they are freed from some, but not all, of the bureaucratic constraints known to traditional district schools. In exchange for this autonomy, they are held accountable to their authorizing agent, with swift closure being a disposable threat.

As a supporter of school choice, I am a supporter of charter laws and of some charter schools. To support all charter schools is silly—some of them are great, some of them just okay and some are lousy, and should be shut down. So really, I support the principle of chartering, and I support individual charter schools that are good (most simply defined as those I’d send my own child to).

If your neighborhood school is your only option, and it is a bad option, why should we prevent charter operators from opening the doors to a quality school? Given what’s at stake for that child and family, critics ought to have a very good reason why we should strip families of school choice. Let’s narrow in on charter schools and take on their common critiques.

1) XYZ charter school stinks, and therefore all charter schools stink. The first half is a valid complaint, the second half is flawed reasoning. Many charter schools provide an inferior education, and I say that with a holistic view of any school. Authorizers should be evaluating these schools, pushing them to improve—and if improvement doesn’t come, shut them down. That is the agreement. Authorizers need to get tougher on this. I’m with you here, let’s get rid of the lousy charters. But that still leaves many good charters, and just because some are lousy, that doesn’t justify getting rid of all of them.

2) Another argument: Charter schools drain the district of its public funds. In typical charter laws, the dollars follow the student. If per pupil funding is $10,000 in your area, that goes to the district if your child attends the district school and it goes to the charter school if your child attends a charter. (It doesn’t always level out, often leaving the charter figure lower, but let’s drop that for now.) Yes, the district loses out on those dollars, but there is also one less child to educate. The district may have fewer dollars in this case, but it also has lower costs. So if the charter school is a good one, the effect is a better education system and more options for parents, for the same total pubic spending. If the district is doing a lousy job or if parents just want a different type of school, then it justifies money being diverted to a charter school for the same per-student cost basis.

Reminder to those who stump on complaint #2: Private school parents and non-parent taxpayers like me are ensuring whatever funding level your public schools currently live off of, without draining on the school’s resources. If private school students leave and re-enter the public system, your school funding will stay flat while enrollments increase. You’ll have to do more with the same. So maybe you’ll thank a private school family or a non-parent taxpayer today for keeping class sizes low.

3) The grandaddy of all the critiques—privatization. Because they are independently run, charter schools lead to the privatization of our public schools. I do not see the merits of this argument. Charter schools are public schools. They are run on public dollars, they are open to all students from a defined jurisdiction, and ultimately, they report to a state entity. Let’s break this down.

Charter schools are open to all students from a defined jurisdiction, usually by lottery. This makes them even more “public” than magnet schools, which have admission criteria.

Charter schools are also fully accountable to the public. Most are overseen directly by a state or local government entity, just like district schools. For a few others, the state passes the reins to an appointed authorizer. Either way the government, representing the public, is ultimately in charge. And these authorizers, carrying the will of the public, have rightly closed many a charter school.

I already described the “dollars follow the students” mechanism, that’s public dollars flowing to one type of public school or another. Critics will also argue that charters take private money in the form of donations to boost their resources. Well, many do, and why blame them. But that money is also allowed for regular district schools, too. In fact, wealthy communities have been setting up local education funds and augmenting their school district budgets with millions of dollars for years. It’s really no different. In every case where an individual, foundation or business wants to give its money to a school, I am thankful. I am extra thankful when it’s a school that serves a poor community. That money could go a lot of other places. Education needs all the funding it can get.

4) Charter schools are union busters. Whether you support unions or not, this is not a valid argument. Of course, it is often used by teachers unions in their fierce attack on charter schools, which I think is unfortunate given that charter schools are made up of children and fellow educators.

Teachers at a charter school can unionize if they like—there are many good examples of this, such as Green Dot. The United Federation of Teachers in New York City runs its own charter school, in fact. But many charter school teachers do not choose to unionize. This allows the charter school to establish its own contract with teachers, perhaps different from the collective bargaining agreement that exists with the district which can often be very rigid. (The teacher contract in NYC is 165 pages long, for example.)

A personal example: I moved to a charter school in my third year of teaching, in part because of the better school environment and in part because of the better pay. I was able to earn a salary in that third year that would have taken me eight years in the district. I was happy to trade in some of the protections from the union in exchange for a better working environment and a pay system that served me better. Our contract was four pages long. And even though the working conditions were far from perfect, it was a lot better place to work than the district school I came from.

Charter schools aren’t aiming to be union busters. Why would they go through all that trouble just to meddle with the union? They’re in it to teach children and give parents another option. The fact that many charter schools are not unionized goes to show that there are multiple ways to establish a good relationship between teachers and management.

Let’s wind this down. Every charter school is different. No charter school is perfect. I know many great charters, and they have a lot to aspire to: They need to find better ways to retain great teachers, they need to do more to appeal to and provide for special education students, they need to create more warm and loving school environments, and they all would probably like to improve their teaching and learning methods. Guess what, these are the same challenges that other schools have, too—district, private, and charter school alike.

Charter schools individually and collectively aspire to more and better. But so long as parents and children keep walking in their doors because they prefer that option, I won’t be the one to take school choice away from them.

6 thoughts on “Supporting School Choice and Taking Down Charter Critiques

  1. I was with you up to the unions….

    The problem is, if *every* school in a District becomes a charter which is distinctly anti-union then you actually REDUCE the choice a teacher has in this matter. You may argue that this doesn’t matter. Teachers are not the primary concern, children are. Only, just because adults are adults, it doesn’t mean that their work rights should be waylaid. The right to collective bargaining is a way of ensuring that individuals are not mistreated by employers who have much more power than they do (because they hold the purse strings). There is always an unfair power dynamic in employment in favour of the person holding the cash, and that has led to some pretty dodgy dealings in the past – the lower pay of women and ethnic minorities, the automatic firing of married women, the automatic firing of pregnant unmarried women, etc. Collective bargaining enables workers to overcome this individual power balance.

    Which is not to say that unions should necessarily be in every school either. If, as you discuss here, choice is very important then it might be best that there are a variety of options available. But where charters take over whole areas, and where those schools impose non-union clauses or don’t support union activity, that choice is gone. A teacher can no longer choose to work in a place where a collective is able to stand up against wrongdoings by an individual.

    If you hold the value of collective bargaining dear – as many do – then I can see why they feel upset about charters ‘breaking unions’. (And why they are occasionally aggrieved that TeachForAmerica look as if they are helping that agenda).

    [None of which is to say that I am the biggest fan of much teacher union activity in the US. I’m not. But I do think there’s a more legitimate argument than the one you made here].

    • juicefong says:

      So glad to see your comment!

      I reject that employers hold all the power. There is always a supply/demand dynamic in the labor market in both a macro and micro sense. The individuals who are best at their job will actually have the upper hand. There will always be high demand and a high premium paid for the best people, assuming you are not bound to an arbitrary payscale. I’ve seen this happen in the NYC charter market, where schools were making competing offers for a very strong teacher I knew. (We’re not talking company cars and Rolex watches, of course – these were smaller sums, but still meaningful.)

      I really think people overestimate how much charter schools are about peeling away from unions. The people I know who work in them – sure, they believe in the right to choose their teaching force (and who wouldn’t want that freedom?). But they are not obsessive about sticking it to the unions. That’s not their agenda. They’re obsessive about providing for their students; teaching and learning. Which is the same as you see in district schools, too.

      Truth is, there is a wide chasm between teacher rights in typical charter schools vs. typical collective bargaining agreements. I think we will see convergence on both sides towards some band in the middle as equilibrium is approached. The great employers of the world know they have to keep their people happy to successfully carry out their mission. It’s no different for schools. I think there is going to be a give on both sides between the 4-page contract and the 165-page one.

    • joe Nathan says:

      From the beginning, many state laws have allowed teachers in charters who want a union to start one.

  2. joe Nathan says:

    As a former urban public school teacher, administrator, parent of 3 youngsters who attended urban public schools, urban PTA president and husband of a 33 year urban public school teacher, I’d like to add a little. The biggest form of public school choice in the country is called suburbs. Upper middle income and upper income families have the opportunity to move to exclusive suburbs where the price of admission is the ability to afford housing. Moreover, families can deduct from their taxable income both real estate taxes (often high in exclusive suburbs) and interest on home mortgages. So these are tax supported school choices.

    I think the charter movement has been a net plus in the US. Charters vary widely. So do district schools. But on balance I think chartering has been a good thing. And for what it’s worth, I helped write the nation’s first charter law and have worked in a number of states on this issue.
    Joe Nathan

  3. […] with traditional district schools and public charter schools—it works with both. As I’ve written before, charter schools are public schools and provide quality school options at no cost to families all […]

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