I write a lot about what I oppose, so as a sort of thought experiment, today I'll try to imagine if there are ways to accomplish reformster goals that I could live happily with. The posts in the series include Imagining Charters, Imagining Teach for America, Imagining National Standards, Imagining Vouchers and Choice, Imagining Teacher Evaluation, and Imagining National Assessments.
Modern charters are emerging as one of the most full-frontal assaults on public education, stripping public schools of financial resources, students, and in the worst cases, the very buildings they used to occupy. And since charters must market heavily to get students away from public schools and lobby relentlessly to keep the playing field favorably tilted, charter school operators make a huge volume contribution to the relentless refrain of "Public schools are failing." Nor will I accept the Saving One Starfish argument-- for each child a charter "saves," it makes things worse for twenty others (and that's before we get to all the charters who aren't actually saving anybody at all).
So can I imagine a charter set-up that I wouldn't think wasn't a pimple on the butt of public education?
Well, first it would have to be fully funded. Our current systems are founded on the fiction that multiple school systems can be run for the same cost as one. They can't. If legislators or mayors believe charter schools are a necessity, they need to go to the taxpayers, make their case, and raise the tax money necessary to make it work. This business of saying, "We can open six more schools and it won't cost a cent," is the worst kind of dishonesty.
It would have to be community based. That means operated by and answerable to the taxpayers and citizens in the community, not suits in some far-away boardroom.
That means it would also have to be available to all the students of that community. The correct follow-up to "The children of this zip code are trapped in a failing school" is "therefor we are making this great school available to all of the children in this zip code" and not "therefor we are shipping charter students in from some other less-sucky zip code."
If the charter is to be a public school, it must take all of the public that wish to attend. Does that mean they have to come up with programs for the special needs students? Yes, that's exactly what it means. That's what public schools do. Can a specialized magnet school dedicated to music turn away a kid who's tone-deaf and terrible? I'm going to say "no," but I'm not going to complain if that student flunks.
It must be non-profit. And truly non-profit, not sliding past non-profit rules by clever use of shell companies and contracted services. And all finances must be transparent and open to all taxpayers and their representatives; no going to court to keep your records hidden.
In fact, it must be accountable to the state government in all the same ways that all public schools are. If your argument is, "But the widget school laws are stupid" then go get those rules changed for everybody.
Finally, it needs to be able to explain what it's doing that can't be done in the already-existing public schools. The answer to this can not be some version of "sucking less." If charter founders claim to know the secret of hiring super-duper uber-excellent teachers, then just apply that secret to the public school. Specialized programs, specialized focus, extra enrichment stuff that won't easily fit into a more traditional school-- that sort of thing is what a charter school is for. A charter is not supposed to be directly competing with public schools by saying, "We're just like a regular public school, but you won't have to go to class with Those People."
A charter that meets these requirements (and they do exist) is a welcome addition to the public education scene. Those that don't I would gladly see shut down tomorrow.