Many folks think that charters are a super duper idea. But as I talk to many of these folks, I discover that their love of charters is based on a belief that charter schools are just like traditional public schools with just a whole extra layer of awesome piled on top. Like. Pony, only with a really nice saddle blanket and bows in its hair and maybe a party hat, too. What they don't realize is that in order to get the blanket and the bows, somebody decided to sell some of the pony's mane and some of its internal organs. In fact, some charter operators figured that the blanket would fit better if we replaced the pony with a large dog, or maybe an ungreased pig.
The public assumes that the pony is still there under the charter blanket, assuming that charters do certain things because of course that's what schools do. But you know what happens when you assume-- you make a bunch of charter operators rich.
The Unopen Door
Folks assume that, since charters repeatedly and loudly call themselves public schools, they must do what all public schools do-- accept any student who shows up at the door. You remember that place, the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in? In America that's home, but it's also public school.
Charters are more selective. From the day they aim marketing at Certain Types of Students, to the day that they deliver certain subtle messages (now that we've suspended you for the twelfth time, do you still want to stay here?) or not-so-subtle messages (you don't really fit our school culture), charters push and pull their way to the kind of student body that they want.
Charters have fought hard to keep secret their books, their inner workings, their salaries, and whatever bother dark hole they pour their money down. Eva Moskowitz famously took the state of New York to court to keep its grubby eyeballs off her charter chain's financial records. Some charter champions will argue vigorously that the money belongs to the students, and then to the charter, and so the taxpayers and their representatives have no business asking what rock the Benjamin are now stashed under.
It's really quite extraordinary-- try to think of any other enterprise in which taxpayers or their duly-elected representatives are not allowed to inquire what became of their tax dollars.
If you walk into a hospital, you assume that you are meeting doctors and nurses who are professionally trained and officially certified. When you walk into a school, you assume that it is filled with teachers who are professionally trained and officially certified. A building that is not filled with teachers is not a school.
It's true that sometimes public schools fail in this area, but the absence of a certified teacher in a classroom is usually cause for surprise, underlining the usual expectation.
Taking Care of the Kids
Parents and the public assume that there are certain universal standards for how children can be treated in school. There are rules, folks think, that nobody can break. Yet many charters feel free to impose whatever sorts of discipline and punishment they wish.
People think of schools as places of public service. Teachers learn this again every time they have to negotiate a contract, and the public lets them know that people expect teachers to do the work out of a sense of nobility and altruism. Folks would consider it shocking to offer teachers hugely lucrative contracts paid with tax dollars. Many charters add onto that idea by calling themselves "non-profit." But many, many, many folks in the charter biz are getting rich. Not that any charter operator is going to look a parent in the eye and say, "Don't forget-- every dollar I spend educating your kid is one less dollar I can put in my pocket."
Long Term Commitment
Public schools also carry an expectation of stability, history, long-term commitment. Schools anchor their communities in the same way that parks and public figures and buildings that have been on that corner there for half of forever. Public schools may close, but when they do it is a public, agonizing, contentious, gut-wrenching thing precisely because people have the expectation that Their School will always be there.
That stability covers what's inside the walls as well. Because it's the teachers that make it a school, people expect Their Teachers to be there a while, and the turnover from year to year is expected to be tiny. Certainly nobody expects to hear that Mr. McTeachalot was fired because he was too expensive, or stuck up for the wrong kid.
Every single story of some charter that goes belly up or whose operator shuffles off in the dark of night is accompanied by astonished parents uttering some version of, "They can't just do that. They're a school!" Public schools commit to stay open as long as they can serve the interests of the community, but charters commit to serving students for as long as it serves the interests of the charter operators. Even if they sign a contract, they may ask to be released sooner if things just aren't working out.
Parents assume that they are enrolling their child in a school for the length of the child's school career. Charters assume no such thing.
Charter marketers take advantage of the fact that when a parent hears the word "school," she makes certain assumptions about what will happen in that building. But the whole idea behind charters is that they can be free to throw the public school rulebook out the window. Hire and fire whoever for whatever reason. Impose whatever rules suit the operators.
Many of the pages of that school rulebook deserve discussion and consideration. It would not hurt us as a culture to have a conversation about what we think "school" should be, in part because charter operators find it advantageous to let their customer base assume that the charter meets the expectations for a school. So that's not a conversation we're having. Instead, charters become their own worst enemies every time they move someone to say, "Can they really do that? How can they do that??"