In the last few weeks, I've been tagged once again as someone who will never support charter schools no matter what. This is not accurate, and School Choice Week seems like the perfect time to once again explain when I do, in fact, support charter schools (here I am talking about one that I think is just fine). These are the characteristics that need to be in place.
Virtually all of the major charter/choice systems set up in this country are founded on a huge lie-- that a community can run multiple school district with the same amount of money it used to spend on just one district. That is simply never going to be true.
Multiple, redundant school systems are financially inefficient. Of necessity, they increase the amount of total excess capacity that taxpayers are paying for. They duplicate pricey items like administrators, and they frequently remove resources from the public school without removing a matching level of cost. Opening charters financially destabilizes public schools.
Any honest attempt to open charters needs to be honest about the finances involved. There needs to be an honest discussion of how much more this will cost the taxpayers, whether that extra cost is to be made up by philanthropists supporting the charters or by the public school cutting programs. A really honest approach to opening charters would be to talk to the taxpayers and say, "We can have charters, but we will need to raise your taxes this much to do it. How many people want to go ahead with this?" And then live with the results.
If a charter can be honest about the finances involved, I can support that.
Many charter advocates have been very clear about their desire to replace voters public control of schools with private control. That's why we call it privatizing.
There is no reason that a charter needs to be controlled by a board of businessmen-- particularly one located far outside the community-- nor is there any reason for community assets to be owned privately. A charter should be controlled and owned by the taxpayers of the community in which it is located.
This also means the end of Charter Management Organizations. A charter is not locally owned and controlled if the local board turns around and hires a CMO to run the school for them-- we are once again sending decision-making power out of the community control. Not okay.
Charters have on numerous occasions gone to court to protect their right to keep their financial records secret. That's not okay. It is not okay to take a bunch of taxpayer money and, when asked what you actually did with it, reply, "None of your business." As with any public school district, a charter's budget and financials and other records should be available for review by any taxpayer and published in any newspapers.
Put an over way, charters should not have complete internal control over their own press. If the only things people know about the school are the things the school includes in its own press releases, that's a problem. Public schools exist in fish bowl. So should charters. There really isn't any good argument for why it should be otherwise.
Student and Teacher Rights
Students and teachers in charter schools should be protected by the same rules and regulations as folks in public schools.
This is a hard one. If a charter really is offering a unique approach to education (which, mostly, they aren't), it's conceivable that the student population attracted by that approach might not reflect the population of the community at large. But for the most part, the charter population should be consistent with the community. Not a 10% Black school population in a 50% Black community. Not a 1% students with special need population when the public school population is 10%.
The problem with this trait is that it's hard to provide oversight or regulation. Simply through its advertising, a charter can show which students can expect to "fit in." Charters can decline to provide certain programs, but it's still the parents' decision not to send their child to that school. And the hundred little bumps and nudges that can be exerted through school discipline and other levers to get a student to go away are sometimes hard to see and stop.
But we can still see the numbers, and when a school's numbers are out of whack with the surrounding community, that's a potential problem. If we're going to have school choice, then parents-- not the charter schools-- get to choose. Charters do not get the power to say no.
My charter support.
The funny thing about these requirements is that even though they all seem very contrary to current charter school practices, there's no reason in the world that a charter school can't be run under these rules. We've just been steadily fed a line that "charter" must mean "corporate edu-flavored private business." Some charter boosters would look at some of these items and say, "Well, we can't run a charter under those rules," and I would ask, "Why not? Why would any of these interfere with the idea of a school run with creative structuring and exemption from some of the traditional bureaucracy?"
Of course, even under my modest set of rules, charter schools are less efficient and more expensive than simply providing a top-quality public school in every community. It's always possible that the US could undergo a massive shift, and the public and their elected politicians would make education a Department of Defense style commitment to spare no expense in creating a rich, varied and bountiful education system. Until then, if we want to have charters and choice, this is how we should do it. Happy School Choice Week.