Friday, January 23, 2015

More Hard Charter Lessons

News comes from Indianapolis this week that two of the older charters in town are being shut down. Fall Creek Academy and University Heights Preparatory Academy are going to that Big Chalkboard in the sky.

Fall Creek actually goes back to the days when then-Mayor Bart Peterson could whip up charters at will thanks to a magic mayoral empowerment law that Indiana passed just for his city (Peterson has since moved on to making money more directly in the charter biz). After a strong start, the school fell on less stellar times, and when the city pulled the charter, they turned to Ball State University. It's Ball State that has now shown them the door "due to chronic underperformance"

I don't know much more about these charters; I don't know if they're the victims of gross injustice or incompetents long overdue for being closed down. That's not what I noticed about the story. What I noticed was the headline:

ANGER BUILDS! Over Closing of Fall Creek & University Heights Charters. Why Won’t Ball State Explain; Respond?

The article also contains this sentence:

Parents wanted to know why and were stunned to hear that officials from Ball State weren’t prepared to personally answer their concerns.

I want to feel bad for these parents. I really do. But it's like trying to feel bad for people who smoke cigarettes for the health benefits and then are shocked and upset when they get cancer. It's like people who buy a long-haired dog and are upset that there's fur on the furniture. It's like people who hit themselves in the head with a hammer and complain about the headache.

Here are two things for charter school customers to remember, so they can avoid being shocked, stunned, angry or otherwise surprised in the future.

Charters are not run by elected school boards. They do not have to answer to the voters. They do not have to answer to the customers. They do not have to explain anything, and in some cases have gone to court to fight for their right to be just as non-transparent as they want to be. They are a business, and they don't have to show you their decision making process any more than McDonald's has to show you the recipe for their special sauce.

Charters can close at any time for any reason. People seem to automatically associate the idea of a school with the idea of permanence. That's incorrect. Public schools are permanent. Charter schools are not. Public schools represent a community commitment to provide schooling as long as it's needed. Charter schools represent a business decision to operate as long as it makes sense. Enrolling your child in a charter is making a bet that the school will be in business as long as you want to send your child to it. If you lose the bet, you have to know that losing was always a possibility when you made the bet in the first place.

Considering a charter? Do your homework and understand the risks that come with choosing a charter. Pro tip: "doing your homework" does not mean "listening to charter sales pitch and nothing else." That's like getting info about the car you want to buy only from the salesman trying to sell it to you.

I believe it's possible to find charters that do a pretty okay job out there, but any charter comes with certainly fundamental differences from public school, and some come with differences that can be shocking or stunning if you haven't been paying attention. Bottom line? Charter schools are not created to be just like public schools-- and they aren't. If you're going to understand anything about putting your child in a charter, that's the bare minimum that you need to grasp.

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