There are rarely simple solutions to complex issues. Students in my Leadership classes get used to hearing me say that we must look at problems “in context” and try to find some common ground.
The role that charter schools play in the Rochester City School District is one of those complex issues.
A recent article in Education Week (June 8, 2016) reported that charter schools started 25 years ago with the support of then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Albert Shanker. The intent was to give teachers a chance to create their own experimental schools under the umbrella of the school district.
The rift between the traditional schools and the charter movement was created some years later when court rulings allowed charter schools to become unbound by district rules and teacher contracts. Some of us in the field saw these changes as another iteration of “teacher bashing,” a practice that has occurred with regularity since the advent of schools. We also worried about the “industrialization” of education. Indeed I remember reading an article in a business journal years ago that advised people to get in on the ground floor of the education industry since oil, steel and textiles were not going to be as good an investment.
The foundations and institutes that moved into chartering schools made no apologies or excuses for doing away with unions. They believed that that schools could and should be run more like businesses with a bottom line measured mainly by student test scores. They correctly pointed out that over the past decade 2/3 of people nationally supported charters and that, in their view, school choice was a civil rights issue.
The Education Week article reported that charter school students represent about 5 percent of the 50 million K-12 public school students in the United States. Charters in 14 cities, including Detroit and Philadelphia, enroll 30 percent of the schoolchildren in the district. Nationally African American students make up 28 percent of charter school enrollments. Overall they make of 15 percent of the public school population.Thirty-five percent of all charter school students are white, while 50 percent of all public school students are white. The article goes on to say that Latinos do not attend charters at the same rate as African American perhaps because they often hit a language barrier.
None of these data surprise anyone. Indeed closing the achievement gap for African American students is a priority for many charter schools. In Rochester, charters almost exclusively serve children who would otherwise be attending the Rochester City School District. Many of the students are poor and black. Some of these schools are to be commended for their work.
But charter schools have contributed to the maintenance of racially segregated schools. Few charter founders have advocated for or designed schools with programs or curriculum that would attract a middle class population with the exception of Genesee Community Charter School (full disclosure—my kids attended prior to being accepted to School of the Arts).
But to counter that argument a school choice advocate offers a defense of all black urban charters by stating that segregation is when the state forces people of color into inferior circumstances. Black people choosing to stay with schools that have a lot of other black people in the city is not segregation. This is an important point. Given the choice between a struggling public school in a poor neighborhood and a charter, families often chose charters.
So where is the middle ground between recognizing that the best chance for poor non-white kids to achieve is in more integrated settings and the reality that for many city residents the charters provide a viable alternative even though they may perpetuate segregated schools?
Here are some ideas:
- Charters should allow teachers to sign a three- or five-year contract. This solves the problem of inept leaders firing teachers who disagree with them. It also addresses the charter agencies’ wish to do away with tenure. And while I disagree with eliminating tenure, this solution may be a “win-win” by offering some job security for teachers while incentivizing innovation, as was the original intent of charters. Teachers with job security will gain more ownership in the school and be more likely to stay for the 6 to 8 years it takes to start to master their craft.
- Charters should sign contracts with parents promising that they will not give up on a child and return him to the public school system because he did not fit into their system. Then we can stop resenting charters for wanting it both ways. Everyone knows that this happens and if charters agree then we can put to rest the tired argument of “creaming students” that has driven a wedge between the sides. But to do this the charters need more resources and professional development on working with Special Needs Children. And that must come from the existing district, which could include them. Could this be another win-win?
- Actively recruit and provide funding for existing charters to become magnet schools that develop unique programs and curriculums that attract an ethnically and socio-economically diverse We need both traditional schools and charters to innovate and design Technology, Health Care, Arts and Dual Language Schools that attract all socioeconomic classes and ethnicities.
- Expand “choice” programs to inner ring suburbs. The GS4A legislative group continues to work with our political leaders to allow poor students more options in more affluent school districts. That is real choice.
Racially and socio-economically diverse schools still provide the most powerful path for poor and non-white kids to graduate from high school and college and join the middle class.
This has been our mantra at Great Schools For All from the start. And we have to find common ground to make this a reality. Charters are part of the solution. Our public schools in Rochester are also part of the solution. And our Monroe County school district neighbors are part of the solution.
You may not agree with my views on what our schools could and should become. And that’s ok. But I hope that you agree that the education of 28,000 students in the RSCD and the urban charter schools are linked to the health of our city and region and that we can learn from each other.