Charter Schools Today and Tomorrow
Charter Schools have come of age. With over 6000 currently serving well over two million school children nationwide, these schools have become fixtures on the educational landscape. While the schools remain controversial (charges of creaming, suspicions of hedge-fund investors, and accusations of union-busting), both critics and supporters have been re-thinking their visions for the future. Faced with two facts – that the sector includes many high-flying schools that truly transform the lives of thousands of underprivileged children and that the same charter school structures enable a large number of mediocre (or worse) schools, those on both sides of the debate are revisiting their approach. The critics point to practices such as the refusal to accept students outside of the original cohort (regular public schools must do so at any time, of course). Defenders cite changes that are (slowly) increasing the population of special needs and English Language Learners. Questions are now raised about the responsibility of charter schools to serve as true neighborhood schools. In short: Charter schools are here to stay. Now the challenge is to scale their best practices, and to ask tough questions about their role in democratic education.
Let’s press on these issues: If a charter school is not illegitimately “counseling” harder-to-teach students out of its school, should we still demand that the school accept new students to make up its full quotas after the first year? Clearly, it will be a special challenge to bring such students into the culture of the school, and, if necessary, up to the academic standards of their peers. But this is the mandate of a public school system, and defenders of charter schools remind us that these are public schools. Second, should charter schools be required to serve as sites of ethnic and racial integration (presumably with structured lotteries that would create pre-determined percentages of different populations)? This is a tougher question: Do we really want to insist that charter schools that produce outstanding academic results for heavily minority populations restrict entry to those populations so as to offer education to a wider social strata?
What about performance? On the new NYS Common-Core aligned tests, which are demonstrably tougher than those they replace, many charter schools that had previously recorded very strong results looked mediocre. Critics understandably cried foul – were the previous results the consequence of massive test-prep and not real learning? Time will tell: perhaps the sector will respond powerfully by showing that it can re-tool both curricula offerings and teaching practices so as to demonstrate high performance on tests that (may) be harder to prep for. If so, we should all be watching to learn from those schools that did so most successfully.
But there are still deeper questions. Charter schools are schools of choice. Why stop there? Tax credits, vouchers, or changes in the law that would enable public funding to go to schools willing to hold themselves accountable through state testing and other measures are each policies that are selectively in place or the subject of political and academic debate. Is the vision that of a vast “normal” public school sector with a few alternatives such as charter schools, or that of a very different future where parental choice, backed by public dollars, is constrained only by public transparency? The long-term future of charter schools, I imagine, will be inseparable from our collective answers to these questions.
David Steiner is the Klara and Larry Silverstein Dean of the School of Education at Hunter College.