Teachers College Forum: “A Smarter Charter”
By Emilie Schwarz
What is a smarter charter? Recently, Teachers College of Columbia University hosted a panel discussion centering around the new book, “A Smarter Charter,” co-authored by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter. The discussion, mediated by PBS’ John Merrow, immediately tackled the issue from its roots with Albert Shanker in 1988. Kahlenberg and Potter relayed some major shifts in the charter school movement from its origins to the present date, noting that many of the current charter schools are not fulfilling Shanker’s original mission. According to Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of a biography on Albert Shanker, the charter school movement was “largely co-opted by a different set of people with a different agenda” and by the end of Shanker’s life, he claimed to disapprove of most charter schools, given that they were competing, rather than cooperating, with traditional public schools, which was opposed to his original aim.
One of problems lies in the current research conducted on this topic. Potter stated that many of the growing number of successful charter schools - success measured in terms of the schools’ accordance with the original charter school model - do not make it to the public’s attention. The authors agreed that in accompaniment with the shift in the “reality” of the charter schools was a shift in the media coverage and subsequent public conception of what a charter school is.
To this end, both authors felt a “sense of urgency” in writing this book, in an attempt to have charter schools “recapture the original mantel” that sought to provide teachers with aid and freedom of lesson planning that Shanker originally hoped would be the case.
According to panelist Luis Huerta, Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy at Teachers College, “the movement has been taken over - co-opted - by mostly management organizations [and these are] the antithesis of some of what the earlier goals were.” Today, around one half of charter schools are operated by either non-profit or for-profit management organizations.
Additionally, Huerta notes that a big problem occurring for earlier charter schools was the metric used to assess their progress. He stated that when these schools reached their 5-year mark, the boards only had one very traditional method to evaluate them - “a rule-following means of accountability” - and this metric was not aligned with the progressive, “buck the system” environment that these earlier charter schools had adopted. Thus, when it came time to recharter, Huerta notes that many of these schools transformed themselves to appear more customary, which is why most charter schools today appear very much like normal traditional schools
Another deviation from the original Shanker model centers on teachers’ unions. Leo Casey, now director of the Albert Shanker Institute and a former teacher for 15 years, claims that among the last 20 years, there has been a growing hostility towards teacher unions in the charter movement. Kahlenberg noted Shanker intended for charter schools to be unionized, because he believed that this would provide teachers with a layer of protection that would give them the freedom to experiment in a way that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. However, apparently only 12 percent of charter schools in the U.S. today are unionized.
Finally, another notable point in the charter school movement is that of the high rate of teacher turnover. According to the panelists, turnover rates at charter schools are about twice as high as those seen at traditional public schools. Potter, a former teacher in a public charter school, attributes some of this to the fact that many charter schools teachers work longer hours and earn less pay than those at traditional public institutions. Casey adds that “[teachers] burn out when they’re working hard and don’t feel very effective.”
At the end of the hour-and-a-half, attendees from all over New York City clustered around the microphones to question the distinguished panelists on current issues in the charter school movement. The sheer number of participants eager to ask questions of the four panelists serve to prove the interest in the charter school movement, and sparks hope that this book will assist in providing the changes that the authors sought to address. Merrow asked panelists to provide concluding remarks, which promoted Casey to note that education, by virtue of being a public good, uses public funding and thus, “has to be transparent, [and] has to be integrated, economically and racially.” Kahlenberg encourages everyone getting involved in education to bring back the notion of democracy, and charter schools offer the platform for this. #