As the campaigns for mayor of New York and governor of New Jersey enter the home stretch, few issues draw more heated rhetoric. To hear the candidates and advocates speak, you would think that charters are either the savior of urban school systems or the seeds of demise of the public school system. The truth of course is in between and a real analysis of the role of Charters should be a focus of the administration of whomever wins on November 5.
To their advocates, charter schools are the true agents of school reform. If charters are not allowed carte blanche, they argue chaos will return and school systems will fall apart. Unimpeded charter school expansion is a good thing, event if it is rent-free in existing school buildings at the expense of currently operating schools.
To their opponents, charter schools are no less than the privatization of public education. With their wealthy backers, charters take needed funds away from public schools as well as vital space. They can reflect the ideology and interests of their operators and not necessarily what is best for the school system. Many charters fail so should be watched, managed and regulated.
Charter schools came about to fill a need. There is no doubt that the traditional public school system was failing certain communities. Students in those communities have not had the educational options that can help them turn their lives around. The freedom and independence given charter schools allow them to provide innovative solutions to these educational problems. When they work, charter schools provide the education children in these communities need to improve their future and escape a cycle of poverty. I have seen this with the children of the school I am on the board of in the South Bronx. These kids from one of the poorest and worst performing districts in New York City are getting outstanding grades and some of the best test scores in the city. College is set as a goal beginning in kindergarten and these students are on their way there.
It took six successful years for our school to finally expand to a second location. Some charters on the other hand put as much emphasis on organizational growth as the students. Back by wealthy business executives they are constantly looking for growth opportunities. They see themselves as the answer to all educational problems and have constant strategy of expansionism. The Bloomberg administration has given organizations like the Success Network an open door to free space in school buildings with no or little community input. The Network has expanded to high performing school districts like the Upper West Side, where charters may not be needed.
While the Success schools have had good results the president makes more than the Chancellor and Mayor Bloomberg recently allowed them to increase their administrative costs.
So should a group like Success, with obvious financial resources, have to pay some rent for using public school buildings? That is the question currently dividing the mayoral campaign in New York. However if you listen to the charter school advocates, you would think it was a referendum on charters themselves. They have mobilized crowds of students and parents with who strike up the note of fear that their very existence may be imperiled. Never mind that Bill DeBlasio's proposal will institute charge rents on a sliding scale so only those that can afford it will pay it. They claim they are schools like any other so shouldn't be have to pay rent when they are also nonprofits that are getting a public subsidy of free rent. The rhetoric has heated up in mode of a political campaign as the charters do not want to lose this public benefit.
By proposing the rent charges DeBlasio is being painted as an enemy of education reform. This of course is not the truth, but for the charters who have been embedded in the Bloomberg administration having a mayor that would question their actions is untenable. The rhetoric is just as heated on the other side as you hear people say those in favor of charters are in favor of privatizing education and against public education. This is an argument that could be used for those favoring school vouchers, but encouraging innovators to create good public schools and help kids in underserved communities get a good education is not privatizing public education.
One cause of the problem is that charters do see themselves as separate from the regular public schools, not as part of the system. With their own advocacy groups and different rules of operation you can't blame them for thinking so. However if they were better integrated into the system and the lessons of their success shared with the other schools perhaps the distrust would lessen and the rhetoric would soften. This would be putting students first and promoting the idea of one school system, not two separate ones. However there has not been any significant effort to do this. Two sides remain divided and students are stuck in the middle.
To get beyond the rhetoric, it needs to be universally accepted that charters have a useful role in the school system. The innovation and the good things they do should be celebrated. However they cannot have carte blanche to get whatever they want out of the system. The evangelistic fervor that paints them as the savior of the pubic education system and those that raise questions as the enemies of reform must be tempered. After all, many charter schools fail and are closed. As charter schools become more successful certain things, like rent, may be asked of them. It needs to be remembered that students come first, not the health of an organization. Finally, for charters to serve a greater purpose, the wall that separates them from the rest of the school system must come down. What charters do well needs to be shared with other schools so that whole communities can be served. This is an agenda the mayor of New York and governor of New Jersey would do well to follow.