Our Accidental Creation of a Charter School

French students work on the test of Philosophy as they take the baccalaureat exam (high school graduation exam) on June 18, 2
French students work on the test of Philosophy as they take the baccalaureat exam (high school graduation exam) on June 18, 2012 at the Pasteur high school in Strasbourg, eastern France. Some 703.059 candidates are registered for the 2012 session. The exam results will be announced on July 6, 2012. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/GettyImages)

Twenty years ago we set out with a mission to start a privately run public school that would provide a high-quality education for underserved students in one of New York City's most impoverished communities: South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was, in effect, a charter school before anyone knew what a charter school was. When we started our school, nothing like this had ever previously happened in New York. At the time, we knew very little about public education in New York City, except that many of the zoned schools -- especially those in poor neighborhoods -- were abysmal. We didn't realize it at the time, but what we started with our Beginning With Children School helped launch the national charter school movement.

In recent years, arguments about charter schools have become heated. The 2010 film Waiting for Superman was hailed as a way to get the public talking about education reform. But while it did show the trauma of the lottery required for charter schools, it also demonized the teachers' unions.

The hardline reformers argue that the union is serving the interests of its members and taking positions that do not serve children. The unions favor near-automatic lifetime tenure, oppose any accountability in determining teacher compensation, demand that "last in, first out" be the sole basis for layoffs, and insist on maintaining a lucrative, defined-benefit pension system that is not available to others in our society.

In the past few years, the reform movement has developed the skills and resources necessary to wage political war with the unions, and has raised public awareness of these issues. The critics of reform still insist that demography defines destiny, and that children of poverty cannot close the achievement gap without the aid of massive social programs. So what is the truth?

There are now more than 2 million students in charter schools. The movement has brought choice to millions of families to whom it had previously been denied, and they will not surrender that right no matter who is in power. The defenders of the status quo no longer hold a monopoly on education.

So where do things stand today? It is hard to write about history while it is still being made, but there are some conclusions that we think are likely to survive. On the positive side, issues are now on the table that were unthinkable as recently as five years ago. These issues were brought to the forefront largely thanks to the charter movement's success. Choice and its accompanying accountability are now a reality for many thousands of children and families who previously lived without hope. Automatic tenure, teacher evaluation, training, and compensation are now being discussed. The recession has brought the excesses of public employees' pensions to light, and this issue has finally become a legitimate subject for debate.

Today there are 7,000 families in New York City waiting for their children to attend charter schools, and the NAACP and the United Federation of Teachers want to fight against shared space in underutilized New York City public school buildings. These families just want to exercise their right as citizens to choose what they see as a preferable placement for their children. The lawsuit works against the futures of historically underserved children, in the name of what? Unless everyone remembers that, as educators, we serve children and their families, we will be robbing ourselves of an independent future. There is nothing so frightening to those in power as an educated, thinking population that's determined to act. These critical voters will emerge slowly and in small numbers unless they are spurred to action. The bureaucrats' fear, however conscious, of an organized emergence of such a population may well have been what doomed our community center a decade ago, and still stands in the way of properly educating our neediest children.

The reform movement is changing, too. Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, no longer constrained by their official positions in the school system, are taking a much more aggressive stance toward unions and legislators supporting the unions' position. They have been joined by a legion of new reform advocates, most of them from the financial community, who view this struggle as all-out war and are providing the financial resources to match the union effort. Eva Moskowitz, founder of the rapidly growing Success Academy Charter Schools and former chair of the New York City Council Education Committee, is aggressively organizing the parents in her schools and pushing the envelope on the role of charters. Whereas charters have heretofore primarily served children of poverty who had no choice, Eva has begun to open charters in middle-class neighborhoods that are also badly underserved by the current system. The unions, meanwhile, have vigorously opposed her efforts to gain shared space. With the 2013 mayoral election in New York City likely to produce a Democratic mayor supported by the teachers' union, education reform seems likely to join other major political disagreements in current U.S. politics, where the extremists dominate the debate and moderates have no forum.

The issues in reform now go beyond charter schools, which were primarily responsible for bringing them into the spotlight. One of our mentors, Deborah Meier, warned us when we were starting out that our work ran the risk of being a footnote in the history of education reform. In this case, we believe she was wrong. The charter movement we helped ignite will endure. Now that millions of children and families have experienced choice where there once was none, the clock will not be turned back to the days of the dead zone, when an excellent education was available only to the privileged few.

If the two sides now warring find common ground, American public education will be permanently changed for the better and be more about serving children and learning. If the current militancy continues, and the education system continues to favor the adults who work in it, an educated populace will not emerge, and our country will continue to slip internationally.