Opinion

Williams: Two Big Charter School Truths Lost in ‘Shoddy Discourse’ Over Lifting Massachusetts Cap

By Conor Williams | November 6, 2016

Take a breath. There is just one day left in the 2016 electoral cycle. This year, cynical campaign fatigue makes more sense than ever before. It has been an ugly year, because birther, ethno-nationalist majorities in the GOP have finally found a Republican presidential nominee willing to carry their revanchist flag.
Whee.
Of course, with so much horrifying sexism, xenophobia, and garden-variety hatred to cover, education has gotten even less discussion than the little we expected. Within that tiny sliver, however, charter schools have grabbed a disproportionate share of the attention.
In 2016, the Clinton campaign has criticized (and then pivoted on) these schools, New York City has seen a series of protests on their behalf, Chicago has agreed with its teachers union to stop opening them, the NAACP has called for a national moratorium on their growth, and Secretary of Education John King recently weighed in against what he called arbitrary caps on high-performing charters.
Speaking of which, and perhaps most consequential, Massachusetts voters will decide Tuesday whether or not to allow more charters to open in their state.
That’s a lot of noise for schools that enroll just 5 percent of U.S. students. Sadly, most of that noise has contributed, well, more decibels than depth of understanding. As someone who wants to see the percentage of charter school students increase, I’ve gotten weary of the shoddy state of charter discourse. From “[public] charters undermine public [neighborhood] schools” to “charters are education’s magic sauce” to whatever.
The rhetoric has far outrun the reality.
So listen up, Massachusetts voters (and anyone else). I’m going to try to explain two Big, Unique Things that make charter schools singular and worthy of expansion.
First, some background on my background. I’m a father of two charter school students. I’m a former charter school teacher. And I’m currently consulting with D.C.’s charter schools board to develop new resources for helping support English-language learners. Across all those experiences, I’ve determined that there are two big things that set charters apart.
Here’s the first Big, Unique Thing: charters are usually “open enrollment” schools. That is, they assign students randomly, rather than according to their home addresses. That’s a key mechanism to empower families who cannot afford to purchase housing guaranteeing access to strong neighborhood schools.
This can be tough for privileged parents to understand. Their wealth can serve as a blinder. They’re accustomed to thinking of schools and neighborhoods in the same breath, and their ability to pull up stakes and move if the school isn’t working out prevents them from seeing those enrollment boundaries as barriers.
I’ve watched my wealthy D.C. neighbors squirm when talking about charters’ egalitarian enrollment policies. I’m told that they “undermine neighborhood communities” by allowing kids from one part of town to attend school in another. Then they often offer a variant on this bromide: “Why don’t we just make all schools good?”
Which reminds me of a brilliant line from urban writer Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Neighborhood is a word that has come to sound like a Valentine … Sentimentality plays with sweet intentions in place of good sense.” There’s nothing wrong with neighborhood schools as a principle, but there’s a lot wrong with how they support segregated privilege in practice.
Even better, this dynamic — empowering underserved, underprivileged families to find a working school if the one assigned them by real estate markets is inadequate — contains the seeds of another charter advantage. A system with a significant number of open enrollment charter schools gives families substantive options. D.C. charter schools run the gamut from a Hebrew immersion program to a special needs inclusion school to an eco-focused, expeditionary, Spanish-immersion campus and beyond.
This allows families to pick a school that they believe will meet their children’s unique needs. That’s a big difference from the long-standing U.S. tradition of expecting low-income families to adapt to the curricular, instructional and cultural choices of the school assigned to their neighborhood — and it brings me to the second Big, Unique Thing that charters do well.
Here it is: Charter schools have considerable autonomy to design schools that make sense. These schools generally have wide latitude over how they spend their resources, staff their schools and organize their academic calendar. This is why there is no single representative charter school. Each campus has the space to design a coherent school model.
This empowers educators to dream big — and to follow through on those dreams. In some communities, this means designing a diverse, multicultural, project-based approach to learning. In others, it means building the school’s model and budget around high teacher salaries or around technology that aims to help teachers personalize instruction to meet each student’s individual needs or a rigorous school-turnaround model with unionized staff. But in all cases, charter autonomy gives educators the chance to align most parts of their model — resources, pedagogy, staffing and more — with their school’s core mission.
This isn’t the norm in U.S. public education. Most educators and administrators in traditional school districts have limited freedom to design — let alone redesign — how their schools work. (Princess Williams is a Newark, N.J., educator featured in The Prize, who tried to turn around a failing district school only to have her efforts rebuffed.)
Here’s an example: a hard-charging elementary school principal trying to convert her struggling school from an English as a Second Language (ESL) model to a two-way, Spanish-English dual immersion program. First, she petitions her district for flexibility to purchase new multilingual curricula, only to run into bureaucratic pushback from a central office leery of complicating its standard educational model.
No matter, she thinks, I can translate and adapt some course materials myself. She then starts working to find multilingual teachers who can deliver Spanish-language instruction. Not only are these folks hard to find, but she learns that her district’s teacher contract prohibits her from offering them a salary bonus to come to her school. She decides to settle: She’ll roll out the new dual immersion program one classroom at a time, starting with second grade. This isn’t what the research says to do, she thinks with a sigh, but it’s a start!
So our hero plugs away for three years, spends all of her nights, weekends, summers and calories building her dream, and just as her school is halfway toward that vision, she gets an email from the central office. “Attention,” it reads. “Starting next month, all district schools must have one full-time ESL teacher for every 10 English-language learners enrolled at that campus.”
Never mind that her school is supporting her ELLs in Spanish (precisely what the research suggests is best for them); never mind that these new ESL teachers will eat up her limited budget flexibility. District rules are like rain: Helpful or not, they fall on every schoolhouse equally.
It’s enough to drive a dreamer to start her own charter school.
So that’s the deal. That’s the promise of charter schools. Let me close with a bit of real talk: a Big, Honest Caveat, if you will. Call it the #NotAllCharters Rule. Although charters are set up with these two advantages, that’s no guarantee that they’ll always work. The policies we set influence whether or not charters’ Big, Unique Things actually work well for kids.
For instance, big school model dreams are all well and good in their own right, but they still need to be judged on whether they’re driving demonstrable learning for all kids. And there’s no question that different states — and towns — have set up systems of variable quality for holding charter schools accountable.
In the absence of strong accountability, wild instructional experimentation is exceedingly risky, especially where underserved kids are concerned. Fortunately, that’s not the case in Massachusetts, where strong oversight and accountability mechanisms are driving strong charter performance.
And oh, here’s another example of that caveat: Underserved families don’t get nearly the same benefit of choosing a school that makes sense for their children when demand for charter schools far outstrips supply. In that case, families may want to send their kids to a school with a model that seems just right but often wind up on long waiting lists.
(The 74: ‘It’s Heartbreaking’: Boston Parents Ask Why Their Wealthy Neighbors Are Fighting Charter Schools)
And hey, look! In Massachusetts, there are tens of thousands of kids on just those sorts of lists. If only there were a simple policy reform that would solve that problem
The views expressed here are Conor Williams’s alone.
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