Thursday, December 8, 2011

Charters, Redux

(The opinions below are my own. I don't speak for the RSU 3 school board in any way.)

I have been accused of freaking out when I hear the word charter.

"It's just the word that upsets you," people have said. "If you call it something else, you wouldn't get so exercised."

If you called it something else, it wouldn't be a charter.

I gotta cop to it. I have a particular allergy to the word. For me, it's surrounded by some seriously bad juju.

When I first heard there were people who wanted to start a charter school in my district I felt a sort've numbing of my chest and a rush of blood from my head. "No, no! Not here!"

There was a moment when I tried to ignore my gut reaction, and consider the possibility that it might be a good thing as part of the whole advancement of my district. A simple alternative, making use of the talents of two dedicated individuals who love working with kids, helping them open doors.

But, as they say, you can put lipstick on a pig but it is still a pig. It's still making educational change for some, and not all, in a way that is not benign, given its impact on a local system.

There are still those who still see it as positive for students who need very badly to get out of the traditional model NOW and into a different way of doing education. They are right about the need, but the conclusion is wrong.

Let's look at three reasons why there might be a need for charters.

The first is the intransigent district. The school board that is averse to change, the superintendent that props up the status quo, the principal that coddles the high achievers. Routines that are entrenched and kids who are undervalued. Enter the charter as the only way to get around it.

Is RSU 3 really so special that we don't need to be "gotten around?" Compare us with other school boards who haven't even begun to try to figure out why we are failing to educate our kids. RSU 3 feels that urgency. I look around my school board and don't see one person who would rather save money than save a child. I may be overstepping my place, but I don't believe there is one agenda on that board other than helping kids.

We are not an intransigent district. Half the job of changing education is already done, with the hearts and minds of those governing the system.

The second reason for the existence of charters is that they give opportunities to test-drive new and innovative educational practices. They demonstrate what is possible. They are a proving-ground that can be duplicated..

But here's what happens when an independent and autonomous unit develops something special. When it starts up, it has nothing to fight against, no history, no changes to ask of people who have gotten used to doing things a certain way. It's a fresh start. It creates a culture of its own. It develops struggles and it overcomes; it starts to have a history and a future that is unique to its circumstances.

Every school choosing to knock over tradition has to do that! Every single one.

You can't just pass the lessons learned on to the next school. Don't we know by now that the best learning happens by doing? There are those of us who think that doing is the only means of truly learning (see John Dewey). You can show other schools that it can be done, but the process of developing a culture is as individual as the people involved.

Lessons previously learned are always helpful, but the lessons of a charter are very seldom applicable to a school in a larger system struggling against a long history of entrenchment. We will always have to start at the very beginning of a very tough job. We don't need to keep sending up test flights or practice at a simulator. Just start, because it's never going to be any easier than right now.

Consider the third reason for a charter: the protection that the charter itself provides. The charter guarantees that the structure and academic programs cannot be undermined or removed by vicissitudes of staff departures or school board churn. We can all think of great initiatives that we wished a superintendent hadn't eliminated, programs that died when its one enthusiastic teacher took a job in a different district.

It sounds good, but it actually sends shivers up my spine. After the educational apocalypse (I'm not entirely sure we're not already there, but anyway) do we really want little protected fallout shelters with special lucky kids inside getting a good education while outside kids are getting slammed?

I don't want to live in that world. It sounds repugnant. Even before the apocalypse, it's still revolting. Reassuring perhaps to the parents whose kids are in that school--and I don't make light of a parent's need to have that reassurance (being a bit of a mother lion myself)--is it good education policy for a school district whose responsibility is for thousands, not dozens?

They have their safe haven, but with money siphoned off from the district without any reduction of expenses, and administrative time dedicated to its oversight, it is a thorn in the side of the effort to make change that is felt by all kids.

Let's consider a possible fourth reason: the individual or group with a vision that doesn't have a home. I can be sympathetic, depending on the vision, but I wonder: if a school board is not the intransigent group described above, is it right for that group to be granted the right by legislation to overthrow the wishes of a locally-elected school board? Co-opt the per-pupil dollars the children they attract, crippling the district's ability to make change of its own? Does this have implications for public school as a democratic, egalitarian system?

I believe it does. I don't believe that taxes are the same thing as tuition, and should by right follow the child. We pay taxes in order to advance the whole community. The $6,000 follows the child to the charter, but the school district still has to be a democratic and egalitarian institution.

Charter groups in Maine can approach either a local school board for authorization, or the State Charter School Commission. The former is a drag for us because not only do we lose the money, but we create a whole new bureaucracy charged with fielding charter applications and monitoring the charters we authorize. The latter gives the charter the money but at least doesn't take the time of our Superintendent, who, as we all know, doesn't have enough to do around here.

Charter schools are an unnecessary right turn in a process that could have been direct, even if it is a bit bumpy. I have to consider the possibility that they exist to prevent the system itself from transforming; to make pretend-change. To latch onto a system and bleed it dry.

Charters are a problem. That's why I am against them. That's why I was dismayed to hear that we were being approached to authorize one.

But how do I answer those parents whose frustration drives them to the charter? If they are here in RSU 3, pay attention. We are trying to change, but we need help. We're in the beginning of a process of working with staff and community to create a common understanding of the problem and to work together toward a solution, and the school board will depend on the result of that process to tell us what we should do.

While that's going on, we're talking about where we can start to make changes now. What innovative programs can we begin now? How can we make an impact on disengaged high school students now?

We can ask these questions and make these decisions because we are the school board. It's already in our power to venture forward, create new programs that put students' needs first. A charter won't teach us anything new, or do anything it wasn't already in our power to accomplish.

And if you read that and roll your eyes, thinking, "Oh, great, another 'process,' another 'vision,' another excuse to talk instead of change," I agree with you. It's frustrating. But we're not a private school. We're not a charter. We're a public school system in a democratic society, dedicated to striving for quality education in an egalitarian system. This means we don't act in an autocratic fashion; if we're doing our jobs, we ask for input into what change is needed, or permission to change in a way that we see fit. We ask our community for continual involvement and our staff for cooperation and improvement.

I talk to people all the time who don't believe these changes will ever happen. It's not a matter of belief; it's simply up to us. It lives or dies on the energy of the community. If you don't help, it dies.

If it seems easier to start a charter, start a brand-spanking-new school with no baggage, that's because it's probably true. But in the end, do we get what we want, what we truly need, for all the students in our community?


  1. You make an excellent point that charter schools actually take the pressure off public schools to work and improve by neutralizing the most engaged parents. That's a huge problem. I can understand the appeal of the quick fix that a charter school could provide in states with massive overcrowding, but why Maine? We've had a shrinking student base for some time. I really don't get it.

  2. It only makes sense if you accept the premise that the charters offer, which is that innovation and charters are synonymous. I have to say, also, that even in an overcrowded situation, charters tend to promise a lot and deliver very little. Here in Maine we don't yet have a real big problem with private companies coming in to "save us all" but we will, I guarantee it.

    The whole thing is built on the assumption that you can't do anything in public schools. They primarily exist to get around teachers' unions, and if you accept that teacher incompetence and those high high salaries are the cause of the problem, then charters seem a real good fix.

  3. a lot of good points here, lisa. i agree with you.

  4. I would agree with most of what you said. I think its just like you talk about towards the end, most people get tired of waiting and want something now. Especially parents who have kids with years invested in the "old way" and only a few years left.

    There are some Charter Schools (even yes, the dreaded for-profit) that are wildly successful, as there are public schools that are. We need to do a better job at figuring out what those schools are doing right, and making sure everyone knows it. With that information out there, it would be incredibly difficult for any establishment to resist swift change. I also think this could serve to motivate that generation of teachers who claim to have "seen it all before" and advise that you "wait it out and this 'reform' will pass". That group is perhaps the most frustrating to me.

    I do see some hope for Charters in Maine. Take the example of what they are trying to do at Goodwill-Hinkley. Is there any chance of something that different getting done in a traditional school? I don't think so, and for the students whose present and future includes a life making a living from the land, it could be a game-changer.

  5. I would ask for specifics for charter schools that are "wildly successful." They could be out there, I'm not denying it, but they ALL claim that level of success, and when analysed, half of those claims prove false.

    If you see hope for Charters in Maine, I challenge you to make that hope real for all kids, not just the ones in charters.

    Charter schools make it OK to not change schools for all kids. That's not OK for me.