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Peter Greene: Why the Charter Movement is Declining

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The original idea on the Charter Movement was noble: Teachers would create them as part of their school or district; they would seek out the most vulnerable students, the ones who had dropped out or who slept through class. They would use their freedom from the usual rules to find new ways to educate the reluctant students.

That was Albert Shanker’s vision. He sold it to his members in 1988 and kept selling it until 1993, when he announced in his weekly paid column in the New York Times that charters were no different from vouchers. He declared that business was moving into the charter industry and using it to break teachers’ unions and destroy public schools. Too late. The movement went into high gear, and the sector turned into a.m. industry, with corporate chains and for-profits, relying on inexperienced teachers and cutting costs (teacher salaries).

But suddenly, the Charter Movement has stalled. New ones still open, and old ones close, for financial or academic reasons.

Peter Greene here assesses the report from the charter-friendly Center on Reinventing Public Education. Peter has a somewhat different take than the previous post by Steven Singer.

The bottom line is the same. The charter industry literally wants free space by closing public schools. They can’t hold on to teachers, not only because of low wages, but because of poor working conditions. The teachers they attract are not in education as a career but as a stepping stone.

And two other factors hobble the growth of charters. First, most don’t keep their promises; they are not better than public schools. Second, the public reads almost daily about charters that close in mid-year, Charter founders who were convicted of theft, charter leaders using public funds as an ATM.

Peter Greene writes about the report’s “Solutions”:

“CRPE wraps up the report with some proposed solutions to the problems listed above. These are…. well, these are solutions only if you decide that the interests of charter operators are the only interests that need to be served.

“Facility shortage? Make public districts hand over more publicly owned property to charter schools, change zoning laws, and get the legislature to underwrite the funding charters need to grab real estate. And create a commission to “coordinate” the handover of public facilities to private charter operators.

“Bad competition? Create some central planning authority to coordinate the expansion strategies of charters. How that translates into anything other than telling charters where they’re allowed to expand, and how THAT translates into anything other than charter operators saying, “No, I don’t want to” is not clear. CRPE acknowledges that no charters are saying, “Please give us less autonomy.”

“Staff? Do some recruiting. From wherever.

“Limited choices? Increase a diverse supply of operators. Man. Why is it that people whose whole argument is “Free market! Free Market!” do not understand how the free market works. The free market does not give you what you wish for– it gives you what it thinks it can make money giving you. It may be cool to think, “Wow! With 500 cable channels, we could have an arts channel and a stand-up comedy channel and a channel with nothing but music videos,” but the free market does not care what you think would be cool. Well, says CRPE, we could invest heavily in the more diverse models. Who would do that, and why?

“More data? CRPE thinks more data about the charter market is needed. Who would collect that, and why?

“Toxic local politics? Maybe charter operators could negotiate some sort of deal whereby they didn’t completely suck the financial life blood out of public schools (and the schools would hand over real estate just to, you know, be cool).. Maybe they could keep trying to pack local school boards. Maybe they could convince district leaders to “think of their jobs as overseeing a broad portfolio of options with various governance models” except of course some of the items in the portfolio they “oversee” would be completely outside of their control and would be hostile and damaging to the parts of their portfolio that they are actually, legally responsible. Honestly, most of these solutions boil down to “let’s wish real hard that public school people will just like us more because it’s inconvenient for us when they don’t.”

“Bottom line

“I’m happy to see the modern charter tide ebbing. And I’m not sad to see that folks like CRPE and the interviewees don’t really have a handle on why it’s happening. I agree that it doesn’t have to be this way, but it will be this way as long as modern charter boosters fail to acknowledge their major systemic issues, insist on inadequate funding in a zero-sum system, disenfranchise the public, underperform in educating students, and behave as businesses rather than schools. As I said above, time is not on their side, and neither is their inability to grasp the problems they create for public education in this country.”

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