Fighting Over Space: Charters vs. Public Schools

| July 7, 2011

This past May the NAACP brought suit against the New York City Department of Education claiming that charter schools are disenfranchising public schools and the children who attend them. Some of the reasons for the suit are included in an official statement from the NAACP:

New York schools have increasingly co-located charter schools inside existing public schools as a cost cutting measure. Handled improperly, co-locations can lead to disparities, division and tension among students, which can impede learning.

In many instances, traditional students are forced into shorter playground periods than their charter school counterparts, or served lunch at 10 am so that charter students can eat at noon. The inequity could not be more glaring. And similar proposals are being considered in other states and counties nationwide.

In response to this statement, Lynette Holloway, a contributor to The Root at WNYC, adds, “[co-location of charter schools] is now crowding out the public school system it was meant to supplement, creating a two-tiered system that leaves children in more traditional settings with fewer resources and options.”  Reading the statement from the NAACP that led to the suit and Holloway’s response got me thinking: “What is the real difference between charter and public schools?”

Here’s what I know about charter schools: they are meant to provide a more creative approach to educating children. On the surface this seems like a fine idea. In the best case scenario, this creativity can be seen as a teacher taking a different route to help children learn material. In the worst it can mean how teachers are employed, the expectations they must fulfill and how their rights are strangled by administrators.

Throughout my research to understand the big differences between charter schools and regular public schools, the one trait I noticed that seems to be popular among school reformers is the idea that charter schools are non-instrumentalities. This means that they are not subject to state’s labor rules and  their teachers lack collective bargaining rights, can be let go at the whim of the principal or the school board and are required to perform to higher standards than traditional public schools. As a result, many charter schools do indeed have a high turnover rate, because not only is there a lot of pressure to produce results, but there are few, if any, job protections for teachers.

Why would a job with less protections be attractive? I think that for young teachers – especially those new to the field – any job is attractive. Plus, charter schools get a lot of buzz. Obama and Arne Duncan both think charter schools are sexy. Who doesn’t want to be a sexy young teacher in a sexy school? After which you can move on in two years, flex your sexy resume and get a sexy administrator job in another sexy charter school. Also, charter schools do not have the same hiring and budget constraints as traditional schools, so they can hire more sexy new teachers than other schools. (Note: author is slightly biased against charter schools.)

Hmmm. Those don’t seem like the best reasons for teachers to get involved with charter schools…but what about students?  This past March the Los Angeles Board of Education closed six Crescendo charter schools which were accused of cheating to boost students test scores.  On July 7, 2011, Detroit charter schools were found to under-perform the traditional public schools in the same area on all standardized tests but social studies. Also, on July 5, 2011, it was revealed that the school district of Atlanta, Georgia was found to take part in district-wide cheating to improve test scores. Its like a party and all the charters were invited! And then heavily fined. Or given newer, better jobs!

Who benefits from this cheating? Certainly not the children; in some of these cases the students didn’t even know that their tests were altered. And if they move on to another grade, these unknowing students will be at a disadvantage. Do the teachers and administrators benefit? If they do, its probably not for long. Who knows how long an accusation of being a cheating teacher or administrator could follow someone throughout their career? (Ooops! Forgot about Michelle Rhee.) I doubt that cheating was the intended result when charter schools were born. Sigh.

Have you heard of Campbell’s Law? Donald Campbell was a social psychologist who worked with theories of motivation and found that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Basically, the more pressure you put on people to produce numbers-based successes, the more likely they are to do something stupid to achieve a means to an end.

Charter schools rely on numbers for continued funding. I wonder if Campbell’s Law was present when Los Angeles, Atlanta and Detroit’s schools – and Michelle Rhee – all decided that adjusting their students’ test answers could be a good idea.

Let’s get back to the matter at hand: New York City’s Department of Education seems to prefer charter schools. New York – and Mayor Bloomberg – are especially numbers-driven. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but when public schools were first created, they were there to help children learn the things they would need to function in broader society. Back in the day, knowing how to read, even if you worked on a farm, was a great skill set. Today, knowing how to take a test in three hours does not really provide you with the skill sets you need to perform in most work places or communities.

For instance, I have only taken four major standardized tests in my lifetime. I am not a test taker and I did poorly on all of them. Yet, I am a graduate student who can read complicated books and journal articles, synthesize information into a workable paper and aim to teach children in my own classroom some day. Without a doubt, I can state that standardized tests did not prepare me for this. Caring teachers who took the time to ensure that I learned the right skills to be a good reader and writer and an observant, inquisitive student prepared me for this.

Ultimately, I can understand the NAACP’s beef with charter schools, because when you think long and hard about their purpose, it seems like they are just a distraction to real school reform. If schools are to be places where ALL children can get a quality education, then we need true reforms across the board so that schools in every district – no matter the socio-economic differences or community agendas – all get the same benefits.