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Charter Schools – The Solution to Failing Public Schools?

According the the California Charter Schools Association, there are close to 750 charter schools serving over 250,000 students in California alone. The number of charters has grown by about 50 per year over the past 10 years. Claims of superior student achievement, more funds plowed into classroom resources, and higher levels of parent satisfaction easily explain the growth. Legislators, governors, philanthropists, and both President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama see charters as the solution to massive educational malaise in this country. But if the charter school movement takes hold, it will dismantle public education as we know it.

What is a Charter School?
Simply stated, a charter is an application to a state to create and manage an alternative school. If the charter is granted, the school is given state moneys to operate, and it must demonstrate accountability in finances, management, and student learning in order to retain its charter. Although a charter school is held to certain legal standards that apply to all public schools, it can be unique in its educational philosophy or management strategies.

History
The charter school began with the idea of simplifying the district’s organizational structure to a relationship between teachers of a school and their local school board. Ray Budde’s idea was lifted into public discussion in 1986 when Albert Shanker, then head of the AFT, mentioned it in a speech at the National Press Club. Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991. Similar laws have been adopted in 40 states, which permit charters to pursue outside funding, but are restricted from charging tuition or hand-picking students. Unencumbered by local district requirements, charter holders claim they can employ best management practices to improve student outcomes. The results have been mixed.

Under No Child Left Behind, all schools face the challenge of meeting yearly targets. In California, for example, the API (Academic Performance Index) rates each school by averaging student scores on annual standardized tests (STAR) and the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). API scores range between 200 and 1000; the statewide target is 800. The STAR determines whether students are proficient or advanced in each of the major content areas. All 50 states have implemented similar accountability measures.

Mixed Results
Out of the 110 high schools listed on the California Department of Education API list of schools, eight of them scored above 800. Four of those are magnet schools, and four of them are charter schools. There are many charter schools with APIs below 500, as there are many traditional schools. There is no clear predictor of success, be it charter or school size, although magnet schools do have a higher success rate than schools in other categories.

Analysis
Charter schools are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, income level, or academic level with regard to admission. Charter schools with more applicants than space use a lottery system, much like magnet schools do, to provide equal opportunity for admission. Charters, like traditional and magnet schools, require that all teachers be credentialed in the subject they teach.

Although Charter schools may not discriminate, in fact, charter students have the advantage of parents who are able to meet the 35-hour volunteer requirement, and who advocate for them in other ways. Charters can and generally do cap class sizes at lower levels than traditional schools. Charters generally benefit from mass infusions of capital from philanthropists which afford such luxuries as a computer for every student. Charters are increasingly being run by CMOs–Charter Management Organizations–that specialize in efficiency and economy.

How Charters Affect Traditional Public Schools
Charters cite higher test scores and better graduation rates, but this can be attributed to several factors: higher levels of motivation in both students and parents, smaller class sizes, more resources for students, and state of the art management practices employed by CMOs. For each student leaving traditional public school, the money allocated by the state follows them to their destination.

Charter school teachers’ pay may be competitive with local district teachers’ pay, but their benefits lag behind those protected by the local district. As more non-union charters spring up, hiring generally younger teachers, the unions’ bargaining powers are weakened, and gradually those hard-won health care and retirement benefits are eroded.

Conclusions
The past 20 years public institutions have seen a trend in privatization of public institutions, such as prisons, hospitals and even military operations, often with mixed results. Public education has been viewed as a democratic ideal that promotes liberty and justice, equal opportunity for all. Before we allow it to be dismantled, we should carefully consider the consequences. When the public drains public schools by bringing their energies to private and charter schools, resourcefulness is required to reinvent those abandoned students and crumbling school sites.

Guiding Principles of My Professional Life As a School District Superintendent

The things that guide my professional life as a superintendent are: competence, commitment, collaboration, and compassion. Competence starts with having very high academic and professional growth and development standards. I do believe a superintendent, who is the lead instructional leader for a school district, cannot do an effective job without attaining high standards of excellence personally. This means engaging in the practice of being a life-long learner, and always looking for ways to do things better through education, training, professional writing, and interaction with leading experts. Holding a Ph.D. from Northwestern, regularly contributing to the field of education through journal publications (particularly in the areas of technology and program development for at-risk students), and serving on various local, state, and national boards has bolstered my efforts at pursuing academic excellence. Competence also means the ability to do research properly, gather and critically analyze information, and seek advice from others when needed. Knowing what you don’t know is a key element of competence because it moves a person in the direction of finding a way to do what’s best for students.

Commitment involves having the energy and willingness to get things done and believing that you can make a difference, overcome political and economic obstacles in doing what’s right for students, and have the confidence necessary to take action. I never ask a subordinate of mine to do anything that I would be unwilling to do myself, but I will hold people accountable when their level of professional commitment to their job does not at least approximate my own. I am continually alert to the opportunities to improve school district operations, and if opportunities don’t readily present themselves, I create them. I’m always looking for the next best way to accomplish various operational, personnel management, and student services tasks, but I do so by inspiring others to join me in this effort. This brings me to the next guiding principle I practice in my professional life: collaboration.

I have found that collaboration with others is only effective when you give others most of the credit when things go well, while assuming most of the blame when they don’t. I continually check myself to ensure that my words are consistent with my actions and that I do not use my own pedagogical values and beliefs as a shield against being flexible with others. In building a collaborative culture around teaching and learning, I insist on creating an environment where ideas and input are encouraged from all levels of the school system, including teachers and support staff, parents, and the community at large. Collaboration also means possessing the communication skills necessary to motivate a vast array of people towards a common purpose, that of educating children. I’ve been very successful in moving diverse groups of people towards this common purpose by demonstrating that I am a person of strong character, and that I possess the drive, energy, determination, self-discipline, and nerve to facilitate the development of a shared vision for school operations.

Finally, compassion is the most important element that guides my professional life. The opening sentences of an article I published in The School Administrator Journal (April 2006) on dealing with at-risk students clearly states my position as a compassionate superintendent: “The primary responsibility of all school administrators is to protect students against failure. If you live by this credo, your leadership will challenge the assumption that certain students are destined to experience learning problems based on their school history, and cultural background. Experienced teachers and administrators have the tendency to accept the fact that certain children will fall through the cracks and there is nothing that can be done about it. Of course, this isn’t true.” I go on to state in this article that effective school administrators focus their attention on removing obstacles to learning for both groups of students and individual students through a systematic approach to identifying and addressing the needs of students at-risk.

Having come from a school social work background, and serving as director of special education services in schools for behavior disordered students for sixteen years, I believe my compassion for the life circumstances of students, and an understanding of the various learning obstacles that can arise as a result of these circumstance, have helped guide my ability to successfully intervene in instances where failure seems inevitable. Taking a stance that there are no throwaway kids and developing a deeply-rooted philosophy around serving students and their families, has helped me to explore the true meaning of compassion on a day-to-day experiential level. I will, and I expect my staff, to walk through fire to assist a student in need.