This weekend, I went to the Boston-area Educators for Social Justice conference. Hopefully this is not a surprise to any of my readers; I’m openly passionate about social justice issues, and this is my tenth year teaching at Innovation Academy Charter School. The theme of the conference was “Educate to Liberate: Getting the Schools We Deserve” and I was psyched to dive into this topic. Then I arrived and I was confronted with a big display from a group called Citizens for Public Schools. In addition to literature opposing high stakes testing, they also had lots of anti-charter school signs and buttons.
To be honest, I laughed at first. How can an organization that’s all about public schools oppose charter schools, which are public? However, when I commented on this to the three Boston Public School teachers I had been chatting with, I was surprised to see that they seemed confused. They asked, “How are charter schools public?”
I felt like we were speaking different languages, but I explained that charter schools are tuition-free and paid for with tax money, making them 100% public. One of the women scoffed at my answer, saying that if my school was not accessible to all students, due to the lottery and lack of busing, then it was not “morally public.” With that comment, she turned and walked away, leaving me standing there silent, confused, and wondering if I would fit in at this event. Should I have rushed out of school on a Friday afternoon only to drive an hour and a half to be in a space where well-meaning educators are passionately espousing anti-charter sentiments?
I considered not returning the next day, but instead, I went back wearing my own button, shown to the right. I prepared (in my mind but even more so in my heart) to truly listen, engage in real dialogue, and learn. I wanted to figure out if it’s possible to be pro-charter and pro-social justice. And I wanted to dispel some myths and understand “the other side.” Ok, and secretly, I questioned whether working at a charter school was putting me on the side of evil.
After a lot of conversation and reflection, I saw that all of us “educators for social justice” can agree that students should have access to quality schools regardless of where they live, their socio-economic background, race, or other factors. In addition, I began to better understand the fears that pit people against charters:
Fear #1: Do charter schools take money from existing public schools?
Education funding is messy at all levels – federal, state, and local. To complicate matters, charter school laws vary from state to state, confusing the national conversation immensely. In Massachusetts, when a student leaves a traditional public school to attend a charter school, it’s true that some of the money allocated to that student’s education travels with the student and goes to the new school that the student is attending. Though maybe this is challenging for the school that loses the students, it seems fair and certainly it’s no different than if a family moves to a different town because of the school system. The real inequity in education funding is the way that funding is tied to property tax, so that wealthier towns have greater access to resources. We need to stop bickering about our own slices of pie and and focus on the size of the whole pie. If all schools had enough money to do their work properly, would we be having these arguments?
Fear #2: Are charter schools really better? Or are they just a new trend?
There are many opinions about what makes a school “good,” but a recent study did find that students in Massachusetts charter schools do perform significantly better in both math and reading. Unfortunately, there are some people running around talking about charter schools like they are the answer to all of life’s problems. If I worked in a traditional public school, that would irritate me too. I love my school, but I’m pretty sure that charter schools are not THE solution to education problems. And I know that charter schools, like all schools, are extremely variable in every way, from their resources to their structures. Some charters are part of big networks, and others are unique, like my school which was founded by local parents who wanted an alternative.
While we don’t want students ending up in bad schools, part of the beauty of charter schools is this diversity. In my time at Innovation Academy Charter School, I’ve really seen that one size does not fit all. I see families that haven’t been satisfied with the traditional public schools for all sorts of reasons. Whether they came to us because they were dissatisfied or just because they heard it was a great place, the crux of the issue is that families have choices that are free of charge. Not all charter schools are better for everyone, but if they are better for some, that feels important. And I believe that certain aspects make them likely to be better for many. All charter schools are formed around a charter, or a thoroughly strategic vision and mission statement about their philosophy as a school. All schools should have that, right?
Fear #3: How can charter schools be fair if they are not accessible to everyone?
In Massachusetts, all charter schools hold a public lottery to determine who gets in. In 2003 when I started teaching at my school, then called Murdoch Middle School, we weren’t full, so anyone who applied could attend. Today, we have over 500 students on our waiting list. When we hold open house sessions for prospective families, we end up with more people packing into our classrooms than we have chairs. Over the past few years, I’ve met more and more parents who are desperate for change and can’t get their children into our school, and it’s been heartbreaking.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to discuss charter school education with Jill Stein, a national leader in the Green Party. She said it simply: “Students shouldn’t have to win a lottery to go to a good school.” I agree, but there are also other factors to accessibility. Not every parent has the knowledge to apply, perhaps due to lack of education or being a non-native speaker. And some charter schools, like mine, require many families to provide their own transportation, which could discount the people who need the benefits of our school the most. As a person who cares about social justice, I want all families to have access to choice. Through open houses and newspaper ads, my school tries to reach out to all the members of the communities that we serve. In addition, my club, the Global Leaders Club, is working to create a website to help match families with carpools. These are just small steps towards making our school more accessible. I believe that charter schools can’t be the sole solution to our failing education system, but perhaps they can be a solution for some individuals, and that’s a start.
Fear #4: Are charter schools accountable to the communities they serve?
One educator at the conference told me that he worried that charter schools couldn’t be fully accountable to the communities that they serve if their boards are not composed of elected officials. It’s true — our charter school has a board of trustees that is elected internally, like a non-profit organization’s leadership. I agree that this makes charter school accountability different, even though we also take MCAS tests and get regularly evaluated by the state (even more rigorously than other schools). First and foremost, we are still very accountable to our constituents because if we are not serving people well, they will leave. Parents know that there is an alternative, and they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t think it was right for their kids.
Fear #5: Do charter schools hurt unions?
My understanding is that unions exist in order to protect teachers and other employees from being hurt and taken advantage of by people with more power. While working in a charter school, I haven’t felt a need for this kind of protection. My school needs to retain good teachers, and I’ve never worried about job security even though we don’t have tenure.
Simply put, there’s a lot less red tape in charter schools, making it much easier for community members, parents, teachers, and students to have a voice in the organization. When my head of school and board of trustees recently made a decision that I didn’t agree with, I spoke up. I got to engage in dialogue with several members of the leadership team, and the outcome addressed my concerns. Sadly, my experience trying to make political change has not been so easy. I support unions because they allow people to come together to fight against injustice, but I also value systems where everyone is working together in a person-to-person way, rather than through bylaws and protocols. I hope that there’s space in this world for both models.
Fear #6: Does the charter school model increase our environmental impact by encouraging new building construction and increased need for travel?
Our society has land and buildings that are currently being used for the purpose of education. It’s true that the charter school movement is sometimes encouraging new buildings to be built instead of using the ones we already have. It’s encouraging families to travel further to send their kids to school, rather than sending them to the closest one. While these issues are serious, the environmental impact is very small compared to those caused by other aspects of society, like Corporate America. I believe in the education that we are providing for our students, and like in all realms, we have to trust that the benefit will outweigh the costs.
I’m still learning, but I’m confident that we need to be fighting “the good fight,” which is not against charter schools. Instead, all educators can work together to figure out what a just system will look like. This certainly will be a system that gives ALL schools more financial resources, and more freedom to figure out how to best use that money to meet the needs of their students. Until then, let’s remember that one size does not fit all, and there’s no magic solution. Except for one — giving kids the love and attention they need. We can all agree that nothing else really matters.