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Monday, December 26, 2011

Charter schools are not the solution: The widow of famed UFT leader Albert Shanker blasts ‘reformers’


Are charter schools the answer for public education? If what you know about charters comes from last year’s ballyhooed film “Waiting for Superman,” you probably think so. But the answer is, in fact, much more complex.

My late husband, Albert Shanker, was one of the first education leaders to advocate for the concept in 1988, as president of the American Federation of Teachers. Al envisioned charter schools as teacher-led laboratories for reform within public schooling, tasked with developing innovative strategies to “produce more learning for more students.” He saw them operating with a high level of autonomy from bureaucracy, yet remaining an integral part of our public education system.

Although most charter schools get their basic funding from the same education allotments as regular public schools, they tout their independence as a major source of their superiority. But Al believed that even the best charter schools couldn’t generate sweeping change if they were disconnected from regular public schools. As he wrote in 1994, “Charter schools must have autonomy to get where they want to go, but they must also be part of a system that has a central purpose — and that means a system that has decided what kids need to know and be able to do. Otherwise, they will end up like all those alternative schools of the 1960s — relevant only to themselves and useless to the system as a whole.”

Al became increasingly critical of charter schools as they moved further from their original intent. He warned that without well-crafted legislation and public oversight, business interests would hijack the charter school concept, “whose real aim is to smash public schools.”

Indeed, charter schools answer to their own boards of trustees. And they have been accused — not without merit — of cherry-picking their student bodies, refusing to educate children with special needs or without a knowledge of English.

And yet, we see the Education Department repeatedly advocating for the placement of charter schools in public school buildings. Tensions recently ran high in Cobble Hill over co-locating a Harlem Success Academy charter school in an existing public school. Many parents were concerned that this move would skim needed resources and space from their neighborhood schools, but the school was approved despite these widespread protests.

Yes, there are some excellent charter schools, but very few are innovative, and most are no better or worse than comparable public schools. In fact, the largest study to date, released in 2009 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, compared the math test scores of students in charter schools against those in demographically-matched public schools; only 17% of charter schools posted better results, 37% were worse and the other 46% were basically the same. Charter school fan and federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the CREDO study a “wakeup call” and warned, “The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and even third-rate schools to continue to exist.”

Despite these decidedly mixed results, charters are the one education “reform” that receives support across the political and philanthropic spectrum, from President George W. Bush to President Obama. The Obama administration made increasing the number of such schools as a precondition for states seeking “Race to the Top” grants; in September, a bill to encourage states to create more high-quality charter schools was passed overwhelmingly by both Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives.

However, despite national support for charter schools, the reality is that charter schools practices and policies in local communities are increasingly divisive, with charters not acting as partners working with public schools to improve teaching and learning for all our children.

Are charter schools the answer for American public education? The concerns Al raised about charters in the 1990s ring even truer today; reform advocates would be wise to heed them.

Of course, charter schools can still play a role in driving meaningful change in public education — but not if they fail to properly integrate charters into a system of public schooling that is dedicated to ensuring that all children receive a quality education.

Shanker is the wife of the late Albert Shanker, who served as president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997, and as president of New York’s United Federation of Teachers from 1964 to 1986

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