Instruction & Curriculum

Not All Charter Schools Are The Same

Not all charter schools are evil, corporate, for-profit monstrosities. Again: not all charter schools are the same.
Some modern charter schools are operated by for-profit corporations or non-profits who pay their leadership exorbitant salaries. Almost all the common arguments against charter schools are rooted in those corporate models. They are the loudest, but not the majority.
One more time for those in the back: Not all charter schools are the same.
Others have done a much better job than I ever could exploring the history and origins of the charter movement (see, for example, this article, from Education Next). History is complicated, biased, and full of interpretation. It might be interesting but examining the growth of charter schools isn’t the goal here.
My point is that some charter schools are independent of the corporate mess. Click To Tweet
I worked for a charter school that was locally sponsored and intended to make a difference for students for three years. Some charters are actually community-based, community-run, independent schools that meet a need the public school system couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t address. They don’t pay administrators exorbitant salaries, siphon money into private accounts, neglect students, or abuse teachers. The struggles are real, but so is the success.
While I was there, the purpose was straightforward: to prepare minorities and women to pursue careers in construction-related industries. Our curriculum was built for this purpose, as was our recruitment, training, and even our (donation funded) facility. The school served an area that no longer offered significant vocational-technical programming in the local comprehensive high schools. It filled a gap and provided an opportunity that was otherwise lacking. Though it received support from the local construction-related unions, it was publicly funded and controlled.
It wasn’t perfect, and it was the hardest teaching gig I’ve ever had. The common purpose, autonomy, and small community were also pretty wonderful.
There are other similar schools hiding in plain sight across the country. Small, independent charters hiding in the nooks and crannies of the charter debate, despite the fact that most charter schools fall into this category (for a deeper discussion of this phenomenon, check out this post from Education Post).
The charter school debate is dominated in the media by the money: corporations, teacher organizations, and politicians. Corporations have weaponized the inequities and struggles of public schools to open the door for privatization. Teacher organizations have weaponized the autonomy charter schools have to seed fear of underpaid, overworked, and unqualified teachers. Politicians weaponize everything, just saying.
Unseen are the majority of charter schools with no skin in the money game such as places like Lift for Life Academy in St. Louis that has been engaged in educating students for almost 20 years. These places fill a genuine need and are as rooted in the local community as any neighborhood school. Schools who innovate and collaborate with public school districts. Schools that embrace the messiness of learning and lean away from overtesting and underteaching our youth.
I don’t know that charter schools are the answer to districts with unmet needs (like insufficient vocational education or inadequate college preparatory programming or high levels of trauma, or transient populations, or a community of immigrants with specific language and cultural barriers, or a desire for Montessori education or a need for a stronger technology focus). Maybe there are better ways forward. I do know that the current dichotomy of private charters vs. public schools is false. It leaves out the complex history of the charter movement, good and bad. It abandons the majority of independent charter schools and harps on extremes. There can be gray instead of black and white. There can be restrictions instead of lawlessness or abandonment. Maybe we need to embrace the messiness and look for positive compromise.
For-profit and public good are not natural partners. But. Not. All. Charter. Schools. Are. The. Same. And treating them as a monolithic stereotype is just not helpful.

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