Monday, August 18, 2008

Charter Blues

A writer on “San Leandro Progressives,” a Yahoo group that I hear from, has posed the question of whether San Leandro should develop another charter school. Here we go again. What masquerades as educational reform in the guise of a charter school really rips away at the fabric of public education.

In California, charter schools can only really exist at the expense of “mainstream” public schools. Every time a kid goes to a charter school, the neighborhood school loses money. The inherent difficulty is that every student does not cost the same to educate. But California’s emphasis on ADA doesn’t adequately fund the “more expensive” students (students in resource and ELL programs.) Also, neighborhood schools don’t often have the flexibility to easily shift students, teachers and classrooms. Unexpected shifts in attendance rip little holes into the district budget.

Charter schools get to pick and choose which students fit their charter. In other words, they can leave any kid behind. And they don’t usually accept the kids that cost more. Students with learning disabilities and physical disabilities, and students who are ELL (English Language Learners,) cost more because they require more staff support. (“We’d love to take Junie, but we just don’t have the facilities to accommodate her.”) Charter schools don’t have to take these kids. “Mainstream” schools do. The result is that the “mainstream” school is left with a higher percentage of students who cost more to educate, but are not compensated fully for the additional expense.

Charter schools often have required parental-participation responsibilities in order for their kids to attend. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of encouraging parent participation. But what about the families who are simply unable to fulfill these obligations? Parents in single-parent, double-job families, or families where someone requires long-term care often don’t have the option of meeting a charter school’s participation requirements. So, their kids won’t have the same school opportunities, and they end up being stuck in the school where there are no such requirements.

Finally, charter schools lean hard on their teachers and parents. Without Union approved contracts, teachers are often asked (expected) to work 50 - 60 hours a week, must often be available for evening phone calls or extra tutoring sessions (without compensation), and survive without a whole lot of administrative support. Sure, fresh-out-of-teacher-school, school-reformer-type teachers are often anxious to take on the challenge. They just don’t last very long.

For a school to have long-term success, there really needs to be a good balance of new teachers and veteran teachers. If teaching is a career, you have to find some out-of-school balance in your life. It’s hard to find that balance when you’re working 50-60 hours a week. Call me lazy, but I actually believe that I can do my best teaching if I have a life outside of the classroom.

And finally, there is the problem of administration. Somebody has to watch where the money comes from and where it’s got to go. Each school is a little different, so there’s not really a how-to manual. The same person has to be the boss (no favorites, please), politick the parents and keep everyone smiling. In a charter school, that’s usually one person. And that person is probably looking for another gig. When that person exits stage right, the new challenge is finding a worthy replacement, and maintaining a sense of school identity and organizational memory.

In the end, I can’t help but seeing charter schools as a means for the slow disintegration of the neighborhood public schools. I lump them together with No-Child-Left-Behind, vouchers, and the crisis of pathetic funding as direct attacks on our kids. But despite all of the attacks on our schools, I still believe that the public school is perhaps (or should be) the last great institution – the only place in a multi-racial, multi-cultural community where we can all come together with a common cause and support each other.