The people who say that we need charter schools have no trouble pointing out the obvious fact that the bulk of our public schools don't work for the students, particularly minority students, students from low-income homes, students with IEPs, and English Language Learners.
The people who say that we don't need charters respond with two powerful arguments:
1) We don't need charters to develop and implement strategies that are effective with these populations. the public schools have license to do these things. We can point to a number of public schools that have reorganized around more effective strategies and have shown strong results.
2) There is no reason to believe that a charter school will do any better than the public schools with these challenging populations. The simple fact that the school is a charter does not mean that it will do anything different or better than what a public school does.
I have made both of these arguments myself. Usually I make them to charter school supporters who aren't really very bright or very well informed. Usually they are incapable of overcoming either of these arguments. I have also tried to make them with charter school advocates who ARE bright and who ARE well-informed. They have a response and it's a damn good one.
They acknowledge that public schools are, in fact, capable of doing everything that successful charter schools do. But, they ask, "So why don't they?" Why is it that I can quickly name all of the exemplary public schools in Seattle? Why can I count them all on the fingers of one hand?
Well, I say, the fault lies with the district administration and with the school principals who lack the vision and the sense to implement these strategies. And, to be honest, there are some teachers who are reluctant to change and might not get onboard with some of the changes that would come with these strategies. There are people at all levels - classroom, school, and district - who have opposed truly inclusive classrooms. There are people at all levels - classroom, school, and district - who have not been willing to step up to the responsibilities that come with a "no excuses" perspective - even when granted the authority that has to come with that responsibility. Anyway, I say, it is the people who design and maintain the system. We just need to either get them to change or replace them and then the public schools can be fixed so that they will actually serve these populations. Our focus, I say, should be on getting those changes, not on a charter school crapshoot I could then point to my own decade of advocacy trying to move the District to make these changes
And that's where they have me. I have been working for these changes for over a decade. Have I seen any change - at the District level? No, I have not. Have I seen anything that makes me confident that change is coming? No, I have not. I have seen anything that even allows me to optimistic that change is coming? No, I have not.
Well, then. What difference does it make if the District has the license and authority to make the changes that they need to make, has plenty of excellent models for the changes they need to make, and has all of the data for the changes that they need to make, if the District remains simply unwilling to make the changes? If we are not going to be able to overcome this institutional barrier to change, then doesn't it make sense to simply go around it? If the state or district bureaucracy is the impediment to designing schools so that they actually serve the students, then shouldn't it be perfectly reasonable to simply detour around them?
It is at this point that I must become very quiet and ponder the question. It is a damn fine question.
My only response is fairly weak. I see your point, I say, but most charter schools don't take any better advantage of their opportunity and aren't really any different from traditional public schools in their approach. The institutional resistance is at the school and classroom level as well as the state and district level. Also, why go around the problem instead of attack it directly? Why put a few in lifeboats (which may be no more seaworthy than the sinking ship) when we could simply patch the hole in the ship?
I really sell that line of thought, but it is a weak one. The very fact that even a fraction of charter schools do take advantage of that opportunity provides better odds for students and families than they can get from the district. Which school in southeast Seattle does a great job of serving students with IEPs? Which school is getting great results for students living in poverty? Any chance for success has got to look better than what the District is offering: which looks like guaranteed failure. If anything, the district is doubling down on their mistakes. Their solution is to do more and more of what doesn't work and to shut their ears to any ideas from the outside. Let me be clear. I'm not saying that our public schools, as a whole, are failures. I'm saying that they generally fail at serving students outside a narrow range, and that failure in built into the design.
My burning question has nothing to do with charter schools; it is about public schools. They can make the changes that are needed to serve the groups of students who are not well served by conventional school practice. They have the authority. They have permission. They know what changes to make. They have the models. They know it can work. They have the data. So why don't they? Why don't they create real inclusive classrooms that work for students with IEPs? Why don't they redesign the school experience so it works for minority students and students from low income homes? Why don't they create schools that work better for English Language Learners? What is the impediment?
I once said that even if I agreed with Education Reformers on some points (and of course I do; no one is always wrong) I simply couldn't stand to appear alongside some of those folks. So how is it that I have allowed my anti-Reform position to make me stand with some district traditionalists who hold even more despicable positions?
And here's a bigger question: Why do we tolerate it? If Mr. Banda does not create revolutionary change, and if the school board does not demand revolutionary change, then why would we consider keeping any of them for so much as a year? If Wendy London doesn't advocate and start pushing for revolutionary change, shouldn't she be fired and replaced by someone who will? Same for all of the Executive Directors. Same for all of the principals. Why would we tolerate one more day of the system that we know doesn't work?