Editor’s note: the following piece was written by a charter school teacher whose request for anonymity I honored. Leave comments or email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll pass them along. JCB
How my charter network’s advocacy hurts more kids than it helps…
Last year I made the agonizing decision to leave my urban public school and take a job at a charter school that is part of a highly-regarded network. I loved my students and the community at my former school, but after a tumultuous year spent battling a hostile administration, I knew I had to leave. About two months into work, and now at the beginning of the school year, I’m convinced that I’ll become a much stronger teacher as a result of the feedback, support and coaching I’m getting at my new school. What I’m far less comfortable with, though, is the role that my charter network plays in the larger charter-school movement.
A deeply troubling movement
My network’s contributions to a deeply troubling charter-school movement, both nationally and at the state level, have been substantial. Speaking concretely, the charter movement has produced multiple low-performing schools for each high-performing school it’s produced. Many of these struggling schools stay open for several years, and more get their charters renewed than they should. The charter authorization process is hardly democratic, which is deliberate. Some non-profit-run charters have become cash cows for education corporations and consulting groups, even as the schools mis-educate and underserve kids.
Meanwhile, many of the high-performing schools are so driven to be defined as *high-performing* by the narrow metrics the movement and, increasingly, we as a country endorse, that they achieve their success through astonishingly high attrition and an obsession with compliance. There is also the uncomfortable reality that a movement that advocates for charter schools for students of color, is overwhelmingly white-led and often profoundly paternalistic.
Still, I’m inclined to be forgiving of my network. On the whole, they are doing a relatively good job by students, their families, and the communities the schools serve. My school specifically is doing great things for our kids, sticking by even the most troubled and challenging, which gives me hope. And the network seems genuinely and deeply committed to learning to do better––even at the expense of test scores, at least for now. What I’m less forgiving of is the choice to be willfully ignorant regarding the impact their advocacy has had on kids who’ve attended the horrendous charter schools the movement has manufactured, or who’ve been left behind in increasingly resource-starved and competition-driven public schools. My network clearly advocates with the best of intentions for policies that will allow them to serve greater numbers of kids. But they seem oblivious to or uninterested in the fact that the majority of students won’t end up in their system or systems like it but in other, often far worse places.
What I’m less forgiving of is the choice to be willfully ignorant to the impact their advocacy has had on kids who’ve attended the horrendous charter schools the movement has manufactured, or who’ve been left behind in increasingly resource-starved and competition-driven public schools.
For a movement that claims to be all about data, there are numbers that are noticeably absent from the conversation. How many kids have attended low-performing charters? How many have been expelled from or pushed out of the high performers? Reformers will likely employ a familiar platitude in response: Charters are far from perfect, but we should be celebrating their successes; lest we forget when there was no alternative to the failing neighborhood public schools in poverty-stricken areas. To some degree, this argument is compelling because it is rooted in truth––narrow as its definition of *success* may be. But while education may not be a zero-sum game, it is certain that whatever overall increase in test scores charter schools have helped produce has come at a cost.
The kids left behind
This burden, which has come in many forms, has almost always fallen on the kids and families who were left behind: in having their neighborhood school boarded up and being forced to commute across the city to a school that serves them no better or worse; in being told that *this school may not be the best fit* for them and receiving calls and texts for every little misbehavior until they feel so unwelcome and exhausted that they’re convinced it isn’t worth it anymore; in being reminded that they can *vote with their feet* when they fight to be better served by their schools. These experiences are all too real and common.
Which raises an important and heartbreaking question: Why must whatever *progress* society makes for kids of color be secured on the backs of other kids of color? That, unfortunately, is a question I’m not sure we as a society are willing to ask, let alone answer.
In moving to a school in hopes of becoming a much better teacher and learning how great schools are run, have I become complicit in a movement that is making things worse for the kids I left behind?
There’s another question I’m grappling with these days as I try to reconcile my conflicting feelings about a school I believe in and the larger charter movement I don’t. In moving to a school in hopes of becoming a much better teacher and learning how great schools are run, have I become complicit in a movement that is making things worse for the kids I left behind?