I am pretty consistently amazed at how little people know about charter schools. Most people I meet who are not deeply immersed in this issue basically believe the charter school mythology.
It's frustrating to me that most people's understanding of charter schools is governed by the myths that charter proponents have carefully cultivated, rather than by, you know, facts.
So, in an almost-certainly futile effort to debunk some of the charter school mythology, here's my episode of Charter School Mythbusters!
Myth: Charter schools are more accountable than regular public schools.
BUSTED! In Massachusetts, anyway, charter schools are governed by self-appointing boards, most of which have no parent representation. Don't like what your charter school is doing? Well, you can appeal to the board members, but since they're all appointed by each other and they hired the administration, good luck with that. But don't worry, the state does a cursory charter renewal process every five years that has resulted in five charter schools out of a hundred and five in Massachusetts losing their charters in the last twenty years.
Myth: Charter schools send all their students to college.
BUSTED! Charter schools send almost all of their graduates to college. And in most Massachusetts charter high schools, that's between 50% and 60% of the number of students who start there in the ninth grade. So, yeah, they're actually failing to graduate a pretty significant number of students who go there.
Myth: Charter schools draw from the same population as regular public schools. They've got those lotteries!
BUSTED! The charters quite intentionally don't educate all comers. They do this in a number of ways while appearing not to do it. Want to register your child for Boston Public Schools? Here's a page with helpful information in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Somali, Haitian and Cape Verdean Creole, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Here's a page from one of Boston's charter schools telling you how to register for their lottery. There's a helpful parenthetical note at the very bottom that says they can speak Spanish to you if you call them. So you're a new arrival to the country whose kids probably won't test well on the language portion of the standardized tests, where are you gonna send your kids?
Or, take this one: you're a single mom with two kids and you work in an hourly job. You depend on your high school child to take care of your elementary school child in the after school hours. Are you going to sign your high schooler up for a school that gets out two hours after your other kid's elementary school? Nope! You can't afford that. Guess those long hours are going to work out better for kids from financially secure two-parent households. And those kids just happen to score better on standardized tests! Weird!
Finally: you've got a child with special needs. All public schools are required to take and educate your child, but charters will sometimes illegally refuse to do it. I worked in a charter school and sat in the meetings where it happened. They'd tell the parents how much we liked their kid, but we really just couldn't serve their needs. Guess where they wound up? Back in the regular public school system! Most charter schools don't serve anywhere near the number of special needs students that regular public schools do, and even those that do tend not to serve students with severe special needs. And those get served by the regular public schools. Or, if the regular public schools feel they can't serve those kids, they send them to a private setting at district expense. How many of those private placements are charter schools paying for? (Hint: none!)
Myth: Charter Schools are free from union constraints and can innovate!
CONFIRMED! They are free from union "constraints," like "due process," "paying employees more for working more," and "transparent salary scales." When I worked in a charter school, I worked with a handful of idiots and a great majority of incredibly smart, caring, competent people. And when an incompetent administrator came in, we all got fired. I mean literally every teacher in the building was fired. Charter school teachers serve at the whim of administrators, many of whom are TFA grads who've been promoted beyond their competence. They're not insulated from the favoritism and politics and exploitation of salaried employees that happens at most other workplaces. A lot of people seem to think this is a good thing, but I don't know why. It certainly leads to a great deal of teacher turnover, which I guess helps keep costs down, since teachers leave before they get expensive and mouthy.
Charter schools around here have also come up with some rather innovative ways to exploit recent college graduates!
As far as educational innovation: nah. Longer school day. Lots of testing. That's pretty much what they've come up with. Of all the myriad failures of education reform, this is the one that feels like the biggest lost opportunity to me. Given the freedom to re-think high school, they arrived at this: the same thing, only more of it! Sigh.
Oh yeah. I also signed a non-disclosure agreement that told me not to share anything from the "laboratory of innovation" where I worked.
Myth: Charter schools are all about giving poor kids better opportunities.
BUSTED! KIND OF! I suppose what any institution is "all about" is always up for debate. It is true that a very small number of students benefit from their charter school experience. It is also true that a lot of charter school students suffer under unnecessarily punitive and inflexible discipline procedures. We've got charter schools in Boston that are suspending half their student body every year. Here's a piece about what that feels like from the student position.
Suspensions and expulsions are typically higher at charter schools than district schools. This makes charter schools enthusiastic participants in the school to prison pipeline. Turns out that charters' draconian discipline policies disproportionately affect young men of color. So though charter advocates like to pretend like they're big civil rights warriors, they're really active participants in the wholesale abandonment and imprisonment of our most vulnerable young people. Now that's innovation!
I could go on, but I think, or anyway, hope you've got the idea. Because the idea of brave entrepreneurs transforming education is such an attractive one, the media keeps repeating it despite its not being true. So maybe the next time you hear someone say something along those lines, you can ask them some tough questions and watch 'em squirm.
If you'd like to read about my experience working for three years in an urban charter school, you can find it all in my memoir Losing My Faculties, which is currently available in a shiny new ebook edition. Buy it for Kindle, Nook, or Kobo! And thanks!