By Frank Pepper
Editor’s note: The author of this piece is an urban high school teacher who is writing under a pseudonym in order to protect the privacy of his students and his colleagues.
Since I’m a public school teacher, everybody always asks me what I think about charter schools. They usually ask it with a certain expression, their eyes alert and their head poised at an angle, as if they are readying themselves for an explosion, or at least a case of spontaneous combustion.
I usually respond with some variation of this: It’s complicated. You got an hour?
And of course they don’t, and so we drop it and move on to more finite topics.
But if they did care, and bought me a beer, I would tell them that I absolutely love the idea of a motivated community of adults—parents, teachers, administrators—creating a unique school from the ground up, designed to serve that particular community. I have enormous respect for pioneers like Montessori and Waldorf (and their followers/practitioners) whose alternative ideas continue to challenge a public school status quo rooted in a fundamentally conservative, normative system built to baby-sit and “Americanize” the children of immigrant factory workers and farmers.
And, too, that I have struggled in my life with the limitations, mediocrities and, occasionally, horrors of the public school experience. As a K-through-college public school student, I was usually bored, even when I had loving teachers, because of the one-size-fits-all pacing and depoliticized or anti-intellectual standards. I had the opportunity even to attend one institution for a year or two that was completely out of control—violent, dirty, chaotic—a caricature of an “urban” middle school. As a parent, I fought to hold an abusive teacher accountable in the face of passive administrators and an active union; her verbal and emotional abuse of 7-year-olds was not enough to remove her from the classroom until we could document that she was also pinching and grabbing kids in anger.
And as a teacher? Well, let’s just say we are aware things are not always totally peachy keen around here, and leave the details for another day.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying, I get where the sincere charter school people are coming from. I believe in alternatives, in choices, in freedom of movement. I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of Temporary Autonomous Zones, a concept developed by Hakim Bey that Wikipedia summarizes as “the socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control,” a form of creative, constructive anarchy. A truly independent school, constructed organically by those who will use it, is an awesome example of that, I believe.
Unfortunately, in the same way it is much, much easier to make a bad movie than a good one—so many things can go so terribly wrong!—it is quite common for the best of intentions when starting a school to collapse under the weight of actually starting and running a complex learning institution. So common, in fact, some studies show about half of all charters underperform their public school counterparts.
In Florida in 2011, elementary and middle school charters were seven times more likely than regular schools to get an “F” grade in the state’s official appraisal system, and less likely to get an A, B or C grade. In Ohio it was reported recently that “72 percent of charter schools would receive an ‘F’ for not meeting 75 percent proficiency on state tests” using an incoming appraisal system, according to CentralOhio.com, a Gannett news outlet. “That’s compared to 6 percent of school districts and 21 percent of traditional buildings that would receive failing grades.”
And like any startup, many are out of business within a few years.
Even if you are highly organized, have local community support and hire a good principal—all tough “gets”—things only become harder from there. Resources are tight, regardless of whether you pay teachers less, and expectations are through the roof. Educating young people turns out to be a very expensive endeavor; just ask any private school parent who pays through the nose for tuition—and then is asked repeatedly throughout the year to donate more, more, more.
Some charters are trying to solve these issues the same way Starbucks and McDonald’s do: franchise-model chains of schools (or firms that provide services to multiple charters) to try to control inputs and standardize outcomes. (The KIPP and Aspire schools are examples of this.)
And that’s for the sincere folks. Unfortunately, not everybody in this charter biz is, um, in it for the right reasons, to say the least. The loopholes for the greedy and immoral are astonishing.
Recently, a friend and former teacher half-jokingly suggested we start a charter school together. “Look, the only two ways to get rich quick in this town are growing weed and starting a charter,” he mock argued. “It’s all about real estate: You buy a property, rent it to the school at inflated rates. Cook the test scores and cherry-pick the students with Tiger Moms and drum out the SpEd kids and slackers until your ranking scores are sky-high and everybody is banging down your door to enroll. Then give ’em all a strict, textbook-based education with no frills, taught by 25-year-olds willing to work for 30K.”
Crazy talk, you say? Consider the fascinating case of the American Indian Model School in Oakland, Calif. Once upon a time, this urban middle school was just another well-intentioned but failing charter poorly serving poor children, until an enterprising and aggressive man named Ben Chavis took it over in 2000 and began a remarkable transformation. Using a variety of rather unorthodox and, er, rough-around-the-edges techniques—including mocking students with racial epithets, cutting off students’ hair as punishment, etc.—he managed to boot camp his school right to the top of the charts. Visits from The Governator, an expansion of the charter to several more campuses and even a book contract followed, as did a significant amount of controversy and a slew of imitators.
Unfortunately, for those who appreciated the results AIMS produced—and either embraced or ignored its methods—disaster has struck. It turns out Chavis wasn’t content with just earning fame as an educator; he apparently wanted fortune too and allegedly cut a few too many corners to get it. Last month, the Oakland school board voted 4-3 to revoke AIMS’ charter based on a steady flood of embarrassing news about the schools’ finances and management emerging from state and federal investigations. To wit: Millions of dollars of public school funds channeled to Chavis, all done under the auspices of his wife, who handled the books, and a sycophantic charter board picked by him.
The AIMS campuses are appealing to the county for a new charter and I wouldn’t bet against them, with those test scores and a for-show divorce from Chavis. They argue, basically, don’t throw out the baby (those scores) with the bathwater (Chavis).
For me, though, that bathwater smells like baby poop; I choose to believe the word of a smart but “different” student I taught who attended AIMS’ middle school but was driven out through a non-documentable technique: His mother was told he would serve “detention” in the cafeteria all day, every day until she pulled him out.
That’s the kind of thing that is OK, I guess, at a private school, albeit an ugly reality—the staff reserves the right to refuse service, just like at any diner or doughnut shop. However, public monies need to serve the whole public, and so I can’t support charter schools until they really are accountable to the public and the community.
Shutterstock image of students raising hands.