Charter schools: Incubators of innovation?
Peter Ruddy Wallace, the speaker of the Florida’s House of Representatives when charter-school legislation was adopted, saw charters as incubators of innovation and experimentation.
So did I. For awhile. Now, I’m increasingly pessimistic about their potential.
I believe America’s broad-based system of public schools is a bedrock of the Republic, and that the country is getting a far better return on its tightfisted investment than it deserves. But I also believe that serious problems are being made worse by the simplistic reforms being pushed in Tallahassee and Washington, and that genuinely fresh thinking about
educating is essential. I saw charter schools as places where promising ideas could be explored and those that proved useful moved with greater ease into the mainstream.
With rare exceptions, that’s not what’s happening.
There are several reasons. Here are three.
Reason One: Innovation and experimentation aren’t what motivate most of the people seeking charter approval.
For about three years I subscribed to an Internet “listserv” that gave charter enthusiasts across America an opportunity to chat. It didn’t take long to discover where most of them were coming from. They didn’t want to do
anything really different; they just wanted to be in charge.
This doesn’t mean that most charter schools don’t offer something attractive. They do. That’s what gets their applications approved. But “attractive” isn’t the same as “innovative and experimental.” If what a charter applicant wants to do is a good idea but it’s already being done somewhere else, it’s not an innovation. What’s needed, then, isn’t another charter, but a procedure for finding out what’s being tried somewhere, sending a team to find out if it’s working, and if it is, providing the support necessary to put it in place in a local public school.
Reason Two: Charter schools aren’t usually a source of great new ideas (at least in Florida) because most of them are being created not to innovate and experiment but to sell houses. Developers usually know little and care less about educational innovation, but they know that people who buy upscale like the sound of “charter school.”
The original Florida legislation said that only local, non-profit groups could get charters. So what do developers do? They create a non-profit organization to get a charter, then hire a for-profit company to run the school.
This year in Florida, three out of four newly approved charter schools are being run by companies with practices so standardized they can use the same glossy promotional brochure anywhere in America. They’re “McCharters,” and
they’re in the school business not to experiment and innovate but to make money.
Ironic. Legislation originally intended to strengthen public schools is now being used as a sneaky way to privatize them. By taking the final say on charter approval out of the hands of local boards and putting it in Tallahassee, recent state legislation accelerated the privatization trend.
Reason Three: Charter schools aren’t usually sources of great new ideas because of standardized, high-stakes tests.
Imagine a close-knit group of experienced educators, unhappy with the status quo, thinking about opening their own school.
They make a list of the student qualities they admire. Yes, they want their students to be knowledgeable, but they also want them to be curious, creative, self-aware, disciplined, empathetic, confident, courageous, resourceful, in love with learning, and possessing what Albert Swhweitzer called “reverence for life.”
They devise an appropriate curriculum, apply for and are granted a charter.
Whoa! Collision course.
The state says, “We’re giving you tax money. In return, you’re accountable. Your students have to take the FCAT – the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.”
And the educators say, WHAT!? What’s your definition of accountable? Didn’t you give us a charter to help students become critical thinkers, curious, creative, self-aware, disciplined, empathetic, confident, courageous, resourceful, in love with learning, and capable of wonder?”
“And now you’re telling us that the FCAT – a standardized, one-shot, paper-and-pencil, multiple choice, bubble-in-the-oval, machine-scored test of short-term memory – you’re telling us that the FCAT will spit out a number that tells us how we’re doing!? You gotta be kidding!”
The charter school movement was meant to strengthen public education. Unfortunately, the Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again.