As a longtime believer in the possibility of charter schools, the so-called “charter movement” has been a disappointment. But last week in New York City some folks got together at the
Independent Charter School Symposium with the goal of fixing that. Many of the ideas that initially attracted me to charter schools—community empowerment, authentic education for youth left behind, piloting promising practices to share with traditional schools—have often been drowned out by larger political forces. The educators and communities who should be driving the movement have taken a back seat. Meanwhile the public tends to see folks like the current secretary of education as the face of movement. It’s well past time for us in the community wing of the charter movement to reclaim our place in the debate. Last week's symposium is a great place to start. Back in the early 90s, charter schools were basically community schools. Getting a charter for your school idea was simply a vehicle to better serve the kids who were being failed by the system. These original founders weren’t bought into some market rhetoric. For the most part, they were educators from the district who simply needed the freedom to do more. You may not realize this, but in NYC the majority of charters are still small independents, not the big charter networks you usually hear about. When I look back on the schools I and my colleagues helped start in those early days, I think of DREAM charter, which partners with Harlem Recreational Baseball in the inner city. I think of Lavelle Prep, a very successful school catering to students with emerging mental health challenges. I think of Mott Haven catering to foster youth and Neighborhood Charter of Harlem bringing autism inclusion to Harlem.
There was no “privatization” rhetoric back then. The teachers union, which now opposes charters at every turn, rarely opposed them—in fact they were starting their own. It was gritty grassroots organizations trying, with varying degrees of success, to do better by kids that everyone agreed were not being served. We never saw ourselves as at war with the districts, and the districts didn’t view it as war either. Sure, the headlines often go to the bigger charter management organizations and some of their outsized personalities, but I’ve always seen the heart of the charter movement as these educators, families and community-based organizations coming together to try to do better by kids. But you’d never know it from the current state of debate. Charter schools, unfortunately, have fallen victim to a polarizing narrative. First, it’s
charters versus unions—even though many charters are unionized. Then, charter school advocates are increasingly linked to right-wing school choice supporters, who don’t reflect the population served or the educators serving them. This debate ignores the roots of the movement, and it misserves the public and our schools, families and educators. It’s high time we challenged it. I hope that's what comes out of this symposium. I hope it fosters substantive discussions about why charters started and what they have become. I hope there is an explicit focus on race and equity. I hope we can explicitly reject that whole charters-versus-unions narrative and invite critics to the table to talk about how we can collaborate with and support the broader public education system. Because the fact is charter schools are not going anywhere, and neither are the districts. Somewhere we got off track and instead of fighting together for kids and families, we started fighting with each other. I say it’s time we call a truce in the public school civil wars. The stated purpose of the symposium was “to articulate a collective vision for the direction of the charter movement and all of public education.” It might be a wildly ambitious goal. But it is sorely needed.
Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his ...