Charter Schools Need to Shift Power to Parents and Educators of Color

Feb 1, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Peter Cunningham

Following the release of a report showing that public charter school growth is slowing due to political resistance, the Center on Reinventing Public Education's (CRPE) Robin Lake offers several good ideas for the school-choice movement. In short, Lake urges charter advocates to keep swimming where the water is warm, continue to innovate and start offering choice outside urban areas to build support among new political constituencies. Here are a few more ideas:
  • Crack down mercilessly on low quality and mismanagement.
  • Double down on success.
  • Empower parents and teachers to control their educational destiny by radically diversifying the movement.
  • Recommit to accountability.
The politics of choice has never been easy. The charter movement is up against a $600 billion monopoly that is reacting like any threatened entity: It circles the wagons and fights back with everything it has. The resistance comes from teachers unions facing the loss of members and dues, school administrators facing the loss of revenues as money follows children out of districts and school boards reluctant to share power. And, [pullquote position="right"]no one likes being shown up by an upstart that produces better results with the same kids.[/pullquote] But the charter movement also partly has itself to blame. School quality in the charter sector is inconsistent, although a closer look at urban areas shows higher success rates for charters compared to surrounding schools. Weak charter oversight also allows for financial mismanagement and outcomes like midyear school closings and over-suspension of students. The traditional public school sector also suffers from these and other shortcomings, but the charters face a higher standard: If you can’t build a better mousetrap, you should not enter the business.

Fortunately, we have built a better mousetrap

Good charter schools have proven beyond a doubt that kids from low-income homes and troubled backgrounds can achieve at high levels. The best of them are doing exactly what many traditional public schools haven’t done: Close achievement gaps and eliminate gaps in college access and other measures of success. Their case for growth is unimpeachable and resistance borders on immoral. The quality control problem is solvable with more oversight and rigor in authorizing but here again, the charter movement is divided. Conservatives push back against progressive instincts to regulate and hold schools accountable, arguing that the market will solve the quality problem. So far, the evidence is not very reassuring. The bigger challenge for the movement is to shift power to the people with the most skin in the game—parents and educators of color. The charter movement rightfully focused on low-income communities of color with the lowest-performing schools but it has fallen short in empowering those communities to control their own educational destiny. This is starting to change as more leaders of color drive the movement, but it’s not happening fast enough. The best thing our big charter organizations can do is to aggressively diversify school leadership and change the face of the movement as some are already doing. At the same time, authorizers and pro-charter political leaders should be supporting teachers and community leaders of color to open new independent charter schools. Admittedly, these strategies are somewhat in conflict because the small mom and pop charters tend to be the ones that underperform or mismanage. But there’s really no alternative: Charters are vulnerable without greater community agency. Lastly, we all need to recommit to accountability by finding new and better ways to measure success, set goals and take responsibility. [pullquote]The case for change must be built on verifiable proof where existing schools are falling short and solutions are working.[/pullquote] The state accountability plans under the new federal education law are a floor, not a ceiling. Nothing is stopping states, districts and charter managers from raising the bar on themselves. The assault on accountability from the left and the right is the single greatest threat to American education. If we cannot prove what does and doesn’t work, we cannot have honest conversations about how to move forward. The inevitable result of less accountable schools will be declining confidence in public education, increasing indifference to the education of other peoples’ children and further inequality as the few who can find or afford quality education leave all the others behind.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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