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School Choice

Here's How (and When) to Defend Charter Schools

Despite all the success in the charter sector, there are some people who refuse to admit anything is going well, even in a single charter school for one kid, much less a whole bunch of amazing things going down every day all over the country. Others are convinced that you—as a pro-charter conspirator—must get up every morning and spend your day figuring out how to harm children and destroy America. If you have been around the charter school movement a while, you are familiar with what it feels like to weather unreasonable criticism. This criticism is unfortunate because it encourages charter operators and their friends to ignore other critics, especially those who point out challenges that deserve our attention. One of the reasons charters were created, among many, was to explore new ways of organizing and operating schools. Responding appropriately to feedback when something doesn’t work or could be done better is an inherent part of the charter sector’s DNA. The charter school sector is big enough and doing well enough that we can afford to be more sophisticated about how we respond. I think it helps to divide the criticisms of charter schools into three categories:
  1. The silly stuff that can’t stand the light of day.
  2. The exaggerated or tricky stuff that begs for nuance (i.e., real things that are taken out of context or exaggerated for political gain).
  3. Real, urgent challenges that require attention and action.
1) First up: the silly stuff. Usually these criticisms are easily identified and dismissed. These are all empirically verifiable. After you look at what is happening in the field, it becomes clear that these assertions are not supported by evidence. For example, you’ll hear that charters are not public schools, they teach religion, they are all run by for-profit companies and they were created by and funded by private foundations and hedge-fund managers trying to buy public education. So let's just clear the record: 2) Next: The tricky stuff. The second set of criticisms is trickier since they may contain a kernel of truth but require more nuance or context. They are based on problems that do happen once in awhile, but are not representative of the vast majority of charter schools. Usually these criticisms are repeated because their political implications are harder to manage. They include:
  • Charter schools are run by criminals who steal money.
  • Charter schools don’t serve all students.
  • Authorizers refuse to close failing charter schools.
There are many reasons why these arguments don’t feel “fair.” Some of these problems don’t happen very often; or, operators, authorizers and states are working hard to address them when they do occur. Some are challenges throughout all of public education, but you can’t point this out publicly without being accused of “bashing” public schools or teachers. 3) Finally: The real problems. The final set of criticisms should be the easiest to acknowledge, if much harder to solve. These are observations that are based on actual shortcomings, where it would be best for kids if we figured out how to solve the problem or at least understand it a lot better. Students with the most profound disabilities rarely enroll in charter schools in some cities. Why? If a charter school’s governing board doesn’t have the capacity to oversee a school run by a third-party operator with terrible results, what should the state or the authorizer do? When most of the children in a city attend charter schools, how do communities get heard, and does the autonomy of an individual charter school need to give a little when we are managing the needs of an entire community served primarily by charter schools? When someone points out something that is not going well and should be fixed, it would be reasonable to say something like, “I agree that is a problem. Some of our friends in the charter sector are working on it, but we have to figure this out. What do you think we should do?” Falsehoods need to be corrected so that audiences don’t come to accept them as true. It is also helpful to point out who it was that was willing to say false things. If we point out when opponents are repeating myths or telling lies, eventually people will realize these critics’ statements shouldn’t be taken at face value. While it is difficult to address these issues in the glare of troll-plagued social media, engaging with people, including critics, is necessary. We also have to pull that off without creating a burdensome regulatory approach for all those who are not doing anything wrong.
Alex Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement.
Alex Medler is Senior Director of the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) with Safal Partners. Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement. Through Safal Partners, Medler also advises foundations, state education agencies, charter authorizers and other clients in the U.S. and overseas. Prior to ...

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