Charter Schools: A CAPE-Ohio Position Paper
for Principle 5
Private, nonpublic schooling is not a recent phenomenon in the United States. It has been with us since the colonial period. Education — dame schools, Latin grammar schools, academies — was largely a private affair early in our nation’s history. Those with the financial wherewithal could afford to educate their children; the rest were largely ignored.
Soon after the United States gained its independence, however, public schooling began to gain a foothold. In 1785, Congress, operating under the Articles of Confederation, enacted the Northwest Ordinance (Land Ordinance of 1785), which set up a system of government for the territory west of the Alleghenies, north or the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River. The ordinance also established a process by which states could be organized out of this vast sweep of forests and fertile farmland. More importantly for this issue, the Ordinance set a precedent for the establishment of public schools. It called for the territory to be laid out in townships consisting of thirty-six sections. The sixteenth section (one square mile) of each township was to be set aside for the support of schools within the township.
In subsequent decades, the demand for universal common education became firmly embedded in many states across the country. By the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the beginnings of public education as we know it today were an accepted and prized part of the American scene. Schooling for all was seen as a necessary ingredient for survival of a democratic nation – a nation that depends upon active participation by an informed citizenry.
The recent charter school movement is an unfortunate departure from that ideal. Charter school proponents often cite Albert Shanker’s * 1988 endorsement in their advocacy for this demonstrably unsuccessful experiment in education reform. Claiming Shanker’s support is at best misleading, or at worst, cynically disingenuous.
When Shanker proposed the idea of charters in 1988, he was suggesting a type of school that is a far cry from what has emerged almost three decades later. He proposed experimental schools where teachers would be able to collaborate with colleagues to improve educational practice. Knowledge and skills gained from operating in that kind of environment would then be offered to other teachers throughout the district. In fact, as it became clear to Shanker that privatizers were in the process of co-opting the idea of charter schools, he clearly and emphatically rescinded his support. Shanker came out against charter schools in 1993 and expressly opposed the role of for-profit entrepreneurs and corporations in our nation’s educational system.
As more and more people have come to realize that privately operated charters are draining massive amounts of funding away from resource-starved public schools, sentiment in the United States has correspondingly shifted. The public is rapidly becoming aware that for-profit charter schooling is an experiment that has run its course and failed miserably.
To the extent that charter schools exist at all, they must be public schools regulated as part of a larger public school district. They must be transparent in operation and accountable to the public. Actually, many public school districts have successfully implemented Shanker’s vision of charter schools through the implementation of alternative or magnet schools that operate within an existing district subject to the same rules and regulations as other schools.
Charter schools must be the product of a collaborative process between school districts and teachers’ unions. Currently, very few charter schools are unionized. As originally envisioned they must be open to all students within an existing district, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, disabilities, or English language proficiency. Many existing charter schools employ selection processes that allow them to reject English-language learners, students with disabilities, and other at-risk populations. District-sponsored charters should, in fact, seek out those students who are the most difficult to educate.
Charters currently exist because of legislation that has legalized the preposterous notion that tax dollars should follow the student. In no other agency, department, or level of government does tax money follow the taxpayer. It does not happen with local or state taxes used to support services like police or fire fighters. It does not happen with taxes collected on the sale of gasoline or cigarettes. At the very least, charter schools must be held to the same measures of accountability required of public schools. That is currently not the case. The public has a right to know how its tax money is being spent. The inordinate number of tax dollars that ends up in the pockets of for-profit charter school operators constitutes an astonishing injustice to students and taxpayers alike.
Tax money now feeding failed charter schools must instead be used to increase funding for public schools in the lowest socioeconomic areas, where children have the greatest needs. Charter schools have a dismal track record with low-performing students. It is long past time to perform educational triage and to put resources where they are most needed. Investment in public schools is crucial to our nation’s future.
*President, American Federation of Teachers