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Reform: The Internal Battle Over Charter Schools

Man_reading_newspaper_1Today's Emily Bazelon piece in Slate about district-charter cooperation in New Haven sounds pretty cool as these things go -- a teacher exchange between the district and a charter network that seems to be a  win win for both parties.  

I'm told that something similar is going on in Denver, with three CMOs helping train district teachers to become district principals.  

But the article reminds me that there's a second, behind-the-scenes battle going on over charter schools in addition to the public one going on out in the open between districts and charters.  This second battle is basically taking place between charter school operators (CMOs, state associations, charter ideologues) and charter school reformers (a more diffuse group including authorizers, think tank folks, and a small subset of high-performing operators).  

It may be more important than the one going on out in public.  I'm not sure the good guys are winning, or seem to have much of a chance.  Basically, charter school reformers have lost control of their movement. 

Even if you're not charterphobic, it's pretty clear that the charter operators want to build and run as many charters as possible as freely as possible, with as few constraints and little oversight as can reasonably be expected.  Their focus is on creating immediate choices for parents.  They won an amazing gift from the Obama administration when its Race To The Top made eliminating charter caps a top priority without any equally clear consideration for quality, performance, diversity, or anything else.  (I still want to know who signed off on that, and what were they thinking?)  The operators have been struggling to deal with their quality problems, which is understandably hard to do given it basically boils down to self-policing during a land rush.

The charter school reformers are interested in charter schools for their effects on the rest of the public school system, short- and long-term.  They're the folks who are working with districts in New Haven and Denver, who signed onto the Gates-funded charter-district compact.  They want both short-term alternatives for parents but they also want to revamp the districts rather than creating an alternative charter universe.  

This second group is by far in the minority, far as I can tell, and has much less influence than their counterparts.   The folks focused on charter operations and expansions dominate the national association representing charter schools, which is a membership organization, and seem to dominate at the statehouse level.  And for one brief, inexplicable moment that we have been paying for the past three years, they seem to have hypnotized the Obama administration. 

Of course, there's lots of overlap, rhetorical and real.  Nina Rees, the new president of NAPCS, talks about quality every time she talks about expansion.  Greg Richmond, the head of NACSA (for whom I've done occasional consulting), talks about the importance of providing choices for parents in the short term even as he's urging greater attention to quality.  

The tipping point may be the new, CMO 2.0 folks coming into the charter space -- the Rocketships, with their low-cost teacher models and quick expansion plans.  Are Rocketship et al out to be the next KIPPs or the next White Hats?  Will the new entrants into blended and online charters tip the scales towards charter expansion basically in isolation form district school systems, or towards charter-district collaboration?  

Now you can see why I'm so pessimistic.

PS - There's a similar dividing line within alternative certification.  


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I get where you're concerns come from. And if we believe the charter theorists, bad charters are supposed to be shut down.

But I wonder if the 'district' has to be the model. We used in historically, but is there a legal or pedagogical reason we have to organize schools around a government-led management organization? CMOs may not turn out to be the 100% solution - and I am sure a lot of snake oil salesmen will arise - but that doesn't validate the district model either, does it?

A stereotypical progressive argument is that we need government-led districts because choice doesn't work for all parents. Some parents, given choice, will choose badly. Apart form the annoying fact that it isn't clear that the government makes consistently 'better' choices, there's an aspect to that argument that always struck me as a tad patronizing.

I think this is the sort of situation where taking an absolutist anti-charter line is going to bite a lot of "reform critics" in the butt. Treating your opposition as monolithic means you neglect these sorts of internal disagreements and then lose your opportunity to exploit them to get results more to your liking.

Paul Bruno, you are right, but the inverse of your argument is also right. Too many charter school zealots view all unions as the enemy, when in truth, there are some potential alliances to be made. I'd much rather have community-based charter schools run by people who just want to run a good school, than large national corporations gobbling up real estate.

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