Inside Charter Schools: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization

Inside Charter Schools: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization

Inside Charter Schools: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization

Inside Charter Schools: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization

Excerpt

Margarita Ortíz was a hero long before she started a charter school. Whenever she entered a classroom or assembly, Ortíz signaled a warm sense of caring, quickly engaging the issue at hand. She was consumed by a commitment to her teachers and students, children who flocked to her school from the rising number of Latino households packed on top of each other in apartments and tiny postwar houses not more than a mile from downtown Oakland, California. Ortíz, a longtime elementary school principal, was trusted by these immigrant parents, who struggled to raise their children right, a difficult task in this concrete-gray patchwork of city blocks chopped into disparate pieces by freeway on-ramps and overpasses, surrounded by neglected and drooping chain-link fences.

Affection for Ortíz grew even deeper as she boldly led the emancipation struggle—arm in arm with the parish priest, the city’s corporate leaders, and outspoken parents—to create one of California’s first charter schools in 1993. This slight woman with fading auburn hair had become a Che Guevara of sorts, leading a civil war over school reform and neighborhood control.

The war against the Oakland school board had grown ugly in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the board was seen by Ortíz and her allies as imperial, uncaring, and unresponsive. The middle school into which children were sucked was viewed by parents as mediocre in quality and simply dangerous for Latino and black youths, who inevitably became affiliated with quarreling gangs.

Then the door to freedom opened a bit. In 1992, the California legislature approved the nation’s second charter school bill, essentially allowing local . . .

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