A Gamble Can Charter Schools Fix Public Education?

By Fuller, Bruce | Commonweal, March 26, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Gamble Can Charter Schools Fix Public Education?


Fuller, Bruce, Commonweal


Even as he battles economic woes at home and security threats abroad, President Barack Obama is advancing a bold strategy for improving the nation's schools. His new budget aims to recast Washington's role in education, shedding the regulatory minutiae of the No Child Left Behind Act put in place by George W. Bush.

Instead, Obama is banking on economic incentives to alter the behavior of educators. Armed with $4-3 billion in stimulus funding, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is pushing states to award bonuses to effective teachers, curtail the power of teachers unions, and seed a more robust generation of charter schools.

This competition-and incentive-based approach to reform is partly drawn from the playbook of moderate Republicans a generation ago. But it's Obama's faith in charter schools--which are financed by taxpayers but operated outside the strictures of the normal public-school system--that's proving most controversial. To some, charters are the key to reforming public education by increasing flexibility and accountability at the local level. Others feel the promotion of charters diverts attention from public-school systems' most intractable problems. And while the number of charter schools nationwide continues to grow, the evidence of their success remains inconclusive. Obama's approach ensures that more charters will be established. But it can't guarantee that they'll work.

Enthusiasts see charters as a fix for schools suffocated by government rules and limited by labor contracts that protect teachers at students' expense. Charter principals can hire (and fire) their own teachers and experiment with inventive classroom techniques. And charter managers respond to parents' preferences, from requiring uniforms and drilling basic skills to emphasizing themes of social justice or ethnic identity. Some struggling Catholic dioceses have turned their school properties over to charter firms, hoping to preserve at least some of the benefits of a parochial education for their students. (See Paul Moses, "The Public Option," Commonweal, December 4, 2009.) Mayors from New York to Los Angeles, impatient with foot-dragging by union leaders, are galvanizing support for charters among neighborhood leaders, working-class families, and wealthy pro-education donors.

"Charters ... force the kind of experimentation and innovation that helps to drive excellence in every other aspect of life," Obama told the Washington Post last summer. He admires the accomplishments of Secretary Duncan, who expanded charter schools in Chicago during his seven-year tenure there as superintendent. But Duncan acknowledges it's not clear that charter-school students outperform peers in regular public schools. "I am not a fan of charters," he told me last fall. "I'm a fan of good charters. Bad charters are part of the problem."

Still, before school is out for the summer, Duncan will award large grants from the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund to governors who lift caps on the number of charter schools in their states and promise to hand over failing schools to charter companies, which increasingly dominate a market once led by dissident teachers and community activists. Critics of Obama's faith in charter schools see charters as a costly distraction from deeper problems threatening all public schools: low pay for entering teachers, a scarcity of inspiring principals, the negative effects of poverty on children's development. These arguments, voiced most vehemently by union leaders, convinced New York legislators to retain the state's cap on authorized charter schools, risking the loss of Race to the Top funds.

Teaching Wood to Burn

Ricked splits of maple, alder, fir--
cross-stacked against damp--
wait so long, a blue mold
rinds the wood,
shed of its bark
and soaked through.

Once in the stove,
cold and wet as thawed,
coarse-cut meat,
these pieces are reluctant
to let go the heat
at their hearts. … 

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A Gamble Can Charter Schools Fix Public Education?
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