Charter schools were first conceived in 1988 by then American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker. Shanker hoped to open up schools that would be led by teachers who would use innovative methods to help children learn. The idea was to allow students to come to a charter school even if it was not in their neighborhood, thus allowing a mixture of students from different economic classes as well as different races to learn together. Charters would be granted for a five to ten year period and would only be renewed if they succeeded. They would be publicly funded while being independently managed. These charters would cooperate with other schools and share their successes, thus transferring innovation to other public schools.
Looking at the current charter school situation we see a very different picture than what Albert Shanker dreamed. Teachers are not the innovators in most charter schools today. Many charter schools are run by independent, for-profit operators who are paid a fee to operate the school.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of how Shanker’s original dream of educational laboratories and innovative teaching has become a profitable business for investors and hedge fund managers.
One of the largest experiments in wholesale charter schools has taken place in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The city’s children are now educated completely by charter schools and there are many problems. Independent school operators now run the schools, so that parents do not have a central location where they can raise issues. Students are assigned to vacancies in the charters by computer lottery which potentially means that siblings in elementary school could be attending different schools run by different operators. Recently there have been reports that the schools in New Orleans are now more segregated by race than they were prior to Katrina. Each independent operator has a different philosophy and school structure. Most importantly there are no longer any neighborhood schools.
One of the most controversial charter schools exists in New York City. Success Academies has very high test scores in all of its schools. Many are located in poor communities and communities of color, so those who are looking for a silver bullet to “fix” public schools in poor areas are watching the progress seen in Success Academies. As time has passed, questions have begun to arise about whether the success is what it appears to be. As more data reaches the New York state Department of Education, there are some statistics that are of concern. Success Academies have a much higher suspension rate than public schools in the NYC system. There is a very high rate of attrition among students. The original first grade class in the first Success Academy had 73 students. By the time this group graduated from eighth grade there were only 32 students. While public schools add students as they have openings, Success does not accept new students after third grade. This policy is said to be in place because adding new students to fourth through eighth grade classes might include students who are not on grade level and thus affect class progress.
These are only two of many examples that show that charter schools are not a magic fix to what is happening in public education. In fact, they may raise serious questions about the oversight of charters by government entities.