Charter Schools, Part II

Are all charter schools created equal?

Last night I had an interesting text discussion with a teacher at TSAS. After reading my blog yesterday, she wanted to defend her school as being different from the two other charters that were granted expansion from the school board. She is correct in asserting that there are differences in charter schools. Some, like TSAS, are non-profit and do not seek a profit. Others are non-profit, but are managed by for-profit businesses called Educational Management Organizations. Corporations also operate chain schools; the largest of these schools is KIPP.

I’ve blogged before about the history of charter schools, but it might be helpful to give a brief history once again. The concept is not new. It was introduced by Albert Shanker, a teachers union leader, in 1988. Shanker’s idea was that a group of local educators could come together under an agreement with the school board to create a lab school that would be free to develop innovative curriculum and methods that could then be adopted and used in other public schools. The charter concept would be extremely limited, and only used as research and development for the public schools. By 1993, Shanker had renounced his concept because he saw that it was being co-opted by businesses seeking to profit and privatize public education. He wrote that “vouchers, charter schools, for-profit management schemes are all quick fixes that won’t fix anything.” He added that “there are other supporters of charter schools whose real aim is to smash the public schools” and that “some state laws allowed segregation and Balkanization.”

When TSAS first opened its doors in 2001 in a rented office building across from LaFortune Park, I went to visit. The school was founded by some public school teachers (from Memorial High School) who desired professional autonomy to create the school they envisioned: a liberal arts college prep high school, which incorporated math and science.

That mission seems to be close to Shanker’s definition of a charter school. TSAS was founded by professional educators. The educators were local, credentialed and experienced. They wanted to be free of some federal and state restrictions. They wanted to try innovative teaching methods to motivate and educate students. Those methods could potentially be adopted and used by other public schools.

Years later, when TSAS was honored as a Blue Ribbon School in 2015, I went to the school and interviewed students, parents, faculty and administrators. What struck me is that TSAS is a traditional college prep high school. The teachers are dedicated and professional. They respect the students. Discipline is respectful and based on logical consequences. The staff is collegial, and they share the common vision of the school. The administration respects, trusts and supports the teachers. Because teachers collaborate, the curriculum is interdisciplinary and flexible. Critical thinking is encouraged and developed. Students are involved in decision-making. One of the students told me that the best thing about the school is that the teachers didn’t give up on her. If she didn’t understand something, they found another way to present it until she did.

So, could TSAS be a model for other TPS schools? Certainly. They have had much success over the years.

Examining how to move toward a local, community-based model like TSAS where schools get the individual support and resources that they need would be instructive. Here’s list to start:

  1. Follow the mandate of HB 1017 that limits class size and requires a teacher with early childhood credentials in grades K-3.
  2. Rather than hiring expensive outside consultants like the Boston Consulting Group (what was the result of that million dollar consultation, anyway?), hire local consultants such as some childhood trauma experts from OU-Tulsa to consult at elementary schools to help teachers understand children in their classrooms.
  3. Rather than paying $2 million for a controversial, untested one-size-fits all disciplinary program like No Nonsense Nurturer, use site-based, brain-science tested supported techniques.
  4. Pay teachers more and treat then as professionals. Extend the school day or provide tutoring and enrichment activities after school. Rather than using Teach for America recruits as teachers, use them as tutors and afterschool program managers.
  5. Properly maintain school buildings, and provide books and resources.
  6. Identify where wrap-around services are needed and provide social/mental/physical health services, support for homeless students, non-English speaking students, and those who are hungry.
  7. Adequately fund the Students with Disabilities Act so that enough services could be provided for these students.

These are just a few of the things that might help improve education, but they are not quick fixes, nor are they flashy. Maybe we could ask ourselves, including the generous philanthropists that are attempting to reinvent public schools, how we should be spending our money. What are we getting from high-priced consultants? How are we helping all children by pouring money into scripted programs or corporate charters or self-paced computer learning?

Charters are not new. We have a generation of children who have already been through this experiment, and it has not been a resounding success. Maybe it would be a good time to go back and ask professional educators, teachers in the classroom, what they need.

I think TSAS staff and administrators would probably be on the same page with some of those items on my list, but what do they have to say about the corporate, data-driven accountability, free-market, deregulation, disruption and privatization movement of many charter school operators?


Categories: Editor’s Blog