There is no “Charter Movement” the Questions 5 Keys Charter Raises that Critics Can’t Answer

As a member of the so-called “charter movement” I have to tell you: there is no such thing.  Seriously, the “charter movement” is a movement in the same way a bowel movement is a movement (anyone with a capable infrastructure, some inputs, and a little luck can have one—garbage in, garbage out, eat your fiber and you are good).

I was reminded of this looking at the recent article on Five Keys Charter School, a school started in the San Francisco Jail 10 years ago, the first and only public school in a jail in CA, and they are still handing out diplomas.

Someone explain to me how this is “privatizing” or destroying public education, and how these young people would be better off without this charter.  Read the article, read about this young man, well he’s 49, who just graduated,

“I put myself in here,” he said a day earlier, stepping out of algebra class to talk. “I’m just trying a day at a time to be productive.

“Something good, not bad, is coming out of this.”

On Tuesday, his mother, Remi Releford, leaned on a cane as she watched her son graduate from high school.

“He never did graduate before,” she said. “But he sure did this time.”

So you hate all charters and want to close this one too?

This “movement” really shares nothing in common with any social or political movement of our time.  So when critics or advocates of the “charter movement” emerge, the broad brush betrays either a lack of understanding or deliberate red herringism, and in either case it stagnates us in a meaningless debate about something that does not exist.

And I am not just talking shite her.

Our century’s oracle, Wikipedia, defined “social movements” as sharing three criteria: “a network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in a political or cultural conflict, on the basis of a shared collective identity”. [6]

After working in the charter sector for some 20 plus years, there is only one thing that ideologically unites the “charter movement”, and that is a desire to be independent, which when you think about it is about the weakest organizing principle for a social movement you can imagine.  There is no shared set of strategies, no shared definition of goals, no political affiliations there is no common thread, no “shared collective identity.”  It’s a big tent with no walls.

So there is no “charter movement”.  When you get in a room with these folks, it is a mix of idealists, opportunists, narcissists, servant leaders, visionaries and fools.  Many of the people within the room hate each other and are vocal critics of their alleged partners in crime.

The “charter movement” draws and takes all comers.  Some are former district staff frustrated with the bureaucracy and lack of autonomy, some are free marketers who philosophically believe (absent research) that the market will rescue schools, some are pro-union, some anti-union, some want a new union, some are well intentioned and fail, some are less well intentioned and succeed, and there is a wide range within.

A charter is merely a vehicle, and all manner of driver can join the road.  Some, like the Reset Foundation or Five Keys, in California, drive those charters to the most challenged students, those facing immense challenges, behind bars or re-entering society after juvenile detention respectively.

Other schools seem to drive away from those students or more selectively pack the bus with less challenging kids.  And indeed these vehicles are going in all different directions all at the same time, hopefully under the watchful eye of a charter authorizer, but not always.

I have a lot of conversations when someone hears I work with charters and says in a blanket way that the charters are either good or bad.  And yes, they are good and bad, and there is probably a broader range of quality in the charters, with the great ones truly excelling but some of the weaker schools, can fall faster and farther, without a district safety net as they spiral into closure.

So anything you can say about the “charter movement” is probably true and false at the same time depending on who in that big tent you are talking about.

So beyond scatological humor, why does this matter?

It matters because if we are to debate charter school policy or support or criticism of charter schools, we need to be clear what and whom we are talking about.  And it does not make sense to be blanket pro or anti charter.

If you are anti—are you against the school in the jail, or against unionized charters?  And if you are pro, are you in favor of some of the virtual charter schools, where students tend to lose academic ground over time, or unionized charters?

Charter schools are here to stay, to be against them in a blanket way misses opportunities to help students and provide quality school choices.  Similarly to give a universal thumbs-up misses the importance of accountability for results and a fair process.  And forget the broad brush, it’s a barrel bomb of paint that splatters when “charter movement” starts being thrown around.

Well-meaning participants in the debate on school reform (and I believe that to be the vast majority) want better school quality and greater equity, and we need to start talking about the specific vehicles that will get us there rather than the misleading crap which stops the conversation and pits potential allies against each other, leading to stagnation.

So forget being for or against a certain governance model or a non-existent “charter movement.”  Let’s change the debate to defining quality and equity and getting a system that transparently  holds all schools accountable on those dimensions.

Too many students and families are still waiting for quality schools.   Unfortunately the current rancor moves us away from the needed debate and has us boxing shadows for our own edification, while students continue to wait.

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