Choices, Charters, and Competition

Why I Hope We Think Before We “Start” Charter Schools

Next year, I’ll be teaching at a charter school.

Previous to that, I taught at a (different) charter school.

The differences between the 2 schools are like night and day for lots of reasons— population, resources, prior education experience of students, landmass (I taught in LA previously). The biggest difference, though, was in the what the purpose of the two schools felt like.

At the school I will be teaching at, we identify ourselves as a Research and Development school for curriculum innovation. The school’s history has been as a research and development school since the mid-60s. Our parents know that their students may be asked to try out experimental curriculum, or that we may have different school systems or amount of time in school. They know we measure success at the school differently than our public school counterparts. I knew that was the purpose of the school when I was hired. In all ways, it aligns to what I believe charter schools SHOULD be: the R&D of the education sector.

The previous school I taught at— don’t get me wrong— had a lot of merits. Teachers had more autonomy since we were part of our own, smaller, union. We had what felt like more say in how our school ran. Our school was smaller than the local public high school. Besides that, though, I can’t tell you what made us different from a regular, public school. I have no idea why what we were doing at our school couldn’t be done at the local public school, except that the local public school decisions were mired in debates between and around two of the largest education entities in the nation: the California Teachers Union and LAUSD. Besides that, I see no reason why what we were doing at my charter in LA couldn’t have been done at the local high school down the street.

And there is my concern when it comes to the charter school’s, and how they often get confused with “school choice” movements.

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Last night, I ended up at a dinner celebrating the birthday Milton Friedman, the guy who authored Capitalism and Freedom. While I should’ve googled what I was attending before I agreed to attend it (my bad), I was ill-prepared for some of the statements I heard, such as (to paraphrase): ‘Freidman believed that competition was essential. We should be competing to see who can give the best education for our keiki, doesn’t that sound like a good idea?’

My stomach turned. Fortunately, I had other plans, so I left after the opening address and dinner.

What I wanted to scream was “NO. ‘Competition’ implies that we’re starting from level playing fields to begin with. IF WE COMPETE THAT IMPLIES SOMEONE WILL BE AT THE BOTTOM AND IT WILL LIKELY BE OUR ALREADY-DISENFRANCHISED POPULATIONS. WE SHOULD JUST ALL BE STRIVING TO GIVE ALL KIDS A GREAT EDUCATION. AGHHHHHH” *runs out screaming*

And this is where I hope my friends, especially those of us coming out of social-justice orgs bright-eyed-and-eager (including myself in this) stop and take pause.

Charters should be a place where we can try new stuff in education. Innovative curriculum, education driven by the express desire of a community, one-to-one tech, project based or inquiry based learning, Native-language education, land/place-based education— stuff we want to try out before we start pushing out the curriculum en masse. But if your charter just uses a bunch of education buzzwords like “global learner,” or “21st century students,” I hope you take a second to stop and ask— do you want to innovate? Or do you just want to provide a choice that you have control over?

I know it’s tempting— we feel like education is incredibly bureaucratic and highly hierarchal and that, as teachers, we’re under-appreciated. We think, “if only I could run this, if I only I answered to people who knew what I did…” It makes us long for control in a system that often feels like we have very little of it among the red-tape and generations of ugly and unchanging debate.

But we have to ask: is the work we’re doing really driving innovation or serving a community need? Or is the work we’re doing simply serving as a band-aid on a gushing wound of educational inequity? Is your school really trying to enact change, or is it just acting as a choice for those who know how to take it and increasing competition in an already unequal playing field? I worry that if the language is that we’re going to “start” a school, we forget that schools ALREADY exist there— the question is whether or not we can serve them.

What always stops me, though, is remembering the drive I used to make to work each morning in LA. On my way to my charter school, I’d stop and pass the local high school, seeing kids streaming in and out. Now, when I look back, I have to ask myself: was the work I was doing at that charter really better placed there? Or would my resources, the state’s financial resources, the best minds of education— should I be pushing those to help the school down the street? Shouldn’t we all be trying to make sure the school down the street, the kids down the street, are just as able to get a great chance at education as we are?

That equality, that opportunity for all kids to actually be able to attain a fantastic education at no-cost— isn’t that what will actually make us free? I worry anything else will only continue to perpetuate the inequality our nation already faces— and with it, the constraints and consequences of our forefather’s decisions.