Charters can’t be our model

April 29, 2014

I READ with interest the response by John Yanno and Peter Lamphere ("The whole charter system is at fault") to my article "The power to stop the charters?", and I think Yanno and Lamphere have made an important contribution to the discussion of how to confront the charter movement effectively.

I argued that the extremely well-financed charter lobby speaks for a specific model of charter school, one that is based on driving up test scores by any means necessary, including pushing out students who cannot perform as expected, bullying parents and students and displacing public schools.

It is both accurate and tactically appropriate to acknowledge that not all charter schools are based on this model, and I specifically mentioned schools with a mission of serving students with a very high level of need for support because of homelessness, child welfare involvement, or the impact of mass incarceration. Because these schools not only welcome but seek out students who would be pushed out or discouraged from applying for the more typical charter school, it is important to take them into account in developing a response to charterization.

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As Yanno and Lamphere point out, however, we should not take the position that charterization is the appropriate way to create progressive education models or to serve students with unique needs. My article should not be read as suggesting that we alternatively embrace charterization as progressive and oppose it as destructive based on the design and behavior of the individual charter school.

It is deeply problematic that for some educators and social service professionals, charterization is seen as the only viable option to create innovative programs, often involving partnerships with community-based organizations offering supports and specialized expertise not typically available in public schools. They typically have little or nothing in common ideologically with the Michelle Rhees, Carl Icahns and Eva Moskowitzes of the charter world.

Nevertheless, as Yanno and Lamphere argue, our position should be that, while the universe of charter schools contains some extremely valuable programs, these programs can and should be created within public schools. The trade-off in creating programs to serve students with a need for specialized support is that we are forced to concentrate and isolate "special needs populations," which is at best a necessary evil. Since these populations are over-represented in special education--because of the experiences of the students rather than their intrinsic characteristics--we also contribute to the segregation of students classified as disabled.

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This concentration wouldn't be necessary if all public schools were adequately resourced to provide appropriate support to all students, and if the bureaucracy allowed public school educators the time and flexibility to collaborate with other professionals as needed to meet students' individual needs. That goal is not furthered by supporting the creation of innovative programs outside the public school system. We should support innovative programs in public schools as a step toward bringing the supports to the students, rather than the other way around.

Finally, we are also fighting the neoliberal agenda that creates the need for these programs in the first place by contributing to homelessness, child welfare intervention, mass incarceration and privatization. The charter school movement is a prominent part of this agenda. The position that we will support one manifestation of the neoliberal agenda, but only when it helps to take the edge off the others, is simply not tenable.

The discussion needs to continue about how to confront the charter school movement in a way that doesn't alienate parents, educators and community members who value the progressive charters that do exist, but instead wins them over to a demand to replicate and expand these models within the public school system.
Don Lash, New York City

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