Opinion: Now's the Time to Reset Charter School Debate

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Every year, many charter school networks stage a protest in New York City, calling for more support. This is from the 2015 event.

Just a couple of weeks ago, you could hear the joyous patter of back-to-school energy across the city yet I felt mostly fear and anxiety. As much as I love this time of year, I dreaded the return to the pitched battle around charter schools which, to me, has devolved into a food fight between zealots.

The histories of the charter school movement and the education reform movement — two different things entirely — are complicated and co-mingled. Suffice it to say, it doesn't have to be like this. Luckily, a recent event gave me hope we can move beyond the same old fight this year.

Dr. Betty Rosa, the new chancellor of the New York Board of Regents, recently addressed my group, the Coalition of Community Charter Schools. As she spoke, I had the sense of something new in the wind, something that may move us beyond stalemate. Dr. Rosa started talking about ESSA, the federal education law. The Every Student Succeeds Act backs away from many of the federal carrots and sticks of school reform and returns more power and accountability to the states. Dr. Rosa said she would like to see a more thoughtful and broader way of looking at accountability, perhaps through the prism of "multiple proficiencies" rather than only standardized tests. She said she would like to see “education practice inform policy” instead of the other way around.

Those are very cheering words to educators, particularly those of us who want charter schools to return to their roots of being incubators and innovators for best school practices. I believe many in the charter school movement have lost their way, in no small part because of the relentless push by the education reform movement, particularly the accountability and outcomes-based reformers.

As a long-time progressive educator, I’m happy to concede several important points to these reformers. First, we should not make excuses for an inability to provide a great education to all our children. Second, despite misgivings about the narrowness of standardized tests, the data gathered from them is valuable and actionable. There is merit, too, in the civil rights argument that if we were not sufficiently shaming ourselves over the poor academic outcomes from black and brown children we might be insufficiently moved to address the achievement gap. I respect those arguments and credit reformers for forcing them. But ed-reform orthodoxy has had a chilling effect on what should be a joyous vocation and it has narrowed programs and goals, especially in charter schools. 

As co-director of a group that represents independent charter schools in New York City, the damage to the charter brand has been frustrating. The schools in our coalition are among the most innovative public schools in the city. Some member schools focus on the needs of English language learners; others serve over-age, under-credited youth. We have schools that cater to students on the autism spectrum, and others that model every classroom to be inclusive of students with special needs. Seventeen of our schools have collective bargaining agreements with the teachers' union.

But that's not what most people think of when they think of charter schools. That's because there has been a narrowing of choice and the creation of a powerful juggernaut in the education world, fueled with investment and philanthropic money drawn to the growth and scale of large charter school networks. And it has fostered an equal and opposite counter-movement enjoined by teacher unions, progressive educators and those who see charters as a stalking horse for privatization of public resources. 

My hope is that ESSA will force us to reframe the education conversation, and allow charters to return to a role we always envisioned for ourselves. If charter schools are no longer in a forced marriage with the defenders of orthodox test-based accountability, we could help define accountability in ways that more meaningfully address the challenges presented us in the 21st century.

We are by no means advocating a retreat from literacy and numeracy standards but the truly pressing problems of our times are social and environmental as well as academic. A continued narrow focus of accountability is detrimental to the needs of our children and a democratic society.

This is what our education must address. And this must and can be a shared goal among all thoughtful educators and policy-makers, wherever they fall on the reform spectrum or whatever kind of school they choose.