After a somewhat celebratory post, I would like to continue logging my criticisms of RTTT.  A previous RTTT post (Part 4) outlined the various point values of the initiative’s major priority areas and highlighted some of the more valuable subareas.  Judging from relative point values, “Great teachers and leaders” is the area of greatest importance for RTTT.  I will dedicate an entire blogpost to this area soon enough.  Right now I would like to focus on another area that at first glance seems less important in terms of point value.  “Turning around the lowest achieving schools” as a priority is worth only 50 points (compared to 125 for “Great teachers and leaders”), but 40 of those points are connected to a very limited outline of four turnaround options, three of which provide entry points for charter schools (turnaround, restart, and school closure).  In addition, 40 more points can be found in the “General” section connected to ensuring charter school friendly environments.  Together, these 80 points make for a valuable chunk of the application.  So, what’s the problem?  To answer that question, you have to understand the problem of widespread charter schools.

The early charter school movement was led by progressive educators who thought that in these alternative settings they’d be able to display for traditional district public schools how to do education differently.  Charters would be limited and function as test sites from which good ideas could be plucked, replicated, and implemented in the traditional schools.  The current RI law limiting the number of charter school operators in the state was made in this spirit of limited function.  However, the law was just modified increasing the charter school operator cap from 20 to 35 in an attempt to help RI’s RTTT application.  With 13 current operators in the state, there is now ample room for charter school growth.  Perhaps too much given a loophole in the charter school regulations that allows a single operator to manage multiple schools sites through a single charter.  For example, the RI Mayoral Academies can expand to additional sites without increasing the total number of charters in the eyes of the charter school cap law.  Unfortunately, the charter school movement has largely lost its progressive focus, and it has changed to be dominated by conservative interests intent on replacing, not informing or enhancing, traditional public schools.

Exposing the unfortunate reality that charter school proliferation has created in other places (like in New York City) is key to understanding my distaste for this RTTT priority.  First, most respectable research on charter schools shows that, on average, they do no better at educating students than their traditional public school counterparts.  Moreover, studies have shown that charter schools do worse for populations like special education students and English language learners by systematically excluding them.  The selectivity, and thus exclusivity, of charter schools is a major problem.  Even those that claim to admit students by random lottery still have an application process for their lottery, and even if selected via lottery, charter schools have the option to choose to maintain a student’s enrollment or not.  Students and families who do not fit the mold are often encouraged to leave charter schools, resulting in student bodies that are exclusive and display the least resistance to schooling.

Further, celebrated charter schools like KIPP and Roxbury Prep are notorious for high teacher burnout and turnover.  In fact, many leaders of charter schools will freely share that they expect high turnover.  They are content with recruiting young, inexperienced teachers that they can work to the bone for a small handful of years and replace with a new crop of elite college grads.  Not only is this model unsustainable, it is certainly not scalable, thus offering no real solution to widespread challenges facing urban school districts.  Some charter school teachers who would like to make teaching a longer-term career and who know that students benefit from a stable teacher corps have begun to organize and unionize in response to the misguided charter school attitudes toward teacher burnout.

One may wonder why, with such questionable outcomes and unsustainable models, charter schools seem to be getting so much attention from RTTT.  I believe this attention largely stems from interests that are far from having students’ education at the center.  Instead, there are many charter school interests that view public education as a vast industry with a wealth of resources to exploit and profit from.  As charter schools siphon off money from local school districts, they open up an entirely new source of capital from which private interests can profit.  Instead of being governed by public regulatory bodies (school boards, committees, and even mayors) that oversee contracts and manage budgets, charter school monies are opened up to a less regulated market.  Thus, conservative interests that would like to see any and all public goods and services privatized see charter school models as a step closer to a privatized public school system.  These interests have little to do with the education of students, and more to do with the commodification of education as something to package, market, sell, and profit from.

As RTTT promotes charter school options, we must question whether this direction makes sense for a system of public education in a supposed democratic society.  I believe that public education should be democratically run, as an educated citizenry is the foundation of a functional democracy.  I do not believe that the market forces behind the current charter school movement provide a viable democratic model.  I understand that public schools in urban America have never really been run in a way that is truly accountable to the communities they serve and have been plagued by corrupt school boards and mayoral leaders.  But, I want to see communities work hard to establish and ensure democratic control of public schools, and stepping toward the proliferation of more charter schools is a step in the wrong direction.

When engaging in discussions regarding charter schools in RI, it is important for youth, parents, and educators to think critically about how reclaim the charter schools movement so that it can return to its progressive roots.  It’s not that we should eliminate charter schools all together, but that we should view them in the proper light.  They are useful as models, demonstrations, and limited alternatives from which district schools need to learn so that all students and communities benefit.  We need to pressure district schools to adopt promising practices from successful charter school models.  This means building authentic community-based power that can help districts and teacher unions understand what they need to do in order to change.  Charter schools should not be seen as replacements for district schools and public school management should be as directly accountable to the students, parents, and teachers as possible.