Make no mistake, charter schools are public institutions. They receive public funds, they take the broad range of students in the community through mandated lotteries, they are accountable to the state education department for meeting student performance targets, and they do not profit financially for serving our children.
What makes charter schools different from typical public schools is that they are not under the control of a district’s central office; but rather, are governed by boards of directors similar to not-for-profit organizations.
Truth in advertising: I was the first New York City public school principal to turn my school charter. My charter was the first converted to rejoin the ranks of district schools. Having firsthand experience with the same school under district and charter governance, I feel both qualified and obliged to point out the relative advantages of charter schools.
District organizations present more problems than solutions to important issues facing public education. They are often bloated bureaucratic structures that develop a life and culture independent of the schools they purportedly support. Those making the policies that emanate from the central education department often have little or no school experience and, more importantly, have no responsibility nor accountability for the results of their actions on the lives of principals and teachers, and the performance of students in their charge. More often than not, the central office manages by fiat, seemingly unaware that when the classroom doors close each morning, teachers do whatever necessary to improve student learning and get through the day.
The governance structure of charter schools, however, more closely resembles the way teachers and children interact in classrooms by avoiding the bureaucratic overhead and top-down management that burden their district school counterparts. While accountable to the state for their student performance, they remain unfettered by the external political demands that bind and often suffocate district schools. Therefore, they can be quicker and more nimble in changing approaches, practices, and programs to better serve their children. Often, charter schools belong to networks of similar schools as a result of common origin and philosophy. These networks, frequently of 15-25 schools, serve to effectively provide mutual support and accountability. They also represent an excellent way for districts to restructure, which has been the case to good effect in New York City for almost a decade.
Not every charter succeeds, but to date, the percentage of successful charters today has far outweighed their district counterparts in large urban areas throughout the country. While they haven’t solved all the problems of public education, they have created more good schools, particularly in urban areas that desperately need such opportunities for their youngsters. By establishing promising new directions structurally, programmatically, and instructionally, charter schools have earned the right to the support of those concerned with the future of all of our public schools, district and charter alike. It’s time to end the attacks on charters and begin to learn from one another how best to educate our children.