The Charter School Crusader

If the trend continues, parents across the income spectrum won’t face a tapestry of alternatives to the mainstream school district, each one with its own name and unique approach. Instead, they will get to choose from a handful of charter-school networks that are likely to make the original district—the one governed by an elected school board or the mayor, depending on the city—more peripheral.


Another new book, Reinventing America’s Schools, by David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute, describes the spread of charter schools as the shedding of an antiquated bureaucratic skin. He uses a nautical metaphor to illustrate the distinctive way charter schools work. At traditional public schools, the various layers of government are responsible for both steering and rowing. They steer by supplying funding and deciding what schools should broadly aim for: what kids should learn, and by when. The government also rows, hiring the bureaucrats and superintendents and teachers charged with meeting those goals. In the charter-school model, government responsibility ends at steering—providing funding, deciding which measures of success matter, and holding schools accountable for results. Choosing whom to hire (and fire), what to pay them, what else to spend money on, how to design curricula—all those decisions are contracted out to private, mostly nonprofit organizations. Those are in turn governed by boards usually—in the case of larger networks like Success—made up of wealthy donors.

Critics of charter schools, a large and vocal group, call this privatization, a word Moskowitz considers an inaccurate smear. True believers like Osborne, whose book and project at the Progressive Policy Institute are both sponsored by some of the same philanthropists promoting the Success model, call it “a 21st century system.” Whatever you label it, the model differs from the public schools you grew up with in another big way: Kids aren’t zoned into schools by neighborhood. Families enter a lottery system, applying to the school or schools they like best and seeing where their child gets in.

The zones that create the beloved institution of the neighborhood school are notoriously impermeable to integration.>

Almost everything you’ve heard that’s great or terrible about charter schools flows from these two big changes. Because of the difference in governance, charter-school teachers are less likely to be represented by unions. Thus, depending on whom you talk to, charters are either union-busters or mercifully free from union strictures that put teachers before students. Disciplinary policies also reflect charter schools’ monopoly on rowing. Traditional public schools must follow suspension and expulsion policies written by the school district; charter schools write their own rules, and many have a no-excuses style that mandates good posture, precisely folded arms and legs, and silent hallways—injunctions some hail as essential to a strong school culture and others skewer as paternalistic and inhumane.

The lottery innovation—also known as “school choice”—invites perhaps the most-polarized interpretations. A district can allow one of its schools to expel a student, but it still bears responsibility for making sure he is educated somewhere else. Similarly, a district has to educate every child in its purview, whether she started in kindergarten or arrived yesterday from Jamaica, and no matter how far behind she may be academically. Many charter schools, by contrast, admit students only during the once-a-year lottery, and sometimes only in certain grades. But while critics see the lottery approach as an abdication of responsibility, Moskowitz and Osborne champion it as a tool for social justice. Neighborhood schools, they argue, institutionalize housing segregation, making a child’s zip code his educational destiny. Charter schools, by contrast, hand the power of choice to parents who can’t afford to exercise it through real estate.

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