Theresa Kelly Gegen is the editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.
Respondents to the 2014 PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools established a curious dichotomy: While 64 percent of Americans surveyed favor charter schools, and 67 percent were for allowing parents to select any school in their district, only 31 percent of Americans approved of allowing students to attend private schools at public expense.
School choice is a common refrain of public education reformers. However, “choice” is an inexact word for a complex system. Do people who agree that they are for “school choice” really know what they are saying?
“People like the idea of freedom,” says Roger Eddy, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. “America is about freedom, and choice is part of freedom. If you ask Americans if they’re ‘for choice,’ without any other explanation, most are going to say ‘yes, of course I am.’ And that’s because choice allows us, and has in the history of this country, to innovate.
“But I don’t think people understand the whole picture,” Eddy continued. “Choice can mean charters that are authorized outside of the local board of education. It can mean public funds — meant to support all students in a community — will be diverted. Choice might mean that public funds go to private or for-profit entities.”
Eddy’s concern with the education reform movements starts with students.
“Defining choice starts, ideally, with recognizing that children are different,” Eddy says. “All students are expected to have a basic set of academic skills that are necessary for them to be productive or successful, no matter what they do in life. Beyond that, we need to develop opportunities for students who don’t fit into the traditional niche, or the atmosphere, that we have in public education. We need to develop quality choices for them. In many cases, public schools do provide quality choices within the public school structure.”
Challenging charter choice
A charter school is a publicly funded school that is privately managed by an organization that established a charter with the state. The charter is a performance contract that details the school’s mission and goals. The charter exempts a school from certain state or local statutes or regulations, which gives it greater flexibility than a regular public school.
According to section 27A-5 of the Illinois School Code, “A charter school shall be a public, nonsectarian, nonreligious, non-home based, and nonprofit school. A charter school shall be organized and operated as a nonprofit corporation or other discrete, legal, nonprofit entity authorized under the laws of the State of Illinois.”
The movement towards charters “clearly reveals the desire that people have for their children to be well-educated,” Eddy says. “Education is the best hope for many who are in a hopeless situation. The real question, after 25 years of the charter school reform movement, is ‘What do we have to show for these experiments?’”
According to the Illinois Charter School Funding Task Force Report (2014), the current charter school law “gives latitude to charter authorizers, (school districts and the State Charter School Commission), to set the funding rates for charter schools between 75 and 125 percent of the host district’s Per Capita Tuition Charge. As a result, there is significant variation in the rates of funding that charter schools receive, both compared to charters in other districts, and compared to district schools.”
“In Illinois, when the money follows the child, it does so in a manner – because of the way charters are funded – that depletes funding for the rest of students who aren’t going to be provided that choice,” Eddy says. “I don’t think people understand that if you’re ‘for choice,’ you might be supporting defunding your local public school. I don’t see the value, in areas that we know are poor, of taking money away from the schools, to establish a charter. But that’s what we do.”
The charter school movement, at its inception, was to create schools where innovation could be tested – best practice labs which operate free of certain state and federal policies and regulations. Held to the same academic standards as traditional public schools, charters have less regulation and can concentrate on subject areas (for example STEM or fine arts), college preparation, or differentiated instructional methods. However, fundamental to the success of the charter school movement was the notion of choice.
“In the early 1990s, the theory behind a charter school was to find out what works and then replicate best practice everywhere,” Eddy says. “So a group would write a charter and present it to a public school, and the board says, ‘we’re not ready to buy all the way into that, but let’s try it. Create a charter school. If it works, we’ll implement this best practice everywhere.’ But to do that, you have to operate outside of some mandate or rule, because otherwise you’d already be doing it.”
Annenberg and accountability
The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University is pro-reform and pro-charter. In its 2014 report, Public Accountability for Charter Schools: Standards and Policy Recommendations for Effective Oversight, Annenberg steps away from a commitment to standards-free operation, and brings to bear the realities of public education accountability. Annenberg suggests that too many cases of fraud and abuse, too little attention to equity, and no guarantee of academic innovation or excellence is because charters lack effective oversight.
“So where’s the distinction now?” asks Eddy.
What Annenberg promotes is cooperation between traditional districts and charter schools, with representative and transparent governance. In Public Accountability for Charter Schools, Annenberg outlines seven standards and recommendations to provide “guidance to those tasked with charter school oversight and concrete recommendations for access, equity, and public accountability.” Eddy reflects how these seven standards apply to IASB’s position on charters in Illinois.
1. Traditional districts and charter schools should work together to ensure a coordinated approach that serves all children.
“Charter schools should be part of the traditional public school system, authorized by the local school district,” Eddy says. “They should not just work together, but have the same governing board. The biggest part of this is serving all children. The idea is that some kids would not have the opportunity to experience wonderful education practices that charters are discovering – what about all kids? Unless we can include the benefits to all children, we really can’t say a charter is successful. Probably many of the kids at a charter were successful students in the school that they were at. Charters and public schools should work together, charters and public schools should be coordinated, and the governing body should be the public school.”
2. School governance should be representative and transparent.
“Just because you change the name of the institution, doesn’t mean it’s exempt from transparency. It’s still public money,” Eddy says. “As locally elected officials, school board members are subject to laws and regulations. Just because we take public funds that elected governing bodies were responsible for, and funnel those to this experiment, doesn’t mean there should be different rules of conduct. The governing structure has nothing to do with the freedom needed in other areas to identify best practices in education. Those things are mutually exclusive. You can’t make the argument that we need this governing board to be free of regulation related to transparency, because that’s not where the education innovation comes from.”
3. Charter schools should ensure equal access to interested students and prohibit practices that discourage enrollment or disproportionately push enrolled students out of the school.
“We really can’t let public funds become used for segregation purposes,” Eddy says. “How do you ensure equal access to interested students? You have to take special ed students. You have to not care about ethnicity, poverty levels, or at-risk. All of those kids come through the public school doors. All of those should, in a proportionate number at least, be enrolled in charter schools. If we really are identifying best practice for all, your experiment is not clean if you’re scrubbing one of the variables in a way that guarantees success.”
4. Charter school discipline policy should be fair and transparent.
“What are the best practices that we should be replicating?” Eddy asks. “Some charters will say discipline is one of the key factors. But what is it about that discipline that is evident in charter schools that shouldn’t be replicated at the public school? When students are removed from a charter school because of discipline issues, it conflicts with identifying discipline as a difference that the charter school offers. Those students then go back to the public school, which ruins the experiment. Discipline policies should be fair, transparent, and appropriate and not exclude participation.”
5. All students deserve equitable and adequate school facilities. Districts and charter schools should work together to ensure that facilities arrangements do not disadvantage students in either sector.
“I’ve seen amazing charter facilities. And that’s good. But how is that equitable? It’s not equitable to students that don’t get in. And if that’s really what we want, we should want it for all kids. It takes a tremendous investment of capital, but it’s one we should make. I have no problem seeing improved public school facilities with public authorized charters. As long as they are subject to transparency that should be employed when public funds are involved.”
6. Online charter schools should be better regulated for quality, transparency, and the protection of student data.
“In Illinois we have a hold on ‘virtual’ charters. One online K-12 provider was exposed as being less than quality. Now that’s a shame, because public schools that as an alternative, offer online, virtual, interactive, high-quality education that can really help deliver individualized education to kids. It can help notably with competency-based education efforts. The application holds a lot of promise, especially in areas where there’s not a lot of wealth or opportunity to individualize. Unfortunately access is still an issue. Places that need it the most, often have the least access for individualized programs. We must ensure the quality of any virtual program.”
7. Monitoring and oversight of charter schools are critical to protect the public interest. They should be strong and fully funded by the state.
“Of course. So should public schools,” respond Eddy. “We’ve been talking about unfunded mandates forever. It’s interesting that it becomes a conflict in philosophies between charter proponents and those who are who stuck with the mandates ― charters assume less mandates should be OK for them, but why not for all? They say these are over-regulatory, burdensome, and bureaucratic obstacles. They are, plus often unnecessary and unfunded. Charter school proponents think overregulation is wrong. But it’s always been wrong and burdensome for public schools.”
Choice is an American ideal, choice promoting innovation in education is of great consequence. But innovation for the benefit of few at the expense of many – with greater expense and less shared innovation on the horizon – isn’t the right definition of choice. The popular refrain of choice in education starts with a specious fallacy.
“You would have to believe that the locally elected officials in a community don’t care about the quality of education their children get,” says Eddy. “And of course they do.”
Eddy would like to see the effects of “choice” applied to all schools.
“Let’s collect new research,” Eddy suggested. “Reformers love research. Let’s research the best practices inspired by successful charter schools over the past 25 years, then draft an omnibus bill and allow best practices to take place for every child, not just the ones whose number was on a ping-pong ball. It strikes me as sad that such a thing can determine whether or not a student gets into a school with best practices. Every child should benefit from those best practices.”
Tony Smith, the recently appointed Illinois State Superintendent of Education, has said that charter schools have a place in the Illinois’ K-12 situation, with an emphasis on quality for all.
“We want to increase access, and increase quality,” Smith said at the 2015 Illinois Association of School Administrators conference in October. “But you can’t drain the public system of resources and then blame the system. We have serious structural equality we’ve got to address.”
Eddy suggests that the current waiver process available to public school districts leaves decisions in the hands of people who do not represent local taxpayer interests. People recognize overregulation in public education as in other areas. Within certain standards of safety and basic structure for curriculum and quality, best practices can be determined in a local way that makes local sense. Reducing regulations on public schools allows for local creativity, such as unit charters, cooperative high schools, collaborative offerings across school districts, and competency-based education reflecting local factors and conditions. Potential choices include co-operative entities for special education, arts, vocational and technical education, and alternative education.
“The theory behind that is to allow the public to operate in a manner they think is best,” Eddy says. “It’s a pretty simple theory.”
Starting with the local community is a common theme behind the efforts of IASB.
“Let’s work within our communities to improve whatever each community needs to improve,” Eddy says. “What do the demographics reveal and what supports does a community need to provide quality education to every child? It’s different for every child.
“We need quality choices. If you’re a junior in high school and you want to become career ready, and there’s a dual-credit program that leads to a job that pays $70,000 a year after two years of community college and two years of blended high school/college: that’s a quality choice.”
Redefining choice includes recognizing that children are different and providing alternatives for them, relieving the burdens restricting innovation for all students and schools, allowing collaboration in creative ways and finding coalescence behind freedom and local autonomy.
“American people are for choice. We are for competition,” Eddy says. “But you have to have a level playing field to compete, and that doesn’t exist when the rules don’t apply to everyone equally. That’s not necessarily American, either.
“This is an opportunity, but democracy’s still paramount,” Eddy says. “Sometimes we go backward. But this is too important. The promise of public education is for every child.”
Annenberg’s Public Accountability for Charter Schools: Standards and Policy Recommendations for Effective Oversight, with the seven standards and recommendations for charter school accountability, is available here: annenberginstitute.org/sites/default/files/CharterAccountabilityStds.pdf
The full report and associated materials for the PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools can be accessed here: pdkpoll2015.pdkintl.org/