Charter Schools: The Search for the Golden Mean

Summary: After lagging behind other parts of the country in establishing charter schools, the state of Washington is poised to enter the arena after enabling legislation was passed via a recent initiative. An article in the Seattle Times which explores the early stages of a charter to be run by Green Dot Public Schools, and particularly reader comments that respond, open anew the passions around charters and teachers’ unions in the Seattle schools.
Time again to talk charter schools. Online verbiage pro and con have taken on a renewed burst of energy in the city of Seattle as new charters make their debut in this fiercely progressive city.
Though we might not think so from the often negative tone of the debate, I maintain there is a rational common ground beneath the bedlam.
The state of Washington has been late to the charter school party, or the wake for public schools, to characterize the view of some. While states and locales elsewhere have been experimenting with charter schools for some years, teachers’ unions and supporters of public schools in Washington had stemmed the charter school tide until 2012, when a statewide charter initiative passed muster with the voting public.
Initiative 1240 set up governance procedures, and allowed that a modest number of charters be given the green light by the state Charter Commission. Since, ten statewide have been approved. Many are scheduled to open doors in the fall of 2015. One has opened already in Seattle. Another, a middle/high school, to be run by the charter non-profit, Green Dot Public Schools, is authorized to open in Seattle and is scheduled to do so fall, 2016.
An article about the organizing efforts for the latter school has revealed some old wounds just below the surface, judging by the comments that follow the online publication of the article in the Seattle Times. Part of the venom that erupts in the comments stems from the firing of a popular principal, Martin Floe, at Ingraham HS in Seattle a few years ago. Curiously, Green Dot has hired as their planning principal for the new charter a former Seattle school district supervisor, Bree Dusseault, who was deeply involved in the firing of Mr. Floe by then Seattle superintendent Susan Enfield. The local outcry over the firing was so great that the Mr. Floe was reinstated. Thus, on top of the wide spread skepticism of charter schools in general in Seattle, Green Dot has placed upon itself a bulls eye in the person of Ms. Dusseault. She’s back, with her new Green Dot charter portfolio.
Do go to the link above and read both the article and the comments that follow, for what amounts to a capsule of citizen positioning around charter schools. I mention Ms. Dusseault’s supervisory history only by way of clarification. In fact, there seems to me an animus expressed toward charter schools that originates well aside from Ms. Dussealt’s previous actions; she seems more a lightning rod than a current controversy herself.
One dropping in on the conversation without prior introduction might deduce that charter organizations are symphonies of the devil, through which evil manipulators line their pockets with gilded salaries, intent on the ruin of the public trust.
Not to be outdone, other voices bludgeon the public schools, and their teachers’ unions in particular, as more interested in protection of vested interest than in the welfare of students, let alone the nation.
My jaw hangs slack at the distance between perceptions expressed here. On the one hand are the assorted passionate attacks on Ms. Dusseault and Green Dot schools; on the other mistrust of teachers and teachers’ unions. To converse with the other side or to acknowledge a worthy alternative view is consorting with the enemy.
It is tempting and probably not too far from the mark to read into much of this “discussion” the public’s frustration with institutions in general.
That said, any impulse to mediation stumbles on the complexity of the issue and gaps of information hard to reconcile.
For example, on the issue of Green Dot charter schools and their legitimacy as an engine of change in Seattle, take a look at Green Dot’s current association with the Los Angeles School District and its stewardship of the former Locke High School. The curious can look at two separate reports, each apparently with some validity, and walk away wondering if the two viewpoints in fact reflect the same reality.
The first is a highly negative account of Green Dot stewardship by a former teacher at the Green Dot reinvention of Los Angeles’ Locke High School, published on the Diane Ravitch blog (which may in itself get some hackles up).
The other is a study done about the very same Green Dot reinvention by researchers at UCLA, which found progress in various measures at Locke. Check out the “Executive Summary.”
The first link implies a highly toxic work environment at Locke in which turnover and turmoil are the norm, which in turn is hard to reconcile with the academic progress reported in the UCLA study, the second link.
However, if we remember the school was failing in the first place, it is easy to conjecture that replacing personnel of all sorts was an early step in a series of upgrades. But how is the removed observer to know for sure? If the same resources focused by Green Dot had been brought to bear by the public system itself, might the modest gains documented by UCLA have happened anyway?
How to envision ground in the middle? Perhaps the pro-union, pro-teacher side acknowledges some teachers have to go who are not up to snuff, and the aggressive reformer type strives to be more careful with the tendency to scapegoat the teachers involved.
In another common drama, antagonists to the charter movement claim vehemently that charters pull money from public schools, as though the bleeding will destroy them. Yes, charters will pull money from public schools, but only in the proportion to the students who choose a charter. The state allotment per student does follow the student to the new charter school, but neither the student/teacher ratio in the original school, nor class sizes, will be impacted appreciably, so the original school is not harmed from that perspective, though its teaching staff will be downsized to match the reduction in enrollment.
On the high school level, as the school becomes smaller, elective options may be curtailed modestly, but the issue would be less relevant on the elementary level, even though complements of support staff such as counselors and nurses might diminish again proportionately to any drain of students.
Also, theoretically in a community a non-charter public school building could become underutilized if the drain to a local charter is substantial, which could be a moderate fiscal issue in the district’s budgetary process. That is, the building may cost the same to maintain with fewer students than it had originally.
Certainly the alarmist broadcast that charters fiscally endanger public schools’ survival withers under scrutiny. Muted, these claims descend to the level of a reasonable trade-off.
None of the impacts, it seems to me, warrant shutting down charters, which in their brightest iterations are legitimate laboratories for innovation and new approaches to old questions.
For their part, charter proponents would do well to remember with humility that many (even most) charters have yet to show progress beyond that of their companion local public schools, and even successful charters often cherry pick their low income students in ways that regular public schools cannot, because the latter are charged with taking and making good with all comers.
In the end, despite the messiness of the issue, I side with charters, on the notion that one good way to approach a problem is to get outside the box containing it, in order to reassemble the contents.

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One Response to Charter Schools: The Search for the Golden Mean

  1. Deb says:

    A good read. I’m with you, siding with Charters.

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