Monday, February 9, 2015

Veteran Educator Reconsiders Opinion of Charter Schools

 As a life long educator committed to our public schools, I have continued to advocate certain practices and positions including my view of Charter Schools. This book and the talk by the author has caused a 180 degree turnaround in my beliefs. I hope you will read to the end including the personal coda at the end of this (too) lengthy document and join in the conversation regarding our public schools.

Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools
Author Joel Klein
Former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education

As a lifelong educator with deep-seated feelings about the role of public schools in our country, I was excited about the opportunity to hear the author discuss his book at the Aspen Institute. I was even primed with a question. How delighted I was to be the first to pose a question. My intended question:

You have hope, as a retired principal of an inner-city school, I have none! I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that Americans are not interested in fixing the nation's schools, they just want an outstanding school for their child. Can you help me?

But I could no longer ask that question! Klein had given me an insight which had previously totally escaped me. I cannot even remember the question I finally asked or the response he gave because one of his insights totally changed my view of the potential of charter schools.

Charter schools provide poor people with a choice of schools!

What a horrible thought! One system for the rich and one for the poor? Yet how close is that to what we have? But it does characterizes the direction we are moving – private schools for the wealthy and..................

Please read on to see how my feelings are evolving.

Upon changing my residence from the Midwest to the East Coast, I had an opportunity to observe and volunteer in a broad spectrum of schools: public, charter and private in Washington, D. C. While I was impressed with the education I saw in charter schools, my public school bias gave me many questions about their effectiveness and limitations. But my experiences in private schools led me to a feeling that I had finally arrived at education's Valhalla.
How wonderful it would be if all Americans had a chance to attend a similar school which incorporated all of the positive hallmarks of education that I had studied and dreamed of for over 65 years. How judgmental I became as I realized that financially such a solution would be out of reach - that such opportunities were only present for the wealthy who only cared for their own child's education.
Thinking further I realized that my personal, middle-class background also provided me with a choice – I could choose outstanding schools for my children and grandchildren because I could choose to live in a school district that had good schools. AND contrary to most peoples thoughts, there are many outstanding PUBLIC schools in our country.

Schools of choice for the poor!
1.While this bombshell was intriguing, something about Klein's presentation still bothered me. As I thought further about this statement other problems and considerations came to mind. Schools for the poor would maintain a position I find intolerable in our democratic society. Quality charter schools should have appeal for all.

2.The effective charter schools I observed seemed to function outside the framework of both the teachers union contract and the purview of the local school board. Indeed from my 35 years of experience at all levels of education, I am aware of both the positive contribution of such a relationship as well as its limitation in the operation of the school. As a principal I both appreciated the contribution of “teachers unions” to raise the stature (and certainly salaries) of my staff, but the times I was kept from keeping the needs of students first were unfortunately legion.

3. Many school districts without using the word “charter” already have "charter like" schools that both give creative educational experiences to children, but also provide all their constituency a choice of school. These schools often go under the name of “Community High School” or “School Without Walls”.  If ways can be found for schools to operate as these do, then Charters should also be considered for control by the  citizenry under the local school board.

4. So where does that leave us? If a 89-year-older can so abruptly change a lifelong bias – even prejudice - we should as a nation have the ability to come together to change and create effective schools for all children!

And finally
Close to a century ago I recall conversing with graduate students from throughout the world and learned of their admiration for America. The two aspects of American life that they held up as being most outstanding were:
a. The opportunity of middle-class Americans to purchase a home, and
b. The American educational system.
While home ownership is a problem of recent years, the problems of American education have long simmered. It's time to stop worrying about semantics and the host of issues we have argued about in the past. Our public schools are too precious to lose and must be saved. Is there any other force or institution that can give us the unity needed so desperately in a divided country and world?

I have not read all of Klein's book, but I know there is much to ponder. Everyone interested in children would find much to consider. The postscript alone provides a challenge in only five pages with the final three lines, “..........we've long known. Too many of our schools are failing. We who can choose would never deem them acceptable for our own children. That should mean they are not acceptable for anyone's child.”
I hope you will be challenged to join in an internet dialogue about Klein's book.

A personal coda

My journey as a public school principal at all grade levels extended over a 36 year: from 1950 to 1986. It was interrupted when I was the Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. One of the most dramatic aspects of that tenure was the Hillsdale, Michigan, court case which established the fact that principals were to be considered as a part of management. Not only did this exclude them from the Michigan and national principals associations but it removed them from being considered a collegial member of the instructional staff. I believe that in the ensuing 40 years a part of the problem in education has been a result of the loss of this relationship between the principal and her/his staff. And from my (admittedly) limited acquaintance with Charter Schools, I believe that to be one of their strengths. Both Klein and Charter Schools recognize the important leadership role of the school principal.


  1. I find it fascinating that the first comment I received on my personal email is from a "big city"public school teacher who disaffected from charter schools some years ago. He cites specific reasons for doing so, namely
    - the collegial atmosphere I spoke of was not present in either of them, and
    - the learning atmosphere was not present even in those that are touted to have accomplished so much.
    It leads me to again realize how difficult it is to generalize/ how much this topic reflects individual, emotional experiences and mirrors the problem of the US Congress. Congress is so bad but yet we individually must think our representatives are great! Why else do we keep re-electing them.
    Oh the power of money and the difficulty of making change!

  2. Ron: I, too, am a "life-long educator" and my work has been in public education. I appreciate your sharing this piece and of course, some of his observations are accurate. However, I also know that charter schools are not the "answer" to our challenges with public schools. There are as many mediocre charters as a percentage of the whole as traditional public schools. Somehow, we need to learn to care about all children, not just ours, and be willing to provide both the sweat equity and the funding to ensure that poor children have not only the schools they need but the wraparound services that will ensure their health and safety that will support their learning.

    There's more on this, of course, but I'll get off my soap box for now.