Wednesday, July 6, 2011

my (evolving) opinion on charter schools

It seems there's a ton of backlash regarding charter schools and yet they keep growing and enrolling. I've worked in and with three charter schools so I have some knowledge of what they're like, but the nice and not so nice thing, depending on your opinion or information needed, is that my experience does not reflect all charters as they are, by design, all very different in operation, funding, procedures, law, attendance, etc.

My views and opinions are below. They represent just 3 charters in one state. You will see some things in both categories because, well, life is not black and white. And charters are all very different so someone's experience could be the polar opposite of mine.

What I like:
1. Freedom to choose curriculum. I can choose Pearson, Houghton Mifflin, websites, novels, guest speakers, you name it. I am not bound by the district or state to follow a curriculum, and can say sayonara to scripted curriculum. Well, at least in the charters I've been in!
2. Free market, fail/succeed unlike others - Public schools can be under program improvement for 5 years before anything really happens and even then, after, say, replacing half the staff, they can continue to "suck". Charter schools have to meet guidelines and benchmarks (esp. when overseen by a district, county, or state) and if they fail to meet just one benchmark they have to shut down. Talk about accountability!
3. Choice- You're not bound by geography. What I mean is, let's say your neighborhood school is anything but desirable, with charters you can skip the school next door and enroll in a charter...or at least their lottery. Parents who can't afford private or home school can at least have some schools to chose from. Yes, perhaps the charter performs no better on the state test (many folks' criticism of charters) but tests don't measure everything and if your child is happier, feels safer, etc at the charter than the neighborhood school, isn't that worth everything?
4. Special ed, in my experience- Okay, I've heard charters deny sp.ed students eve though it is illegal. I've had students tell me such-and-such charter told them there was a waiting list (when there wasn't) to avoid serving them, but that's all hearsay. All I know is what I know, having sat in on prospective enrollment meetings, IEPs, and gone through student data. Where I've worked, we never said no to a sp.ed student. We did suggest alternatives to a mother with a severely autistic child but we said we were still an open option too, it was her decision what school best fit her child's needs. We'd had downs syndrome and autistic children before. In fact our sp.ed population one year, was 35%. Most schools in my state can only have I think 10% sp. ed demographics/enrollment (don't quote me here though) and so students are either denied service or shuffled to another school in the district with "room" or sent to a special day school where the percentage isn't a matter. Charters that follow the law accept an unlimited number of sp. ed students as long as they have the services. And if not, SELPA, local districts, and non-district agencies offer sp.ed services so there's no excuse.
5. Hiring/qualifications- Elective teachers do not need a credential. And anyone can run a school because heck, there are some great people out there that could run a school who don't have an MA in Administration (pick me pick me!)'ll see that this is also a negative.
6. Teacher freedom- Similar to curriculum, teachers can teach what/how they want as long as it follows standards and blueprints and the like. That means I can teach long division for one "extra" day compared to the class next door if I need to, no lock-step instruction. I can gasp! Have my students read an entire novel instead of the 3-page things-removed excerpt in the textbook.
7. hours- Not generally unionized, charter are not bound by the contract hours so they can maximize instruction. One of my school's hours were 8:00am- 4:00pm with a half hour lunch. With so many standards, how can you effectively cover everything between, say, 7:00-2:00? Although the verdict is still out if more hours = more learning.
8. Mobility professionally speaking - Ok so in a "regular" school I'm stuck as the 9th grade English teacher for life. I might get to be the English dept. chair or a master teacher with a student teacher after eons of working. The end. In a charter I can be that 9th grade English teacher and then wow, I can work my way up to teaching AP and journalism in just two years because I "proved" myself, no hoops to jump, and maybe I'd land a dean's position later on. In reality, I actually went from grade 10-12 English to 9-12 in half a year, then the next year just 9th but that was a promotion (I was the only one they felt could "handle" the wily Freshman) as I became a part-time administrator as they recognized my leadership and drive. In a "regular" school I wouldn't even be tenured yet, low in the pecking order so there was no way I could move up in the world yet until I was higher on the food chain.
9. Non union/at will - Charters can fire "bad" teachers without the two years and thousands of dollars it takes on average to rid of tenured "bad" teachers. And not having tenured job security, you work your butt off to keep your job. But wait, does that mean you work too hard, I mean there is some nice security to tenured jobs and all teachers work hard.... true. But, all teachers before tenure (meaning those teaching for two to five years depending where you work) are not tenured, at will. No one seems to mention these guys.
10, Leadership - Entrepreneurs and visionaries can lead a school, and it can me more of a team effort, not a top down leadership. Can... meaning, not always.
11. categorical funds - Instead of buying new textbooks (but they're only 3 years old) and snazzy wall borders, a new gym and a pay boost for the superintendent while firing 10 teachers and ridding of the after school program.... without categorical funds, the charter can say "hmmm..those new math books are nice but ours are 3 yrs old, they can make it this year, let's put them off and instead keep the after school program". See the public often doesn't know about cat. funds and complains "why are you building a new gym and yet firing teachers?!?!" and with cat. funds that is a-o-k to do because you might have tons of building funds and no salary funds. Without cat. funds you can move money around.

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