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After 25 years, why are there still misgivings about charter schools?

The architect of the first charter school law in America spent three years persuading colleagues in the Minnesota legislature that independent schools started by teachers and parents could enhance public education.

Twenty-five years and 42 state laws later, doubts still persist about charter schools and the trade-offs that free them from regulations in exchange for higher performance. That skepticism can be seen in Georgia where polls show voters are leery of Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District, which is on the ballot Tuesday as Amendment One. A “yes” vote empowers the state to take control of local schools and possibly hire charter management organizations to run them.

Opponents contend the OSD favors corporate interests over local control. “The enabling legislation pays only lip service to our desire, as concerned parents, teachers and community leaders, to play an active role in our children’s education,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, senior pastor of Atlanta’s First Iconium Baptist Church.

Proponents maintain the OSD preserves local input. “If schools are converted to charters schools, they will be governed by a nonprofit governing board made up of community members, pushing control of those schools to the most local level possible,” said State Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville.

Both sides have mounted scorched earth campaigns to sway Georgia voters and will likely spend between $3 and 4 million by the time ballots are counted. Stakes and expenses are even higher in Massachusetts where advocates and opponents are investing $33 million to influence a ballot question next week on whether the state’s cap on charter schools should be lifted.

The millions of dollars flowing to these state referendums illustrate how much charter schools have changed from the original concept of kitchen table incubations by teachers and parents. The charter school movement has gone from living rooms to board rooms with the rise of charter management organizations and the entry of the philanthropic and political interests.

In a recent panel on charter schools at the quarter-century mark, education author Richard Whitmire reflected on what he called the “charter bargain that’s gone awry” — the failure of charter school sponsors to shutter under-performing schools.

Author of “The Founders,” a new book about top charter schools, Whitmire said, “The whole charter philosophy was good ones would stay open and bad ones would close, because a lack of interest by parents would shut them down.”

But it turned out that neither the groups authorizing charter schools nor the parents choosing them wanted the poor performers to close. “Nobody called this one, and it is a huge problem,” said Whitmire at a Thomas B. Fordham Institute panel.

“I am here to tell you as an authorizer of charter schools in Ohio that it’s damn hard to close bad charter schools for more or less the same reasons that it’s hard to close bad district schools. You’ve got invested parents, you’ve got neighborhoods, you’ve got community politics,” said Chester Finn Jr., distinguished Fordham senior fellow and co-author of “Charter Schools at the Crossroads.” The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has sponsored charter schools in Ohio since 2005.

The initial assumption that parents would select charter schools on the basis of academic performance proved wrong. "We didn’t realize the extent to which parents have a hierarchy of human needs and had other things that come first for them, safety, convenience, things like that," said Finn.

While early pioneers imagined charter schools as alternatives to traditional classrooms and laboratories for innovation, voucher and school choice proponents embraced charters as bludgeons to attack teacher unions and “government schools.” In their cynicism, they promoted charter schools as a way to provide more choices but made little effort to ensure they were better choices.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.