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Chartering Democracy

Jessica Shiller
Date Published: 

Keeping The Promise: The Debate Over Charter Schools
By Leigh Dingerson, Barbara Minner, Bob Peterson, Stephanie Waters, Eds.
Rethinking Schools Ltd, 2008

In public education, few topics are as hotly debated as charter schools. Do they provide better school options for families or do they open the door to privatization? Keeping the Promise is a new concise volume which explores these questions in a series of essays written by activists and educators. With insightful analyses from well-known educators, as well as reports from city-wide charter school initiatives in New Orleans, Cleveland, Boston, and Washington, DC, the book complicates the charter movement and places it in both local contexts as well as within larger social, economic, and political contexts.

It starts with reflections from well-known progressive educators, Ted Sizer and George Wood. They pose essential questions to ask when evaluating charter schools, and urge us to consider the degree to which charters provide more equity, innovation, and democracy in public education generally. This framing moves us beyond the conventional narrow analyses which focus on how much charter schools have increased test scores to a more holistic evaluation which measures the degree to which charters can ensure social justice.

Following that introduction, reports from DC, New Orleans, and Cleveland unambiguously reveal the failure of charters to move us toward a more just school system. Using a market approach to improve schools, charters opened rapidly in each city providing a supply of “new services” to “consumers” who have been ill-served in the past. Contrary to the high hopes marketers of charters had, the reality was riddled with problems of inequity, lack of public accountability, and undemocratic practices. In New Orleans, private firms took advantage of the disorientation that people felt after Hurricane Katrina to rebuild the school system as a privately-run charter system, which not only is physically inaccessible to many students, but also has limited enrollment to high-performing students. In Cleveland, charter laws allowed privately-run firms to open schools all over Ohio without accounting for how their money was spent, which resulted in millions being siphoned off to charters that would have gone to public schools. What’s more, the quality of the Ohio charters was far worse than the regular public schools. In Washington, DC, another unique set of laws allowed charters to open without any public discussion. The charters performed no better than the public schools, lacked public accountability, and had narrow admissions processes like the schools in New Orleans and Ohio.

In Boston, the example offered was different. Boston’s Pilot Schools – which are not charters technically, but a publicly financed experiment in autonomous schools – did not run into the same problems that charters in other cities had with financial accountability or public input. Yet they did pose a problem for democratic schooling. While they showed increased academic achievement, they served fewer special education and students for whom English is a second language. This public initiative focused too much on innovation and not enough on equity.

Market initiatives
However, the book does offer a glimmer of hope. One chapter in the book has an interview with three charter school principals who describe their schools as being connected to the communities, serving all students, and having innovative practices. This provided an interesting counter to the glaring problems in the other essays. Still, these schools seemed dwarfed by the poorly-run charter schools. In the final analysis, Linda Darling-Hammond, another well-known educator who authored the last chapter, does not come out against charters. She contends that there is no clear data showing that charters are any better than other schools, and recommends stronger laws to prevent lack of public scrutiny with charters. While this may be help in the future, she offers no position on what to do about the educational crimes that have been committed in New Orleans, DC, and Ohio. Assuming charters are with us to stay, she argues that we need to implement them better, while the chapters on DC, New Orleans, and Ohio suggest that we need strong resistance against charters right now and should reject their expansion now.

Keeping the Promise will have wide appeal since it makes such an important contribution. It is not a polemic for or against charters, and calls our attention to a serious problem affecting public schooling in general: Private initiatives have the potential to endanger not only public schools, but democracy in general. While there are some charter schools dedicated to social justice, most are not. Reports from the book indicate that charter schools are doing more harm than good. Consequently, the message of the book seems to be that we must be skeptical of market initiatives and look at who truly benefits from them. We need to resist the encroachment of the market on our public institutions in order to reinvigorate democracy.