What’s to Fear About Charters?

by Ralph Lieber

As a local superintendent, one wants as much control as possible over those public dollars allocated for educating children. In an age of "do more with less," it is understandable why my colleagues and I jealously guard and cautiously spend any money not already committed by state and federal mandates or contract negotiations.

Now we find ourselves up facing a "new" thrust—the fast-growing phenomenon of charter schools. Charters, we are told, somehow will force our stagnating institution of public schooling to be more competitive, to respond more rapidly to the needs of business and industry, to offer our clients choices, and to serve the diverse needs of students with greater sensitivity. And, yes, charters will hold educators to greater accountability.

But dear colleagues, as a superintendent for the last 32 years and someone who supports the charter school movement, I've got to tell you, "It ain't going to happen this way." My forecast is based on recent history.

In 1986, Minnesota, with Gov. Rudy Perpich at the fore, enacted the first statewide open-enrollment law permitting students to enroll in the public school of their choosing, pending space availability. During the 1980s, New Jersey established an alternate teacher-certification route for individuals who wanted to move into classroom teaching from another career field. These efforts and others began to nibble at the edges of an intransigent public school system. Now, more than two dozen states, including my own, have passed legislation to create charter schools or reduce obstacles for change to occur in the public schools.

Catalyst for Change

The charter school movement is a bridge, or a transition, to a total system change that started sometime after the country settled down from World War II and the Korean War. In the 1960s, public schools with the help of state and federal funds were in their most dynamic period of responsiveness and innovation. Boards of education experimented with open classrooms, alternative schools, schools of choice, and flexible schedules. Cherry Creek, Colo., even routed its school bus service throughout the community to pick up students and adults alike.

Some of these efforts were highly successful; other were poorly contrived and served only to bring down the wave of innovative learning opportunities. The 1970s brought about independent study, "testing out" of courses, and ventures into teacher privatization. Sadly, these succumbed to faddism through distorted application and societal pressures.

Public education suffered from schizophrenia in the 1980s. On one hand, the nation’s conservative leadership had us looking backwards to the 1950s in hopes of restoring an education that some believed was worthy of restoring. On the other hand, teachers were pushed to individualize and expand opportunities within their heterogenous classrooms. Today, schools vacillate between grouping, tracking, homogeneity, and heterogeneity, but as an institution they have changed little for almost 20 years, the one notable exception being the rapid growth in the use of technology. Some even suggest the organization of schools today resembles that of 1846 when the age of students was tied to grade levels.

Charter schools now offer the potential to capitalize on years of some excellent concepts, but only if politicians, unions, and bureaucrats stand back and allow them to evolve. Charter schools can be the doorway to institutional change if we encourage them and test them as a legitimate offshoot of the public schools—incorporating their fundamental concepts of parent choice, participation, shared decision-making and realms of accountability.

When educators started the alternative schools movement, they were creating, in a real sense, charter schools. Parents and staff involvement was extensive. Boards set broad policy guidelines for their operation. Parents had choices and helped to make the alternate school successful through volunteering, recruiting other parents, marketing, and even targeted fund raising.

Professional staff enjoyed great latitude in the delivery of instruction and in management. Course content was consistent with the school districts’ adopted curriculum, but the emphasis was determined by the parents. This emphasis led later to district magnet schools. Money was allocated to alternative schools from the districts' general fund, typically on a per-student basis or using staff allocation as the determinant. Either way, administrators did not feel threatened. In fact, they generally welcomed the option.

A Money Issue

The resistance to charter schools today is not caused by a philosophical schism or distrust. It is based solely on the money pie, i.e., scarce resources divided among staff, materials and supplies, and facility maintenance. The concern among public school leaders is easily understood: How can a school district redistribute these resources and still meet its ever-increasing, present-day challenges?

Yet I maintain this is a short-sighted concern as scarcity of resources for public schooling is only going to worsen. The reality is that public funding of schools will continue to decline relative to other public needs, resulting in an insidious erosion of education programs and services. Eventually all school districts will slide into mediocrity until the public no longer believes in public education. When this occurs, dollars will flow quickly to other institutions offering education.

It is essential, therefore, that we take risks today that may yield long-term solutions. Charter schools are merely stage one of system redesign. In 1985, perhaps before the climate was right, I made such an attempt in Columbus, Ind., where I tried to create a system that combined choice, market accountability, and meaningful parent decision-making. It did not nibble at institutional change. It sought a new era of the true educational professional whereby teachers controlled the program they would offer, the instructional strategies, and the use of technology and support staff.

In this system, parents selected their child's teacher or a group of teachers. Boards set curriculum parameters and broad operating policies, and administrators assisted the professionals in the classroom. The system was market driven. Teachers were paid based on the number of students that wanted and received their tutelage. This was, for all practicality, an in-house voucher.

Teacher organizations did not negotiate uniform working conditions as these were to be established by the professional teacher or groups of teachers. Unions did negotiate the value of the voucher and also directed their attention to field research. Teachers were held publicly accountable for their performance through parent choices. (This strikes me as a better approach than the current effort in Texas to measure the quality of instruction against student academic performance.)

Moving Forward

Sadly, the "tension" for a needed paradigm shift in that community was not yet substantial enough. Parents, board members, and a broad cross-section of the community liked the idea and were willing to proceed. The teachers' union, with the help of its state association, was not at that point of change. The old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," ruled the day.

Unfortunately, given the cultural mindset of too many in public education today, it always will be broke. That was the conclusion of researcher Deana Tittle in describing the failure to redesign the Cleveland Heights University High School in her stirring book, Welcome to Heights High 1997.

Public education is on the verge of breaking. If we don't seek options to long-term change, we, too, will find our heads buried in the industrial revolution, while the rest of society will have its feet well into the second stage of the information era. Who but educators are in the best spot to fix it?

Yet given the cumbersome educational bureaucracy, tight union controls, and general fear of the unknown, public schools aren’t likely to make the substantive changes necessary for its survival without a total reorganizational and cultural change.

Charter schools can be the bridge to this change. For this reason alone, they should be supported.

Ralph Lieber is superintendent, South Orange-Maplewood School District, Maplewood, N.J.