The two biggest claims of the reform movement seem to be “all children can learn,” which no one disputes, and “charter schools are public schools,” which is hogwash. The only time a charter school is a public school is when they are cashing the BEP (Basic Education Program) check. Any other time, charters are busy trying to distance themselves as far as possible from the rules and regulations that public schools have to cope with daily. It says so right here in Tenn. Code Ann. 49-13-108(f):
- Upholding School Autonomy. To uphold school autonomy, the State Board will:
- Honor and preserve the independence of its charter schools’ governing boards.
- Preserve core school autonomies related to educational programming, financial,
personnel, school culture and scheduling decisions.
- Assume responsibility not for the success or failure of individual charter schools in
its portfolio but for holding schools accountable for their performance.
- Focus on school accountability for outcomes rather than inputs and processes.
- Minimize, within state and federal law, administrative and compliance burdens on
charter schools in its portfolio.
Nowhere did this intended autonomy become more clear than at the most recent Governance Committee meeting for the school board of the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). Though charter operators preach collaboration it quickly became apparent that their definition of collaboration did not include negotiation and that they felt that they should be subject to regulation by the elected school board.
The agenda of this meeting was to hear MNPS legal counsel’s opinion on the legality of the recently adopted Annenberg Standards. The standards were implemented in order to provide an even playing field between charter schools and public school. Too often, when comparing outcomes between the two, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. The Annenberg Standards are meant as a means to make the comparisons more like apples to apples. They are designed to set basic standards that all schools would be accountable for, in what ever form those schools embodied. The standards are very broad, so it was necessary for the MNPS school board to vet them with their legal counsel to ensure the individual standards weren’t redundant or in contrast with state law.
From the moment the meeting began, it was apparent that the implementation of these standards was not something charter schools were interested in participating in. Board member Mary Pierce, whose election was widely supported by charter advocates, immediately began to try making the waters as muddy as possible. Raising questions on who these standards applied to, what charter contracts currently stated, what the implementation schedule should be, all in a manner meant to confuse rather than elucidate, she insured that the meeting would be as long as it would be unproductive.
As I sat and listened to her raise passive-aggressive question after passive-aggressive question, I couldn’t help but think to myself what this conversation might look like if charter schools were truly interested in collaboration rather than autonomy. Charter operators had ample time to review the standards, and I accept that they may have qualms about some of them. But where are the specific claims and potential solutions? Instead of just dismissing all oversight, what if Ms. Pierce would have brought suggestive language that would alter things slightly but still hold to the stated goal?
For example, one of the standards called for any school’s governing board to be made up of at least 50% parents or students. Sound unreasonable to you? Apparently it does to charter operators, as their Representative Ms. Pierce tried to eviscerate it. My theory on that is that it potentially cuts the money. If you’ve ever sat on a non-profit board before, then you are familiar with the expectation to be a contributor financially as well as through your time. In light of this, who would you rather have sitting on your board, a local struggling parent or a local successful hedge fund manager? It seems to me that the hedge fund manager would be a much more reliable financial pipeline, both through their individual donations and the potential donors they could bring to the table.
I get that and appreciate it, educating children is expensive, but this could have been a prime time for the charter community to demonstrate that they are fully vested in the collaboration process and come to the table with some concessions. How about 30%? But that has never been the way of the charter movement. It’s always been about their way or no way. Next time you tour a charter school, I challenge you to ask them what practices they import from local traditional schools. I’d be interested in the answer.
If Ms. Pierce had spent half the amount of time trying to offer collaborative solutions to standards that could potentially provide a legal challenge as she did attempting to establish potential legal exposure, it would have been a much shorter meeting. Instead, every attempt to place potential increased oversight or transparency on charter operators was met with a reference back to state law and taken as an opportunity to deflect oversight by the cities elected body.
Laws do not get written without an agenda. Murder is against the law because we don’t want people killing each other. Robbery is illegal because if people kept stealing from each other they’d eventually start killing each other. So what’s the agenda for a law that prevents local school boards from adding oversight and transparency to charter school operations? To me, the answer is clear: to allow adults to practice their chosen business model unencumbered by regulation.
Which brings up one of the other fallacies – that this is all about the kids. All you have to do is sit in one school board meeting and watch the efforts to prevent any kind of regulation of charters and you’ll see that it’s really all about adults. At this recent meeting, in arguing against a standard that would require all schools to have the same basic offerings (i.e., art, music, etc.), TFA executive and board member Elissa Kim asked how this would further instruction. Board member Will Pinkston fired back by asking how it wouldn’t and that should be the bar. The proof should be on proving that it doesn’t impede and not that it furthers instruction.
In forcing the burden of proof on showing that a policy furthers instruction, you are conceding that only the measurable is important. You are allowing charter schools to narrow the field of measurement instead of making it broader and requiring all schools to rise to it. Again, it allows charters to set the terms of collaboration. They determine what is important and no one else.
Collaboration would mean all vested parties discussing what is important through elected representation and setting how that looks for everyone involved. That’s not something charter proponents are interested in. As evidenced later, after Kim had again tried to talk proceedings in circles, committee chair Amy Frogge called on her to make a motion. Ms. Kim had no motion. After all, that would have been collaboration. That would have doing something for the kids and not just protecting adult autonomy.
Need further proof that charters only consider themselves public schools when convenient? Consider this recruitment poster for the new Rocketship Academy opening up in Nashville this fall.
Public schools are a part of a public school system. They are not entities of themselves. Do you see the MNPS logo anywhere on this flier? How about a mention of the MNPS public school system at all? The flier goes one better, not only does it not mention MNPS but it disparages them. According to Rocketship, they go where “access to excellent schools is limited” and who is responsible for putting an excellent school in every neighborhood? That would be your local school system. Which apparently Rocketship does not consider themselves a part of and seeks to undermine. This flier makes it clear that they wish to usurp the public school system.
You shouldn’t be surprised though, charter school operators have mastered the ability to talk out of both sides of their mouth. At the aforementioned meeting, after the 33 out of 55 suggested standards were implemented, KIPP Academy Nashville founder Randy Dowell expressed frustration that academic magnet schools were exempt from the rule banning schools from excluding certain students, saying, “If this is what’s best for schools, why are we not doing this for our schools with the most affluent kids?” Magnet schools base enrollment on academic standards. KIPP preaches that poverty is not an excuse. So why is Mr. Dowell assuming that our highest performing schools are made up of our most affluent students?
So it goes with every platitude that gets uttered by the reformers. They sound good until you really break them down, and then you realize we all know the same things. Poverty matters. There are no secrets to unlocking the doors of knowledge. Best practices are best practices. The immeasurable is just as important as the measurable. The only question left is what are we going to do with that knowledge and if we are going to be honest with it.
As this conversation plays out in Nashville, in Washington, a funding bill that includes an 8% funding increase for charter schools advances. This happens while Tennesseans are fighting to get the state BEP fully funded. Once again, while our traditional schools are fighting for resources, charters are reaping benefits from an uneven playing field without producing greater results. They do this because they continue to control the conversation, thereby leading us to not ask the questions that we should be asking.
Is true collaboration ever possible when one side continually plays loose with the facts? Are we ever going to create a system that truly serves all kids and is accountable and transparent to the entire community, not just the families that enroll in that school? The choice is really ours – level the playing field or continue to let select players game the system. We just have to separate the slogans from the facts. We have to commit to creating a system of equity and transparency, and that requires being honest about our strategies and our intentions.