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The War on Charters Escalates
College banners hang in the classroom of teacher Chrys Latham, as she leads a senior advisory period, at Washington Latin Public Charter School, in Northwest Washington, D.C., October 23, 2015. (Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The War on Charters Escalates

Walter Russell Mead

A rift is opening up in the African American community over charter schools, the New York Times reports:

In separate conventions over the past month, the N.A.A.C.P. and the Movement for Black Lives, a group of 50 organizations assembled by Black Lives Matter, passed resolutions declaring that charter schools have exacerbated segregation, especially in the way they select and discipline students.

They portray charters as the pet project of foundations financed by white billionaires, and argue that the closing of traditional schools as students migrate to charters has disproportionately disrupted black communities.

Black leaders of groups that support charter schools have denounced the resolutions, saying they contradict both the N.A.A.C.P.’s mission of expanding opportunity and polls showing support for charters among black parents. The desire for integration, the charter school proponents say, cannot outweigh the urgent need to give some of the country’s poorest students a way out of underperforming schools.

“You’ve got thousands and thousands of poor black parents whose children are so much better off because these schools exist,” said Howard Fuller, a longtime civil rights activist and the founding president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which encourages support among blacks for charters.

Pushback against the spread of charter schools is one of the Left’s most important goals. This is not really about education; it is about power and, particularly, the power of the blue model state to fight the future. And it is part of an increasingly sophisticated fight by teacher unions to preserve their power.

None of the critics argue, by the way, that public schools do a better job educating poor kids than charters do. The argument tends to be that the public schools are either roughly as good or not all that much worse than charters.

The charter school movement has its weaknesses. The most important is that the charter movement hasn’t done enough to win over local teachers. Good teachers in distressed public schools are some of the most important people in the United States. Their contributions to the next generation are priceless. Surrounded by time-serving hacks, a culture of hostility to education, and sometimes a climate of daily violence, they are poorly served both by their unions and by the cumbersome and often poorly functioning and expensive bureaucracies of the cities in which they work.

A major goal of the charter movement must be to empower good teachers; to make it easier for good teachers to gain control over the way they teach and run schools. In urban areas, this isn’t just about providing good schools for kids, though that is important. It is also about helping professionals in the black middle class, among others, to regain control over their work lives and to develop the skills that go with managing and running serious enterprises.

As it stands, in many school districts good teachers stick with teacher unions because, given the irrational and rigid policies of bureaucracies and the atmosphere of cronyism and even criminality in city governments, individuals need to band together for protection. Teachers embrace teacher unions because the alternative is to be an unorganized individual at the mercy of an uncaring political machine and incompetent administration. The achievements that teacher unions are proudest of, like tenure and seniority, have, as we know, large social costs, but they make sense in a situation in which teachers must organize to protect themselves from meddling politicians and a predatory bureaucracy.

There was a time when teacher unions were on the cutting edge of reform, and it would be a mistake now not to recognize those accomplishments, and not to understand the good reasons many people still have to support them. But the future of our schools isn’t more of the same: more big box, one-size-fits-all cookie cutter educational institutions in which everybody moves at the same pace through the machine. As the American economy changes, our schools must change too. Big box schools prepare people for big box jobs: in government bureaucracies, in bureaucratic stable corporations, on jobs for life assembly lines.

We are going to need schools that are focused on preparing kids both intellectually and socially for very different lives than their grandparents led. Among other things, this means that we don’t want the next generation to spend most of its formative years under the guidance of people who have been socialized into the jobs for life in behemoth institutions.

Smaller, teacher-led and teacher-managed autonomous schools offer students and parents more choices (of curriculum, of educational philosophy, of discipline, of learning style) than the big box systems can. They also produce smarter teachers: people who know what it is like to build an enterprise and keep it going. Those are exactly the skills the next generation of students need; we need an educational system that produces teachers who can teach toward the future rather than the past.

If the charter school movement is to live up to its promise, it has to do more than privatize the existing school system. Franchised chains of for-profit charter schools may make sense as an element of competition that forces public schools and others to up their game to attract students, but we need more. We need teacher-managed schools that are rooted in the local community and that good teachers recognize as an opportunity, both for them and for the students in their care.

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