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The rise of the charter school

City & State recently hosted a panel, On Education, featuring a cross-section of some of New York City’s most engaged proponents, including Chancellor Merryl Tisch, New York’s Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, advocate Micah Lasher and parent advocate Zakiyah Ansari.

At the panel, it became apparent that the national conversation around public education is represented in the microcosm of New York City, in that questions that arise here are echoed all across the country:

How do we effectively critique teachers? What policy implementations can be both effective and possible? Will the continuing popularity and advent of charter schools deplete public schools of resources and attention?

It is not uncommon for the dialogue around education policy to become impeded by passions and ardent perceptions, and the differences of opinion were ever apparent across the panel and by those in the audience.

This is not to say, however, that the national conversation on education is stalled — but indeed the diversity of opinion on how to fix our system hasn’t yielded significant progress. Federal policies are ripe for a whole host of criticisms, including President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which has been highly disputed. As Education Week noted, “An opinion poll released in December 2003 found that nearly half of school principals and superintendents view the federal legislation as either politically motivated or aimed at undermining public schools.”

The Obama administration’s efforts, led by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have attempted to defer the rigorous standards many perceived as unfair from NCLB. In doing so, low performing schools can qualify for waivers, exempting their students from the controversial math and reading proficiency standard implemented by NCLB. But the nexus of Secretary Duncan’s agenda has been Race to the Top, a program choreographed so schools ‘compete’ for federal money through an application and evaluation process (over $4 billion in funds were set aside for the program.)

The Administration’s movement towards competition mirrors the introduction and evolution of charter schools in communities across the country.

Charter schools, many argue, create an incentive for the DOE to push their schools to be the best they can in the face of this competition. Additionally, the argument goes, as independent entities, charter schools can incubate fresh ideas on how best to approach education without outside policy requirements. There is little doubt choice and creativity offer two opportunities for education to evolve. What disquiet some, and an issue raised by audience members at On Education, is what a shift in focus from public to charter schools means. With funding already a tremendous issue in many states, the concern on shifting allocations from public to charter schools remains dubious to some public school stakeholders.

Nationally, the results of what might be called nothing less than a boom in charter school growth, are mixed. Cited by the Huffington Post, evaluations of these schools uncover growth so quick that some states were unable to keep track of how many they have. Moreover, the charter school movement hasn’t always brought academic success — and some have already been shuttered, including ten in California. All of this is not to say, however, that local successes have not occurred and with the movement only twenty years old, how charter schools mature might still become an education game changer.

There is certainly no silver bullet for education in America.

Now, the growth of charter schools injects but one more fold into an already complex system marred by historically differing federal, state and local rules. But Americans, after all, do appreciate choice. And it’s more apparent than ever that parents and administrations on all levels are looking for alternative ways to right the trajectory of public schools.

As one charter school teacher polled for this post said, “The more we try new things and we implement combinations of new things that work, the better prepared our schools will be for the future. That I do believe.”

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