An Educator’s Open Letter to Legislators: Please Save Public Charter Schools

Feb 24, 2016 | Blog, Featured

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Dear Legislators:

I am a Washington resident and an educator with a graduate degree in education from Stanford University who has worked in district, charter, and international schools. I am a lifelong Democrat who cares deeply about public education.

I find the arguments against charter schools among the public and by bloggers to be largely misinformed and based on fear. I was surprised to hear what appeared to be a lack of information at last Friday’s hearing during the anti-charter testimonials and even statements from members of the House. Thank you for considering my response.

1) It is a fact that if we close out any possibility of charter schools, low-income kids will largely end up trapped in their local schools.

Similarly, kids who are misfits and harshly bullied — they too must show up, day after day. They must go to school with their tormenters, which can lead to depression, anxiety, drug abuse, and even violence or suicide. It is not always easy or possible for families to transfer or move.

The fact is that many of these local schools are not serving their kids. It is disingenuous for anti-charter advocates to point to a handful of one-off district initiativesand say that, therefore, the district schools are just as innovative as charter schools. Or that they are the only and the best way to educate every child. The lack of open eyes here about how district schools actually work in these types of anti-charter arguments is astounding. (More on “how district schools actually work” below.)

2) The so-called “evidence” presented by opponents about a charter school’s students being below grade level actually makes the argument for charter schools stronger. These students didn’t fall way below grade level during the 3-4 months enrolled at a charter school. They came to the charter school after years of falling behind in regular district schools.

Recently released test scores show that charters in WA are helping their kids catch up. In only a few months, they are making up for years lost in the district schools. This is a boon not only to these kids and their families, but to the state of Washington, which can now look forward to productive citizens rather than citizens who would have been more likely a strain on their communities and the state’s finances.

3) No one mentioned on Friday that Washington’s, and in particular Seattle’s, population is growing at a very fast pace. With all the concern about charters taking away students and funds from district schools, no one mentioned that thousands of new students will need to be taught over the coming few years – and class sizes are already too full. From this standpoint, how are charters not being seen as useful partners in handling the explosion in the public school population?

4) I noticed that every single person who testified against charter schools at the House hearing last week appeared to be white, while many of those who testified in favor of charter schools were people of color. The demographics of most of the charter schools match this trend. The fact is that wealthy people, largely white, in our state have access to private schools, whereas low-income people, many of color, do not. In Seattle, we have one of the highest rates of private school usage in the country. Families who are able to pay are opting out.

How can we argue with a clear conscience for taking options away from families who cannot pay, including many students of color?

5) I am a reasonably well-off, white liberal. It is easy to be a wealthy white liberal taking a stand against charter schools out of a sense of liberal tribalism, self-righteousness, and internet-spun fear about a Republican takeover of education. It is harder to actually work in the trenches of public education, including charters, and listen to those voices that are desperate for change for their kids or to open one’s mind towards the possibility of a new solution. It is easy to slam something just because it’s different and some Republicans (the horror!) like it. (Would we rather go back to the days of arguing about vouchers, where public dollars would go to religious private schools with little/no oversight?)

Those who want to argue that the students are being served, or could be served, in regular public schools, but it’s just an issue of needing more money? Sure thing. We all agree schools need more money. But we can argue with the Republicans about raising money for education until we’re blue in the face – and another generation of lives has been wasted in underperforming schools.

Let’s put down our pitchforks and realize that charter leaders are potential allies in the fight for better public education in Washington. A unified front of district and charter schools, union and non-union teachers, that share resources and best practices and together are advocating for more resources, better training programs, greater respect for teachers, and so on – what a force that could be for the kids, families, and educators of this state.

6) For what it’s worth: I have taught in district, charter, and in private schools in Mexico. House Education Vice-Chair Rep. Chris Reykdal’s statement during the hearing that the failures of district schools are “either a policy or a personnel” issue seems to miss the point, which made me wonder if Rep. Reykdal is either sadly misinformed or just playing politics. Since he’s been an educator, it’s hard for me to believe he’s so misinformed as to believe that the problem comes down to such a simple dichotomy.

The fact is that there are structural pressures on district schools that prevent them from being able to reach every kid, to be as innovative as people might like – even if, technically and according to the law, they could. For instance, the inertia and status quo of the culture in district schools can be stagnant and even poisonous. Tell me, Rep. Reykdal, is a school’s culture determined by purely “policy” or “personnel”? Is it a coincidence, just a matter of personnel, that low-income schools across this state (and our country) suffer from the same types of problems?

Unless we’re planning on firing every leader and most of the teachers at all underperforming schools and somehow coming up with incentives to keep the new leaders and teachers fresh, positive, and innovative — shoving the issue to the side as a “personnel” issue is, to me, blind and frankly useless. It is important to know what it’s like working in district and charter schools, like I have, to know the differences that can’t be seen on paper.

7) For instance, I’ve never heard more teachers say hateful and bigoted things about students than I have at the three district schools in two different states I worked at. I’ve never been more embarrassed for my profession as a teacher than when working with some district teachers who appear to have chosen education for the stability and the paycheck. I’ve been a liberal Democrat for as long as I’ve been political, but working in district schools has made me reconsider some of our arguments about keeping public schools the way they are.

A few examples: At a large urban Oregon high school, I was told by my mentor teacher that he got into teaching entirely for the pension after he realized his ski instructor lifestyle wouldn’t cover his retirement. He used to call his “low” classes filled with largely African-American boys his “bonehead” classes. His lesson plans routinely involved him standing at the front of the room and reading the textbook out loud – to his seniors.

In California, one of my district mentor teachers told us proudly that she kept the room ice-cold to keep her 6th graders from falling asleep. She believed that screaming was a perfectly acceptable form of classroom management when working with “those kids” (the students of color who were in her class) and it was good if you could make the boys cry.

At a different district school in California, the lunchroom was toxic. Teachers routinely complained about students, often the African-American and Latino boys who were “acting up” and “horrible” and “ruining it for everyone.” The principal was hired by the school board in what was seen as a highly political decision, against the wishes of almost all of the teachers and many others. While a nice enough man, he was universally despised for his ineptitude, lack of interest in or support of the school, and tendency to fall asleep during meetings. Literally.

While there are many hard-working and creative leaders and teachers at district schools, the experiences I have had working at three different district schools – not to mention the data – strongly suggest that there are structural factors that are hindering these schools’ abilities to create classes and cultures that serve every kid. In some areas, these schools aren’t even serving most kids.

8) We have to ask ourselves:

a) Are we being realistic with our expectations of public district schools and what they can deliver?

b) Are we being realistic in our hopes that a school board is a useful way of conveying democratic oversight that benefits kids?

For instance:

  • How many people in a community are actually qualified and informed enough to make a meaningful decision when voting about a board member?
  • What do the board members actually do in terms of helping and changing a school?
  •  If a school board position is inherently political, what is the effect of that on the teaching and learning happening in the schools – and is that a) best for kids? b) conducive to rapid and effective innovation?

9) I’ve never seen the power of culture be more positive and transformative than at the two charters (and the private international school) where I worked. Both charters had different educational models but the culture was similar: high energy, positive, relationship-based, and 100% respectful of students and their families. Staff was not hired without demonstrating alignment with the mission of believing in every child and working hard and working smart to help the kids get there. Teachers were treated like professionals and played a role in the governance of the school. Empowerment among staff and students was noticeable.

In these diverse schools, students were not separated in classes by race or class but taught to work with and respect those who were different from them. While no school is a panacea, the positive culture and high standards set by and for administrators, teachers, and students was unlike anything I ever saw at any of the three district public schools. I saw these charters change lives. Students who entered as freshmen full of rage, defiance, or indifference became the kind of open and positive young adults who are hopeful about their futures and whom you would trust to take on any project.

There are structural reasons why charters work for some kids — often the most vulnerable kids. It’s not just policy vs personnel — it’s both, and more.

Why not let them try?

Thank you for your time and consideration, and for your work on behalf of our community,

Alison Leach