Diane Ravitch, a historian of education, is a fierce critic of charter schools. In her newest work, however, Ravitch suggests a path for reforming the charter sector, rather than opposing it outright.
In fact, there are charter schools already embodying many of Ravitch’s ideals. She would do well to acknowledge their specific successes if she is serious about influencing the direction of charter schools moving forward.
In Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Ravitch accuses charter schools of weakening the public sector by increasing individual profits, hand-picking students and showing lackluster results.
The for-profit operator Imagine Schools Inc., for example, charges exorbitant rental fees, which schools pay with taxpayer money. One Minneapolis charter school asked forty special-needs students to leave. White Hat Management, which operates dozens of schools in six states, has continued to grow despite disappointing academic results.
However, Ravitch also opens the door to seeing charter schools as a positive force—just a crack. In a brief aside during a chapter on charter schools’ abuses and disappointments, she acknowledges:
“To be sure, there are good community-based charter schools that do not skim the easiest-to-educate students and do not 'counsel out' the students they don’t want. Some are trying to fulfill the original vision of schools that fill a niche, doing something that public schools can’t do or can’t do well. Some are run by teachers or others seeking a refuge from the overscripted, hyper-regulated, and overtested public schools.”
In a later chapter (“Make Charters Work for All”), Ravitch lays out a vision for how “charters can be redesigned to serve the common good.” She outlines a number of conditions, including banning for-profit operation of schools and eliminating all charter networks (for-profit or nonprofit).
But Ravitch doesn’t give any examples of charters schools, real or hypothetical, that might pass her test, leaving her ideas for reforming the sector a mere whisper next to the book’s detailed anti-charter arguments.
Since Ravitch gives so many vivid examples of the “bad” kind of charter school, it would be helpful to hear more about the “good.” The best hope for changing the direction of the charter school sector is to gain some support from within.
There are many charter educators who would be strong supporters of Ravitch’s ideas such as bolstering early childhood education, providing a rich curriculum that includes the arts and physical education and using authentic assessments of student learning. But these charter teachers and leaders are more likely to join Ravitch’s team if she is willing to acknowledge the specific successes of some charter schools.
Fortunately, there are already charter schools out there embodying many of Ravitch’s ideals, such as empowering teachers, shifting away from reliance on standardized tests and cooperating with public schools. In a forthcoming book for Teachers College Press, my colleague Richard Kahlenberg and I feature a number of charter schools recalling union leader Albert Shanker’s original ideas for charter schools to empower teachers and integrate students.
City Neighbors Charter School in northeast Baltimore, for example, was started by a parent and teacher from the neighborhood and has a community-based governing board. There are now three schools in the City Neighbors family educating a diverse group of students in small classes using an arts integrated curriculum.
Teachers at City Neighbors are outspoken advocates for collaboration. Under Maryland state law, all charter schools are part of the district collective bargaining agreement and City Neighbors teachers have been vocal in debates within the Baltimore Teachers Union.
The school is also a prime example of charter-district cooperation. City Neighbors Charter School partners with two neighboring schools in the Baltimore area—one district public school and one parochial school—to pool resources for mutually beneficial projects and engage in joint marketing. The partnership gave rise to a “Progressive Ed Summit,” which is now an annual event hosted by City Neighbors drawing teachers from charter, district and private schools.
City Neighbors fits with the broader spirit of the reforms Ravitch preaches and there are more charter schools and networks like it: High Tech High, a network of charters using project-based learning in the San Diego area; Minnesota New Country School, a teacher co-op charter school in rural Minnesota; and Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn, a progressive school emphasizing diversity, just to name a few.
These schools are worth highlighting because Ravitch’s proposal for reforming charter schools—which contains many good ideas—is altogether more convincing when the vision for success is concrete.