From the City of Brotherly Love: A Way Beyond Our Public Education Weaknesses

On March 10, 2016, NACSA President and CEO Greg Richmond delivered these remarks to a gathering of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence.

We all have had experiences in schools that shape our feelings, our beliefs, and our work in education. Take a moment right now to recall some of the most powerful experiences you have had with students, parents, or teachers. Do one or two experiences immediately come to mind?

Allow me to tell you about one of mine.

From 1994 to 2005, I worked in the central office of the Chicago Public Schools. For most of those years I oversaw the charter schools in the city.

Each August, my office would get calls from mothers and grandmothers who were looking for a new school for their children or grandchildren. By the time they called our office, they had usually checked with some schools in their neighborhood and they had already called other departments within the school system, but without success. By the time they called us, we were their last chance.

PhillyQuotePull2So they often felt that, maybe if they told their child’s story, that could make a difference. They told us about their daughter who used to get A’s and B’s but was now getting D’s and F’s. They told us about their son who had fallen in with the wrong crowd last year. They said their granddaughter was getting bullied and would not go back to her old school. They told us about the grandson who feared for his safety.

They were not calling “as if” their child’s life depended on getting into a new school; their child’s life did depend on it. And they were desperate.

These mothers did not know what a charter school was, except that it was their child’s last chance.

The problem was that by August, every seat in every good school in the city was already taken—magnet schools, selective enrollment schools, JROTC schools, and charter schools. It was too late. There was nothing I could do at that time to help them.

What I could do and did do was work with educators and community organizations to open new schools the following year so that, bit by bit, year by year, fewer children and families would be without a good school.

Chicago now has 131 charter schools. One-quarter of high school students in the city attend a charter school. They are more likely to stay in school, more likely to graduate, more likely to enroll in college, and more likely to stay in college.

Our nation’s public schools face many challenges. But because of successes like this, I believe we are on the verge of preparing the most-well educated generation in our nation’s history. We can graduate more students, with better academic and social-emotional skills, and send more students to college than any previous generation. There is tremendous energy and passion in public education right now, which I believe we can tap to achieve great things.

But to do it, we need to change. We cannot do better tomorrow by continuing the ways of yesterday. We need to improve. One way that we are changing public education is through charter schools. Charters are not the only way we will improve public education, but they can be one powerful way.

The charter school movement is 25 years old; 6,800 charter schools in America serve nearly 3 million students. Many of these schools are achieving extraordinary results. But then again, some of them are not. The outcomes have been mixed, both here in Philadelphia and nationally.

So when we examine how well we are doing for the next generation, if we are honest, we have to acknowledge that all charter schools are not fully delivering on their promise. We need to do better.

Unfortunately, progress in charter schooling has been difficult and frustrating. In recent years, we seem trapped inside policies and practices that prevent progress, as charter school proponents and opponents wage a never-ending war.

If our generation is to rise up and meet our obligations to the next, the war between charter school proponents and opponents must end.

There is no city in America better poised to lead this change than Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia is facing significant financial and academic challenges in its public education system, like most American cities. It has a large charter school sector, like many American cities. Yes, Philadelphia has challenges, but Philadelphia also has solutions.

Philadelphia is poised to provide national leadership improving charter schools because it has local leadership, like Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, which is leading the way forward.

How do we move forward? How do charter school opponents and proponents across the country and in Philadelphia stop warring and start cooperating in the interests of children?

To make progress, we must honestly acknowledge what’s not working. What are our flaws? Let’s tell it like it is.

Here, as I see it, are three weaknesses of the charter school movement and three weaknesses of charter school opponents.

First, the three greatest weaknesses of charter schools.

ONE: Tolerance of bad schools.

We have tolerated bad schools and con artists among our charter schools. Perhaps no stain on the charter school movement is greater than this.

There are plenty of examples. For one: virtual charter schools. Most are performing terribly, yet they continue to operate year after year, delivering, not a better education to students, but a worse education at great taxpayer expense. Pennsylvania has more than 34,000 students in virtual charter schools and these children deserve a better education than they are getting.

Another example: across the nation, some for-profit companies that run charter schools engage in self-serving real estate deals, hide their financial practices from public view, assert that they own assets that were purchased with public monies, and spend large sums to influence state legislators. All under the charter school banner. Not all management companies are engaging in inappropriate financial practices, but some are and we should not tolerate those behaviors under the charter school banner.

And then there is academic performance. Charter school academic performance is improving nationwide and the results in urban areas are particularly positive. But average results often mask failure among a subset of schools. On average, charter schools in Philadelphia are providing better results for children in both reading and math, according to last year’s study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. But that same study found that 19 percent of charters in Philadelphia were producing worse results for their students in math and 14 percent were producing worse results in reading. So, roughly one in five or one in six Philadelphia charter schools are doing worse than the district-run schools. That is not acceptable.

Charter schools that persistently fail should be closed. This has not happened enough in Philadelphia. It is too hard and it takes too long to close a failing charter school here. I applaud the Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, PennCAN, Philadelphia School Partners, and StudentsFirst for providing leadership on this issue.

TWO: An island mentality.

Charter school operators and proponents, of which I am one, have had too little concern for how charter schools impact the other public schools and students in our communities. We believed that each charter school could be an island unto itself.

We have created schools that will not enroll students in upper grade levels. We have some schools that believe it is appropriate to counsel children out mid-year. Some charters believe it is appropriate to tell families of students with disabilities that their charter school cannot serve them.

In short, charters have relied on the district schools to be a safety net for students not served by charter schools. That’s not right. If we believe that charter schools can provide a better education for children, we need to include all children.

Charter schools have also chosen to fight against school districts even when it was in the public interest to work together. When school districts have tried to manage the impact of charter schools on the rest of the public education system, charters have often resisted. For example, here, in Philadelphia, some charter schools have refused to abide by the maximum enrollment figures in their charters—figures they proposed in their own applications and agreed to in contracts with the SRC. When the SRC tried to enforce those limits, some charter schools sued instead of abiding by their contracts. That’s not right. If you sign a contract, you need to honor that contract.

The THIRD weakness of charter schools: Lack of community voices.

Though well intentioned, charter school boards, advocacy organizations, and funders have not been representative enough of the communities that schools are serving.

Let’s be honest: this is a movement led primarily by white middle-class and wealthy individuals, yet primarily serving low-income communities of color. I am one of those white, middle-class people and I worry that my colleagues and I do not truly understand the experiences and values of the communities our schools serve. Too often, we have resisted including their voices in our organizations because of a fear that they might lead our organizations in different directions.

This weakness includes a lack of teacher voices. Al Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers and the original proponent of charter schools, saw them as a strategy to empower teachers—to shift power out of districts’ central offices and into the hands of teachers. What many do not know is that the nation’s first charter school law, enacted 25 years ago in Minnesota, required a majority of the members of the board of a charter school to be teachers at that school.

Charter schooling was and still is a tool to empower teachers and communities. Yet, too often over the past 25 years, the charter school movement has supported the quick replication of national organizations over the slow development of local educators and community organizations.

We need to support more classroom teachers and communities to start their own new schools. When we do so, we honor a major pillar of the charter philosophy: more innovation, engagement, and empowerment.

That’s quite a list. It is a list that has led some people to resist, condemn, and oppose charter schools. But before charter school opponents get too comfortable in their condemnations, allow me to share three weaknesses of the opposition.

ONE: The profit myth.

Charter school opponents have manufactured and perpetuated a myth that a handful of wealthy philanthropists are getting rich off of charter schools and trying to destroy public education. They continuously repeat the myth that Bill Gates, the Walton family, Eli Broad, and Wall Street hedge fund managers are profiting from charter schools. They condemn and demonize these individuals. The reality is that these individuals have generously donated large portions of their wealth to improve many aspects of public education, including but not limited to charter schools. We should applaud them, not condemn them.

TWO: Stuck in the past.

Charter school opponents are fighting to maintain an outdated public school system that was first designed and built in the early 1900s. It is a system designed around an industrial model of top-down centralization and standardization. It may have worked well for the white middle class of the 20th Century, but it never worked for low-income children of color. Our 20th Century, neighborhood school model of education did a terrible job graduating low-income children and sending them to college, especially African-American children. In city after city, neighborhood schools in African-American communities were dilapidated and under-resourced. They did not help many children escape poverty; too often, they perpetuated it. Yet charter opponents ask us to go back to those days.

Charter school opponents need to stop romanticizing the good ol’ days of urban public education and start working to build a new system of public education that meets the needs of all children in the 21st Century. We’re 16 years into this new century. It’s time.

PhillyQuotePull1THREE: The blame game.

Charter school opponents consistently blame charter schools for the financial and academic failings of urban school districts. Yet they ignore the fact that urban school districts have been failing for generations, long before there was a single charter school. Charter schools did not create unfunded pension systems. Charter schools did not force school districts to borrow money that they could not afford. Charter opponents have the cause and effect backwards. Charter schools did not cause urban school districts to fail; urban school districts failed and caused parents to demand better options, like charter schools.

So, three weaknesses of charter schools and three weaknesses of charter school opponents.

There is plenty of weakness to go around.

What is shameful is this: for years, charter school proponents and opponents have been saying the same things and making the same mistakes. Year after year. It is time to change, to improve, to work with each other, not against each other.

Charter schools are not going to disappear from America. Neither are school districts. We need to stop fighting about what percent of children are enrolled in which type of school and start working together for the benefit of all children, regardless of what type of school they attend.
Let me conclude with five recommendations for how charter schools and school districts can move forward in order to prepare the best-educated generation in our nation.

One: Equity. All children, regardless of what type of school they attend, are entitled to their equitable share of public education resources. Thus, all schools—district schools and charter schools—should receive an equitable allocation of resources, including operating funds and facilities. That’s not happening right now in Philadelphia and it needs to.

Two: Fairness. All children, regardless of what type of public school they attend, are entitled to be treated fairly and receive an appropriate education. Both charter and other public schools need to do better with student discipline, with special education, and with English Language Learners. Philadelphia Charters for Excellence is emphasizing these student equity issues and I applaud them for that.

Three: Teachers leading. Our public education system needs to respect the professionalism of our educators and empower them with the autonomy they need to best serve the children in their schools. We must replace the early 20th Century, top-down model with a 21st Century model that supports educators and innovation. That means school district central offices need to trust and empower educators in schools more. And it means that the charter school movement needs to trust and empower more educators to start new schools.

Four: Consequences for failure. We must hold all of our public schools accountable for successfully educating their students. No school—charter school or other public school—should have a perpetual right to exist regardless of outcomes. If a school persistently fails, we have a moral obligation to those students to provide them with a better education. Pennsylvania’s charter school law is particularly weak on accountability and it needs to be strengthened.

Five: Choice for all. Our public education policies need to embrace, not resist, school choice as a vehicle that promotes parent engagement and empowers parents to match their children with schools that best meet their needs. Low-income parents love their children as much as any parents do and we need to empower them to choose schools that are best for their children. Providing parents with more choices means not just the power to choose a charter school, but also the power to make choices among good district schools.

When all of those mothers and grandmothers were calling me each August, they did not care about the charter school versus district school debate. They simply wanted a good, safe school for their child, regardless of who runs it. We, the adults who make our living in this field, need to start respecting parents’ aspirations for their children.

If we follow these five recommendations, public education will improve. We won’t be on the receiving end of those kinds of calls. More children will graduate, more children will go to college, more children will stay in college.

We already know what to do. By working together, I believe we can and will.

Thank you.