Who would believe that Albert Shanker, the late, controversial president of the American Federation of Teachers, was one of the original backers of the charter school concept, publicizing the name and idea in his weekly “Where We Stand” column of July 10, 1988? Charter schools, unions, and public schooling were not always enemies. But, more than two decades later, the teams have changed, and the debate over charter schools has become so polarized as not to be productive. Critics on the left tend to lump all charter schools together and include them with the voucher movement as a threat to public schools (even though charter schools are public schools—albeit ones that function with considerable autonomy from districts). The Right, for its part, uses charter schools to beat up unions and demonize teachers.
As one who works at a charter school despite complicated feelings about them, I’d like to take you inside the Wissahickon Charter School in Philadelphia, where I work as Lower School Director, and show you a way that I believe charter schools can use their structure to succeed.
What makes our charter school different from other non-charter urban public schools where I have worked is a shared sense of purpose—a common set of commitments about what school should be and the kind of world we are trying to create. Without those shared commitments, the priority of many schools in the era of No Child Left Behind too often becomes narrowed to high test scores, creating a race to the bottom in which only reading and math skills count and the rush to meet too many objectives interferes with deep learning and a meaningful connection to the outside world. The autonomy given to charter schools has, in our case, fostered a unique and unifying mission that has allowed us to resist the prevailing mechanistic and reductive view of learning while still staying part of the public system.
Charter schools are the focus of endless debate. Even the term “charter schools” is complicated, meaning anything from “start-up charters,” created when sufficiently like-minded people write an application to their state Department of Education to receive funding to start a school; to “conversion charters,” created when a public school within a district petitions to become a charter and have increased autonomy; to charters affiliated with either for-profit or nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs), often existing in chains of similarly run schools.
The data on student achievement in charter schools are similarly complicated. One recent review of the literature by Lea Hubbard and Rucheeta Kulkarni of the University of San Diego and Arizona State University, respectively, summed up whether charter schools are raising achievement in a frank, four-word statement: “We still don’t know.”
Wissahickon is a “start-up charter.” In 1999, in a living room in Northwestern Philadelphia, a group of twenty or so paren...
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