Several years ago I was involved with a group of people in Brookings who were very excited about what the Curry Coastal Pilot was to later call a “Grand Experiment.” Our firm belief was that it is possible to structure an educational system within which every child can learn and succeed. At that time there were a great many questions circulating around town about charter schools – so I was asked to speak to the Rotary Club on March 22, 2005 to answer the question “What is a Charter School, Anyway?”
Once again I’m beginning to hear that same question being asked – so perhaps it’s time to revisit the answer. The short answer is pretty simple: A charter school is an alternative public school that is based on a charter, or contract, between a group of people and a public school district.
Although that definition may sound simple – in reality it’s the root of the confusion and controversy. Since no two contracts, or “charters,” are alike – no two charter schools are alike. Unfortunately, the community-driven charter schools that get most media attention are the ones that fail. That’s why the long answer to the question “What is a Charter School?” is so important. That answer must start with a three part history lesson that begins in 1892:
PART ONE: The Committee of Ten
Few people know about the Committee of Ten – although their decisions have shaped most of our lives. The Committee was appointed by the National Education Association in 1892 and was chaired by Charles Eliot, then president of Harvard University. Their task was to standardize high school programs across the country so that colleges could be certain that they were accepting students who could be academically successful. Their finished report would sound familiar to most educators today. To start with, it laid down two “tracks” for high school students: the “University Preparation Track” and the “Terminal Track.” Students who would never be considered for college were placed on the “Terminal Track.” In 1892 that had nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. It was usually because they were poor, the wrong color . . . or because they were women.
Other familiar aspects of the report included “Grade Levels,” a 1st– 8th grade “Grammar School,” a 9th-12th grade “High School” – and the familiar system of Carnegie Units that are needed in order to graduate.
This system worked well for the country throughout the first half of the 20th century. Many students couldn’t meet the standards of high school and dropped out of school before they finished. But with two World Wars to fight – and an industrialized society to build . . . there was always plenty of work for these high school dropouts. My own grandfather was a perfect example. He only made it through the 6th grade, dropping out to work on the family farm. In 1934 he brought his wife and young daughter to California. He got a job in the new Ford Motor Company factory in Long Beach and retired with a gold watch and enough Ford stock to start college funds his great-great grandchildren.
We can all tell similar success stories about young people who were not successful in school – but have been successful in life. Unfortunately, those days are over and it’s taken us the last half of the 20th century to accept that we need to seriously question the work of the Committee of Ten. Children who can’t find success in school today are going to have a much harder time competing in the 21st century marketplace.
PART TWO: The Factory Model
Most “Baby Boomers” will remember the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethel get jobs on a candy factory assembly line. Up until the early 1950’s, little kids came to public school much like the chocolates on the conveyor belt in that episode. The value systems in most middle class American homes were about the same. Minorities were just that: minorities. They had very little voice in public policy making. The number of kids who started school every year remained about the same and schools were able to serve most students well. There was always work outside school for those who couldn’t – or didn’t want to – conform, and the system worked. Schools could handle the job easily and became quite complacent with the system the Committee of Ten had established over 50 years earlier.
Then came 1951. The “Baby Boomers,” some of whom had even been born in hospital hallways and waiting rooms in 1946 and 1947, arrived at the schoolhouse doors. And, like the chocolates on the conveyer belt on “I Love Lucy” . . . they kept coming and coming. I have heard that some first grade classes tripled in size from one year to the next. Since these kids had been around for six years, it’s pretty amazing that the schools weren’t prepared for them, but they weren’t. So, during the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, the standardization that began with the Committee of Ten in 1892 moved into full gear and schools adopted what has been called the “Factory Model.” Throughout those years schools had to look at ways to standardize the process more and more in order to educate the greatest number of kids.
From there, things kept speeding up until early civil rights advocates began to ask questions. They began to ask about the kids, who, like the candy on the conveyor belt, kept “flipping off the assembly line” when it began moving too fast. From my point of view as a student who did well in school in the 1950’s and 60’s, and then as a young teacher in the early 1970’s, those students didn’t impact my world very much. However, thankfully there were teachers, who did notice these young people – the ones who simply did not have a place in our schools.
As a result of the work of those advocates, the Federal Government passed a law in 1974 that again changed the face of American education forever. Public Law 94-142 stated that “every child has a right to a free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment.” While teachers and parents of today may not be able to quote the exact wording of that law . . . it impacts them on a daily basis. A favorite professor of mine introduced the PL 94-142 with the following quote: “Every good idea starts with a poet – and ends with a policeman.” It feels to many of us that in the 40 years that have followed the passage of that most “poetic” idea into law, our schools have begun to crumble under the stress of trying to do what is right for ALL students.
PART THREE: The Promise of Charter Schools
Charter schools also had their roots in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. After PL 94-142 passed in 1974, educators could no longer think in terms of the “Terminal Track” that seemed so logical to the Committee of Ten in 1892. Not only was a “free, appropriate, public education available to the poor, to people of color, and to women, the law now required that it be made available to all children – regardless of any physical handicap or learning disability they might have.
Soon, however, many teachers began to realize that a large number of students who were not physically handicapped and could not be labeled learning disabled were still not finding success within the standardized system. Because so many students were unable, or unwilling, to conform, many schools – especially in large urban areas – were failing.
New England educator, Ray Budde, was one of the teachers who noticed the “invisible” kids – the ones who were not making it in school and were leaving early. In 1974 he suggested that small groups of teachers be given contracts or “charters” by their local school boards to explore new approaches within pre-existing schools to serve these students. Albert Shanker, former president of the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) promoted the idea of these charters as “schools within schools. The idea caught on during the next two decades and Philadelphia opened a number of new “Charter Schools” in the late 1980’s.
The idea took root, and in 1991 Minnesota became the first state to pass a Charter School. Federal money was made available to charters in states that had such a law. California’s law was passed in 1992 and, by 1995, 19 states had passed Charter School Laws. By 2003, 40 states had Charter School Laws in place.
Oregon’s law was passed in 1999. Charter School Laws have changed every year. In some cases those changes have improved charter schools as the “bugs” have been worked out over time. Other changes have been the result of political pressure to conform to the existing system. Overall, however, the promise of charter schools is that innovative and flexible models can be effectively utilized to provide opportunities for students who are in some way underserved in the traditional schools. The requirement of a charter school is that it must provide a program different from what is already available – and be open to all students, not necessarily just the ones who are considered to be “at risk.”
Charter school developers across the country are re-thinking the report of the Committee of Ten and continue to add opportunities for kids with special needs but who are not necessarily learning disabled. Every learner is unique – and charters can provide choices that are not possible in traditional public schools.
As our society is becoming more and more complex, parents are beginning to demand educational choices that are not currently available within traditional public schools. Many are opting to homeschool their children or to enroll them in private schools. A good charter school is a free, public alternative for these parents. In cases where more parents want to have their children in a charter school than spaces are available, a lottery system must be used.
Charter School Laws have become complex and are still “works in progress.” Since charters are intended to be innovative and flexible, developers must constantly be thinking “outside the box.” That, of course, is the only way they can hope to help kids who are definitely “outside the box” in their thinking! The most important thing to remember, however, is that since charters are public schools, their students are expected to meet the same high standards as all other students. There is no difference in what charter schools must teach; the difference is in how they teach it.
 Except, of course, for the new breed of “privatized” charter schools, or “charter chains” that are now receiving most of the media attention. Some of these were featured in the movie “Waiting for Superman.”