I live in New York City, where charters are aggressively expanding. Many, perhaps most, of our charters have hedge fund managers on their board of directors. They want to win. They want higher test scores than the neighborhood public school. They compete with one another and they compete with the neighborhood school.
The city government–which is to say, Mayor Michael Bloomberg–believes in charters. He pushed energetically to get the Legislature to double the number of charters in the city from 100 to 200. In a city with a student enrollment of more than 1 million, the charters enroll a very small proportion, at this point about 5%. Yet you would think by reading the tabloids that they are the only schools that matter.
The charters are very assertive on their own behalf. Whenever there is a public hearing about whether to close a neighborhood public school or a legislative hearing about charters, you can be sure that the charters will bus in hundreds of charter students and parents in identical T-shirts to advocate for more charters or for closing the neighborhood school.
When I see the students and their parents with their placards demanding “more change, faster change,” I have had two reactions. First, if any public school were to spend public money bringing its students and their families to a political event, it would be a major scandal, and the principal would be fired for bad judgment.
My second reaction is to wonder why the students and their parents want more charters. They are already enrolled in a charter. How many schools can one student attend? Are they there because they want everyone to have what they have? Or are they there because the sponsor wants more charters? In other words, are they being used to expand the chain and the power of the board? It is obvious that their presence is highly orchestrated. After one big public meeting, one of the parents dropped the script.
This behavior by the charters is disturbing. It shows the worst traits of corporate America. It’s not about education. It’s about winning, even if winning is at the expense of others.
Others find it problematic, even repulsive, which explains why more and more communities are reacting negatively to charters.
Competition may be the way of the world, but collaboration is the best path for building community and goodwill. Collaboration is also the route to school improvement.