Chris Cerf, the acting commissioner of education in New Jersey, published an article today defending charter schools, which have become very controversial in his state. They have become controversial because the state is trying to push them into suburbs that have great public schools and don’t want them, and they have become controversial because the public is beginning to revolt against for-profit charters, especially for-profit online charters, which Cerf is promoting.

People in New Jersey are beginning to realize that every dollar that goes to a privately managed charter school is a dollar taken away from their own public school. Because the budget is not expanding, it IS a zero sum game. Fixed costs do not decline when children leave the school.

Despite Governor Chris Christie’s frequent belittling of New Jersey teachers and schools, New Jersey is one of the highest performing states in the nation on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress. So, citizens of the state have good reason to oppose the Christie administration’s efforts to turn more taxpayer dollars over to private entrepreneurs.

In his article, Chris Cerf writes:

“ is often forgotten that one of the first advocates for public charter schools was Albert Shanker, the former New York City teachers’ union leader, who supported charter schools as a way to empower public school educators to innovate.”

Chris Cerf needs to know what Albert Shanker really said about charter schools. This is what he would learn if he read pp. 122-124 of my book The Death and Life of the Great American School System:

1. Albert Shanker was president of the American Federation of Teachers, not the New York City union, when he first proposed the charter school idea in 1988.

2. Shanker proposed that any new charter should be jointly approved by the union and the school district. More than 90% of charters today are non-union. Shanker would not have approved any school that did not respect the rights of teachers to bargain collectively.

3. Shanker proposed that new charters should target the hardest-to-educate students: those who had dropped out or were failing. He never imagined that charters would have a selection process or that charters might avoid students with disabilities or English-language learners as is now the case in many charters.

3. Shanker wanted charters to collaborate, not compete, with existing public schools. He proposed them as a way to solve the problems of public schools. Whatever they learned, he said, should be shared with the public schools that sponsored them.

4. MOST IMPORTANT: In 1993, when Shanker saw that the charter idea was going to be used to privatize public education, he turned against charter schools. He opposed the takeover of the charter idea by corporations, entrepreneurs, and for-profit vendors. He became a vocal opponent of charter schools when he realized that his idea was embraced by “the education industry.” In his weekly column in The New York Times, Albert Shanker repeatedly denounced charter schools, vouchers, and for-profit management as “quick fixes that won’t fix anything.”

Here is an idea for Commissioner Cerf. You can fix the charter idea if you align it with Shanker’s original idea.

First, insist that all new charters are endorsed by the local school district and the union representing teachers.

Second, bar all for-profit management.

Third, insist that all charters recruit and enroll only the lowest-performing students, the students who have dropped out, and the students who are doing poorly in their present public school.

Fourth, require that charters collaborate with the public schools and share whatever they learn.

Fifth, to truly revive the spirit of Shanker’s proposal, bar all corporate-owned charter chains. Authorize only stand-alone charters that are created by teachers and parents in the district to serve the children of that district. No chains, just local charters committed to that community.

So, yes, Commissioner Cerf, you are on the right track when you quote Albert Shanker. Now, if you take his advice, you can save the charter school idea from the privatizers and profiteers who are giving it a bad name.