How can we find common ground with the charter school community?

I recently attended a forum with Secretary Treasurer Jeff Freitas organized by the NAACP to examine charter schools. America’s oldest civil rights organization is hosting a series of events around the country to get feedback on a proposed national policy calling for a moratorium on new charter schools.

Supporting a moratorium doesn’t necessarily mean opposition to charter schools. It just means that for a host of reasons stopping the expansion of charters is sensible.

Charter schools were initially thought of as unionized schools that could be incubators of innovation. However, many operators see charters as a way to distance themselves from unionization, and their academic performance remains a mixed bag. At the end of the day, schools where certificated and classified employees have collective bargaining rights is what we want, no matter where they work.

And like it or not, charters seem to meet a need. Even though my neighbors don’t send their kids to charters for ideological reasons, parents do what they think is best for their kids, whether it’s the promise of smaller classes, increased safety, or a more innovative program.

Calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools makes sense. There should be a thorough examination of the policies and practices of charter schools before more are opened.

For example, how do charter schools respond to efforts at unionization? Most charter schools are not unionized and many seem to resist it. The biggest chain of charter schools in Los Angeles — Alliance — has waged an anti-union smear campaign to discourage their teachers from joining United Teachers Los Angeles. If charter schools are engaging in anti-union behavior, then national charter school organizations need to address this before a proposed moratorium is lifted.

Examination would help 
determine if there are widespread practices that keep special needs children out of charter schools. Do the governing boards of charters operate in a transparent manner? And do parents, students, and teachers have a real voice in school operation?

A common practice among Los Angeles charter schools, and one of the reasons the NAACP voiced concerns, has to do with the practice of counting so-called disruptive kids prior to enrollment tabulation, and then pushing them out after. If this is a widespread practice, it should end before a moratorium is lifted.

Finding common ground with charter schools is a laudable goal. I know charter school operators who are good people, concerned about their students, running schools that encourage creativity and critical thinking. They send many young people to college.

But when the California Charter School Association uses its political muscle to kill a modest piece of legislation like Senate Bill 322 that called for more transparency and accountability, it makes collaboration difficult.

When the charter association spends $20 million in the recent California elections, and when they and their allies spend millions of dollars to unseat Steve Zimmer, president of the Los Angeles Unified school board, that’s a real problem.

At the NAACP forum, Cristina de Jesus, head of the Green Dot charter schools in Los Angeles, said, “Unions are not the problem.” 

One would hope that she and others open to talking about the practices of charter schools would put pressure on the charter association and its wealthy benefactors to lessen conflict between the charter and non-charter worlds. That could be the beginning of finding common ground that benefits the entire education community.

By Joshua Pechthalt, CFT President