Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Two Examples of Why Hillary Clinton is Wrong about Charter Schools

I’ve been hitting Hillary Clinton hard lately for her abrupt flip-flop on charter schools. She was once a fierce advocate but now a echoer of union political triangulation (i.e., charters are great as long as they serve solely as experimental and transitory “incubators of innovation”).

I don’t doubt Clinton’s good will towards schoolchildren or her recognition of the systemic failures of many high-needs, low-income districts or her empathy for  parent preference for charter schools, particularly among African-Americans families. But she appears be ignoring the obstacles to large bureaucracies actually implementing some of those experiments like longer school days and calendars, unshackling of teacher tenure rules, lock-step salary guides, instructional innovations.

If I actually had access to her or her advisors I’d point them to two examples that depict large district immunity to change. The first is from the New York State School Board Association which, like every state school board association, provides professional development for board members and lobbying efforts for state policies that school leaders believe would lead to more functional districts.
In its 2015 list of Legislative Priorities, NYSSBA has this on its wish list:

District Flexibility: Charter schools are given enormous flexibility when it comes to staffing decisions, construction rules and educational decision-making. This provides them with a significant advantage over public schools. Charter schools are routinely compared to district-run schools, yet this comparison is akin to apples to oranges. Comparing charter schools to public schools provides no useful data. By providing local school districts with new employment flexibilities for struggling schools pursuant to the receivership law, the governor and the Legislature recognize that districts sometimes need leeway with regard to employment decisions, seniority-based terminations, school labor and construction mandates.
It’s also worth pointing out that NYSSBA, like its counterpart New Jersey School Boards Association, advocates for ending lifelong tenure and, instead, substituting five-year tenure protection. This is not an anti-teacher move; it’s a pro-student and pro-school one.

Secondly, I’d refer Ms. Clinton’s team to an article today in NJ Spotlight that describes the N.J. D.O.E.’s decision to forward a Newark traditional school’s request to reopen as a charter school Currently, BRICK Academy, led by Dominique Lee, is a traditional school that has been permitted to, well, experiment with various innovations and to great success. (See here, for example.) Now Lee wants to combine two Newark district schools, Avon Avenue School and Peshine Avenue School, into a single charter school.
BRICK’s leader said the change would give the two schools more freedom and flexibility, saying they have been hindered by the public school district’s bureaucracy and mandated costs and funding limits.
Dominique Lee, CEO of BRICK Academy, said becoming charters would enable the schools to break away from district strictures that he said amount to required spending of an estimated $3,000 to $5,000 per pupil, money he said is mostly spent on central office personnel and services. 
The new charter school would use that money to hire additional teachers while bolstering support services like counselors and social workers. 
“We’d be adding a whole different level of services that we can’t now,” Lee said.
In addition, “charter status would also allow BRICK to hire teachers without having to go through the district’s hiring process, Lee said, a process now even further constrained by Newark’s notorious pool of excess teachers.”

BRICK Academy wouldn’t be an “incubator.” It would be a permanent public school permitted to bypass regulations that are unfriendly to children and learning. Teachers would be free to unionize or not, although Lee would insist on a separate contract to give him more flexibility over his teaching staff.

The best charter schools (and there are good and bad ones, just like traditional schools) are about lattitude and learning with a laser-focus on student outcomes. What's not to support? Union endorsements aside, Sec'y Clinton needs to rethink her stance.

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