The Upside and Downside of Charters

12:25 pm

I think most anti-charter folks don’t recognize the other side of the argument, i.e., what makes charters really compelling as alternatives to mainstream public schools. Not all charter proponents are minority-hating, low-income-people avoiding, union-busting demons out to feather their own nests.

Charter critiques often overlook or do not acknowledge the progressive practices (e.g., student-centered instruction at many charters vs. teacher-led instruction at the majority of mainstream public schools, multiple forms of assessment vs. norm-based or multiple-choice assessments, democratically oriented school designs vs. top-down designs, more holistic, interdisciplinary curricula vs. a narrow range of subjects taught in isolation) that many charters engage in. According to the research I’ve done in PPS, Opal, Emerson, Trillium, and Portland Village all fall into some or most of these categories.

From what I understand about Ivy and its Montessori design, it also follows along most of these principles. Parents who wish to have their children taught in the manner described above (I’m one of them) want to enroll their children in schools where the design and pedagogical philosophy of the school make this possible. As it stands in PPS, my neighborhood school does not subscribe to these design and pedagogical principles, so I have to turn to the charters above to get what I’m looking for.

So I went to an open house for one of the charter schools a few weeks ago. The curriculum is inspiring. The way the school views childhood development is refreshingly different from the mainstream schools that emphasize academics and sacrifice social and emotional development, as well as “extras” like art, music, PE, drama, etc. There is something palpably different about this school: everyone likes being here. The teachers, the students, the parents . . . the place just wreaks of excitement. Apparently lots of other folks feel the same way that I do: the place was literally packed.

But I have mixed feelings about charters. There’s a big difference between locally-controlled, parent-run, not-for-profit charters like we see in Portland and corporate, for-profit charters like Edison Schools, Inc. and McCharters like the KIPP schools.

Ideally, charters were envisioned as institutions that would offer alternative approaches to education and would actively involve parents and the community. I think this model is very useful, especially in light of the top-down, cookie-cutter approach we see in Portland and elsewhere today.

But there’s a dark side to this school – all charter schools for that matter.

The Lottery

In the system here in Portland, if there are more applicants than spaces available, everyone’s name is put in a hat and students are selected randomly through this lottery process. Those lucky enough to have their names drawn get in. The unlucky ones . . . well, they’re SOL.

I can’t quite get over how odd this lottery business is. It seems fair on the surface . . . except for the ones that don’t win. What’s odd is that we’re talking about a kid’s future — including my kid’s future — that is literally subject to the luck of the draw, the roll of the dice.

As problematic as this is for a middle-class white family such as mine, the lottery process is even more problematic for low-income families, minorities, and low-income minorities. The charters, as part of PPS approval, have to design an outreach and marketing plan to target and attract diverse students (i.e., low-income families, minorities, and low-income minorities). So what do the charters actually say to the handful of low-income families, minorities, and low-income minorities that apply? “We really hope you win the lottery so you can send your kids here!”

But doesn’t that message serve to undermine the marketing and outreach efforts? If you reach out to low-income families, minorities, and low-income minorities, shouldn’t you say, “We really want you here, and we have a spot waiting for you”?

More profoundly, why do these charters appeal mostly to white, middle to upper-middle-class families? Why do only a handful of low-income families, minorities, and low-income minority families apply?

School choice proponents here in Portland and elsewhere crow about the virtues of being able to choose which school you send your kids to. But if you don’t win the lottery, what choice do you actually have? You’re stuck with the school you don’t want your kid to attend.

This being stuck’edness is no place that anyone wants to be. If you “choose” another school but are not lucky enough to have your “choice” granted, you can’t help but feel a little downtrodden. You can’t help but feel a little angry, a little desperate. But perhaps you dutifully send your kid to this school anyway. Hell, what “choice” do you have? Can’t afford private school. And homeschooling? Who can afford to quit their job and teach their kids? So you send your kid to this school that you have not chosen. You meet other parents who have not chosen this school. You feel their stuck’edness, their downtrodden’ness, their anger, and their desperation. This is the climate of the school, a school that no one has chosen.

A good chunk of research suggests that parental involvement is one of the keys to student success in school. But it’s hard to get excited about a school that you didn’t choose. It’s hard to want to volunteer in a place where you don’t belong.

I suppose I can’t shake the association between a jackpot lottery and a school choice lottery. What’s common to both is a certain kind of hopeful hopelessness, a quiet desperation mixed with a belief in a better life. But when you don’t hit the jackpot, your own dire straits are made that much more apparent.


In the crowd at the charter school open house I went to, I saw exactly one black kid and his mother. The rest were white, clearly middle to upper income whites.

While charters are technically open to everyone, the truth of the matter is that Portland charters tend to draw a disproportionate percentage of middle-class white people.

Unlike the local neighborhood school, charters are not the default schooling option for students and parents. So parents have to find out about the charters in their district. This winnows the field of applicants down considerably. Once they find out about the charters in their district, parents have to attend an informational meeting about the school. This further winnows the field down. Charters often require parents to sign some kind of agreement, e.g., to help at the school, to help with their kids homework, etc. This winnows the field down even further. Then, because the charters are often not in the neighborhood, parents and students have to travel — some times long distances — to get to the school. You guessed it: this winnows the field down still further.

So although charters are technically open to everyone, the way they are set up tends to limit the field of applicants to parents who have extra time on their hands and who are very motivated, involved, mobile, and informed. And parents who are very motivated, involved, mobile, and informed are disproportionately middle to upper income, often with one parent (usually the mom) designated as the full-time caregiver. How many low-income families can afford to have one of the parents not work? Give me a bunch of parents who have extra time on their hands and who are very motivated, involved, mobile, and informed and I will show you a good school.So, yes, charters are open to all. But not all come.

I don’t necessarily blame the charters for this. They are simply filling a need, responding to this desperate need that some parents have for a choice, something other than what they are given.

But wouldn’t it be great if all schools could be like charters, i.e., schools that parents would want to send their kids to? Sound like a naive pipe dream? Perhaps. But why can’t this be a reality? What’s actually stopping us from accomplishing this?

So before another charter gets approved, we have to address the following:

  1. an affirmative action plan needs to be considered RE: charter enrollment so that the charters are mandated to accept a certain number of low-income families, minorities, and low-income minorities
  2. PPS needs to hire an independent researcher to determine why the charters appeal mostly to white, middle to upper-middle-class families and what can be done to broaden their appeal

Therefore, I oppose the new Ivy charter application and all future charter schools until PPS has closely examined ways to broaden their appeal and make them more inclusive.

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Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

filed under: Charter Schools, Equity, Transfer Policy

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20 Responses

  1. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Good writing, sir. And I’m thinking… you need to go watch some Jefferson basketball and get your mind off all this charter school nonsense.

    Go, Demos!

  2. Comment from Terry:

    I agree, Peter. Charter schools, at their best, do offer innovative approaches to instruction.

    As a long time advocate of school reform, however, I must ask this question:

    Why can’t all public neighborhood schools do the same? Integrated student-centered instruction is not rocket science. For many years research has shown the advantages of such an approach to classroom teaching.

    The problem lies with district (and school board) leadership. School-based innovation has been stifled by top-down mandates. It’s no wonder then that charter schools are such attractive options for dissatisfied parents.

    Your “naive pipe dream” that all schools “be like charters” is neither naive nor a pipe dream. In the name of equity, that’s precisely what must happen if the district is to once again thrive.

    All it takes is the right leadership, the kind that understands the mechanisms of delivering quality education.

    For all students.

  3. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    It occurs to me that the things you like are not inherent in charter schools, but rather just good education policy.

    The salient difference of charter schools is autonomy, which means limited governmental oversight, relaxed requirements for teacher certification, and exemption from union contracts. These things don’t inherently lead to better teaching methodology. In fact, I would suggest better teaching happens in spite of this kind of autonomy.

    The things you talk about just happen to be going on at some charter schools in town. There are other charter schools, like you mention, that aren’t doing these things. So this isn’t an issue of charter schools vs. neighborhood schools.

    Let’s work to make these good things happen in our neighborhood schools, where they can be implemented by unionized, fully qualified teachers, available to everybody, and fully accountable to the taxpayers.

  4. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Terry – agreed. The sorts of things that characterize high-quality instruction should be happening in all our schools, not just a handful of charters.

    Steve R. – agree with you, too. I also worry about charters and the points you mention — limited governmental oversight, relaxed requirements for teacher certification, and exemption from union contracts. But each of these points has a bright side, too. For example:

    1) limited governmental oversight – as you and I discussed before, charters have different forms of accountability, but I wouldn’t say there is a total lack. Ultimately, charters have to make the same AYP targets. Of course, the PPS charters are not subject to punitive action because all of them — with the possible exception of SEI — have less than 40% free/reduced lunch, so they don’t receive Title 1 funds. Still, if one of the charters fails to make AYP, I would say that they would be under more scrutiny and be more accountable to the board precisely because the charters are under such intense public scrutiny here. I think this is a good thing.

    Also, another way of looking at “limited governmental oversight” is “greater amount of autonomy and freedom from top-down administrative mandates.” At the moment, regular (neighborhood) pre-K through 5 classrooms are being told to implement an extremely rigid, canned curriculum (Scott Foresman’s Reading Street). There’s also an obsessive, excessive approach to norm-based testing starting in pre-K. Teachers that I talk to hate it because (1) it takes up precious classroom time and (2) it is an extra work burden on teachers which (3) does not yield direct benefit in terms of improved teaching and learning. These are all subject to change under Smith, and there is a taskforce that a couple of my teacher colleagues are on that are rethinking these assessments. But, again, we’ll have to see how things actually pan out. But the charters do NOT have to follow these district mandates. This is a good thing. It’s good for the kids, but it’s also good for the teachers because they are allowed to exercise their professional judgment in deciding what is best for each kid in their classrooms. Under the regular (neighborhood) school approach, teacher judgment is being replaced by the canned/scripted curriculum. This makes my blood boil. Again, change looks like it’s happening. But who knows how long it will take.

    So by being “more like charters,” what I want is for all schools to have greater autonomy, to be accountable to parents and to children — not the mandates of a canned curriculum and the administrators who are charged with forcing compliance.

    2) relaxed requirements for teacher certification – this is a tough nut to crack. I support highly trained, fully qualified teachers. But some really, really gifted teachers have never been trained formally and do not have certifications from the state. Charters can open their doors to these folks, whereas regular schools cannot.

    3) exemption from union contracts – all the charters that I know about allow teachers to organize if they want to. I’m a member of a teacher’s union — the AFT. I love my union. But I also have a lot of problems with how it operates. All teachers should be able to protect their rights and preserve their professional autonomy. But what’s interesting in PPS and many, many other districts in the country is that union members are having their professional autonomy taken from them and many, many of them — including here in PPS — are afraid to step out of line for fear of being terminated. In short, union membership is no longer an assurance of the most basic rights of teachers.

  5. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I work in an industry that is completely non-standardized and non-unionized. You can have guys without a high school diploma employed as “software engineers,” designing and implementing systems that lives literally depend on.

    Sure, there are some really bright people without degrees. But I think the software industry would benefit from some standards.

    We’ve all had experiences with bad software. Most people tend to blame the computer, and don’t recognize that it’s actually bad engineering that gives them fits.

    Standards and certification == better design and implementation overall.

    Unions, good or bad, give educators a voice at the table they wouldn’t otherwise have. Of course charter teachers can organize, just like software engineers can. But none do, for fear of losing their jobs.

    Collective bargaining == good.

  6. Comment from theboss:

    This is beautifully written – thoughtful and non-inflammatory. Was this to have been read to the PPS board last nite re: Ivy?

  7. Comment from Steve Buel:

    It is not just that teachers are encouraged (forced) to toe the party line of the newest supposed trend which is going to solve the educational problems in America as soon as we can train all the teachers in it, but the teachers coming out of college often seem to really believe this is the way to go since they seem to be taught the sanctimony of testing as achievement. We still, as I have often said, need a clear definition of what constitutes a good education so we can truly assess how we are doing and what we actually need to do. Testing itself is not a definition and I think to a huge degree charters are set up to offset this rotten trend in the public schools. In that way the charters are right. And frankly I don’t give a hoot if any of them ever make AYP.

  8. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    theboss – yes, I was going to read a version of this at the Board meeting last night. But since Ivy withdrew, I saw no point. But I’d still like to offer these ideas, for what they’re worth — to the Board. We really need to get beyond the pro-charter/anti-charter debate as it has been traditionally framed and look at ways that education can be improved. As Steve R. and Terry have said, a lot of what happens in PPS charters are things that should happen in regular, non-charter schools. So why aren’t they happening? And what can we do to make them happen?

    Steve B. – completely agree with you: we need a clear definition of what constitutes a good education so we can truly assess how we are doing and what we actually need to do. I think the state standards are a good place to start. But the problem, as we all know, is that teachers are told specifically what to do and when to do it, i.e., are given a canned, one-size-fits-all curriculum and told to follow it . . . or else. The PPS charters — love ’em or hate ’em — show that this does not have to be the case.

  9. Comment from My Little Pony:

    I am a supporter of high-quality charter schools. I am not a supporter of vouchers. I am not a libertarian or even a republican. Now that all of that is out of the way…

    I agree whole-heartedly that, as you say, “There’s a big difference between locally-controlled, parent-run, not-for-profit charters like we see in Portland and corporate, for-profit charters like Edison Schools, Inc. and McCharters like the KIPP schools.”

    Oregon doesn’t have any corporate charters like that. All of ours are operated by non-profits (well, except for one online school that actually is effectually run by a for-profit, and it’s pretty controversial for many reasons, that being one of them). The other 79 charter schools are home-grown. They’re all non-profit corporations, governed by their own board, and pretty small (average size is 150 students). Not much corporate stuff going on.

    I don’t know how many “choice” programs there are in PPS or how many students participate, but I know both numbers are much higher than the numbers of charter schools and numbers/%’s of kids in charters in Portland, and I have a hunch that the issues we have due to “school choice” have much less to do with charter schools in Portland (given the small % of the total they actually constitute) and much more to do with the other, broader school choice issues. What do you think about that? I ask that sincerely, not sarcastically.

    Also, I can tell by your description (of the open house) which charter you visited. I know it is not very diverse at this point. However, if you were to visit Self Enhancement Academy, Leadership & Entrepreneurship High, Trillium, and some of the others, I think you would find at least as much diversity as you would find in PPS on average. I know those schools have lots of economic, cultural and racial diversity. Also, the national data shows that charter schools tend to have disproportionate %’s (compared to their local communities and districts) of low-income, racially and culturally diverse (and special education) students.

    I agree with many of the comment here, that we shouldn’t have to “go charter” to get innovation, flexibility and quality. The system is so large and the status quo so entrenched, and it seems very coomplicated to get everyone on the same page about what public education should be and how to get there. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m sure wanting to be part of it.

  10. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    SEI is the only real exception; it is 96.35% black. Leadership and Entrepreneurship is just slightly less white than the district as a whole (51.02% vs. 54.94%).

    Trillium, at 64.97% white, is quite a bit whiter than the 54.98% white district as a whole, and significantly more so than the 31% white PPS student population in the Jefferson cluster, where it is sited.

    Even with the nearly all-black SEI charter factored in (more black kids attend there than all the other charter schools combined), charter schools in Portland are whiter (57.75% vs 54.94%) and less poor (35.2% free and reduced vs. 45.3%) than the PPS student population as a whole.

    They also have fewer English language learners (1% vs. 10.3%) and less special ed (13.9% vs. 14.7%).

    When you factor out SEI, these numbers look far worse.

    Data source: Portland Public Schools Enrollment Summaries 1998-99 through 2007-08 (122KB PDF)

  11. Comment from My Little Pony:


    How about my other five paragraphs? Any thoughts there?

    Also, the PPS data isn’t necessarily the best source.
    How about LOW-INCOME students?

  12. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    re. PPS data, are you disputing the accuracy of it? My biggest beef with PPS data is that it is hard to find on their Web site, but I don’t have any reason to doubt its accuracy. The source I cited above is pretty definitive and complete for enrollment data as of October, 2007.

    I’m not sure what you’re asking re. “LOW-INCOME.” The district tracks this by whether a student qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, which is what I used in my remarks above.

    As for your other paragraphs, I think we’re on the same page on a lot of this.

    Yes, the other “choice” options are myriad, and yes, they take enrollment from neighborhood schools. But the vast majority of out-transfers from neighborhood schools are to other neighborhood schools.

    That’s the biggest problem, in my opinion. Charters are really down in the noise, well behind special focus schools, and even alternative schools and community-based alternatives. What concerns me about charters, as I said in the Tribune, is the rate of growth, as well as the massive amounts of money the Bush administration is pumping into them.

    There’s a ton of tax money going into the charter school movement that isn’t going into the classroom, and very little accountability.

    The challenge is definitely to get child-centered reform implemented in our neighborhood schools. As to how, the first step is to build awareness, and the second step is to lobby, all the way from the classroom teacher, through the site principal, the central administration, and up to the school board.

    What might surprise you is that there are people all up and down the chain who agree with us, and want this kind of approach in the classroom. Unfortunately, we’re still in the clean-up phase from our previous administration, which was obsessed with test-based performance measurements and a forced, centralized curriculum that reinforces a scripted, teach-to-the-test mentality.

    It is frustrating to many that even with sympathetic political leadership, we still have to proceed with baby steps on this kind of thing. The new administration of Carole Smith is focussed on stabilization, since things have been so nuts lately in PPS.

    Give it a year, and we could see some bold leadership for reform from the top (maybe). Meanwhile, please get involved with the lower end of the chain of command, and make your wishes known in your children’s school.

  13. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Child-centered reform can take a lot of directions as you know. I repeat my suggestion that PPS decide what contitutes a good education and use that definition as the goals to work toward.

  14. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I’ll leave it to educators like Steve Buel, Terry Olson and Peter Campbell to debate and propose what “child-centered reform” should look like.

    My focus remains on equity. Without it, meaningful reform is meaningless to the masses.

  15. Comment from Terry:

    Think the district would hire Steve, Peter and me as consultants on school reform?

  16. Comment from Steve Rawley:


    Oh, wait… you said “would” not “should.”

  17. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    I’d like to steer everyone’s attention to a group called Portland Area Rethinking Schools (PARS). Here is their web site.

    PARS “has a 20 year history of working to support public education and progressive reform in the schools. We are teachers, parents, students, community activists and teacher educators who believe excellent and equitable public schools are essential for all students
    to reach their potential and for the creation of a just and democratic society.” (from the web site)

    PARS created a fantastic document that helps to facilitate the question that Steve B. keeps bringing up, i.e., what constitutes a good education so that we can use that definition as the goals to work toward.

    Please find the document here.

  18. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Perhaps the key contemporary person advocating progressive approaches to teaching and learning is Alfie Kohn. His book The Schools Our Children Deserve — esp. chaps 3, 8, & 9 — is absolutely required reading for anyone interested in reform.

    He also has a chart on his web site called “What to Look for in a Classroom.” You can find it here.

  19. Comment from Dale Sherbourne:

    I believe that charter schools are unconstitutional under the Oregon Constitution
    Section 20. Equality of privileges and immunities of citizens.
    No law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens,
    in regards to foster children under state supervision in that from my preliminary findings from the
    Multnomah dist. of Human Services they have no children in charter schools
    therefore de facto they are disadvantaged in their educational opportunities
    because state education dollars are being spent to create and maintain charter schools
    under ORS 338 that they have no parental advocate to make those choices and they are being deprived
    of resources that they need in there local neighborhood public school.

  20. Comment from Charter School Teacher:

    I know this conversation has dried up, (it ended a few months ago)but if people are still interested in discussing charters, Rethinking Schools has just put out a new book called Keeping the Promise? the debate over charter schools. It might open the conversation up to some national and historic aspects of the debate.