The Charter School Proposal: Critical Issues, Wrong Answer

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What follow are my own thoughts on the charter school proposal, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of my employer the Illinois Education Association, or its local Urbana and Champaign affiliates.
Let me state at the outset that there is much in Nathaniel Banks’ February 2002 public i article with which I find agreement. There is no doubt in my mind that our pubic education system is not working to its full capacity, let alone its full promise. And there is no doubt that a strong sentiment of alienation persists among African-Americans. Furthermore, it is entirely appropriate to question the power relationships in public education – particularly those relationships which perpetuate, intentionally or not, the conditions of white supremacy and racism.
Having said that, I nevertheless cannot accept Mr. Banks’ answer to the problems of public education. The charter school movement in general, and the Champaign-Urbana proposal in particular, represent a diversion from needed action and ultimately a deadend for the reform efforts. Part of the problem is the wrong assumptions upon which charter school proponents build their argument.
A correct starting point for genuine school reform is funding equity. This issue is virtually unaddressed by Mr. Banks. But if one is serious about combating the effects of poverty and racism, the funding issue stands out as a critical factor. There is a growing consensus that at least eighty percent of student achievement is related to socioeconomic status, and by and large school funding in Illinois has exacerbated the problem. There remains a fifteen to one funding ratio in per student expenditures. The richest schools are getting richer, and the poorer schools more economically challenged. Every politician recognizes the need for a more progressive approach, but to date change has been incremental at best. Everyone truly serious about reform should unite around a new funding mechanism that reverses the inequity and puts dollars where they are needed most. The state should pick up 51% of the costs of educating our children, and those funds should be derived from the state income tax. Currently the state picks up 35% to 37% of the cost of education. The chance to prevail on the funding issue may be before us in this next state electoral cycle. None of us can afford to miss this opportunity.
Also unaddressed by Mr. Banks is the teacher shortage crisis. Over the next few years there will be a full sixty percent turnover of veteran Illinois teachers, representing a demographic reality of staggering proportions. At a time when recruitment and retention of qualified motivated instructors is center stage, one can only assume that the ability of untried charter experiments to obtain a committed staff will be increasingly difficult. One answer for school districts such as those in Urbana and Champaign is to use this crisis to begin “growing our own”; that is, to begin investing in the professionalization of teaching assistants by providing access to higher education and teacher preparation. These same teacher assistants and support staff ranks also tend to be much more diverse, and by extension could help build the “affinity” culture Mr. Banks seeks. But, of course, this is an investment like any other, and would require the necessary dollars to make it happen.
Mr. Banks does correctly identify community-parent-family involvement as critical to any real education reform. Yet the charter school proposal does not advance anything new in terms of how to make this happen. I would like to draw Mr. Banks’ attention to the work of Fields and Feinberg, Education and Democratic Theory (SUNY, 2001), which relates the saga of an Urbana community organizing/parent empowerment project. The fundamental lessons are two-fold. First, community outreach is hard, labor-intensive work. One cannot simply “conjure up” sustained, self-determined involvement. It must be built slowly, carefully, and consciously over time. Second, involvement demands (you guessed it) resources. The book details a variety of material supports – e.g., a stipend for participation, independent information supports, assistance with transportation, care for dependents (children and others). With these supports meaningful participation is possible. A struggle to achievethis program would be a tremendous boost to improve the role of parents and community. To isolate oneself from such a critical effort does a disservice to all who care for public education.
There is much more to this story which I believe goes a long way to address one of the principal concerns Mr. Banks raises, and that is the question of who makes decisions and who controls the K-12 operation. The goal of the Urbana project was to substantially improve the diversity of participants in various levels of shared decision-making. This commitment came out of union-school board negotiations. It recognized that certain groups, particularly African-Americans, have been effectively excluded from the decision-making process.
Moreover, the project created a cadre of activists who took enfranchisement a step further. With the goal of breaking down the old patterns of selecting school board members at-large, and thus reinforcing the power of one small segment of the population, project cadre went on to create a movement for sub-districts, which would over time create the conditions for a more racially and economically diverse school board in Urbana Unit 116.
My fear is that Mr. Banks’ proposal has a siphoning-off effect. This is a phenomenon noted by other critics of the Charter concept. It occurs on two levels. The more active parents and their children are pulled into the charter school, and thus their presence and participation are lost from the “regular” K-12 environment. The second level is in the area of activism per se. It is the loss to the equity funding movement, to the shared decision-making project, and to the sub-districts effort of those good people, who now devote precious time and resources to a separate, isolated charter.
A fundamental weakness of the charter movement in Illinois is its exclusion of the Labor Act, and the resulting loss of union rights for charter employees. To call for social justice, and to ignore at the same time the rights of employees, causes those of us in the union movement to question the charter concept at its core. It is sad to see a fine activist such as Nate Banks fall prey to the labor-bashing which characterizes so much of the anti-public-education lobby. My experience in Urbana and Champaign tells me that the unions havebeen in the front lines of change. I can’t attest to how universal this is beyond Champaign County, but I feel strongly that it is inappropriate to deny the leadership that the IEA and IFT have brought to the causes of equity, diversity, and democracy.
Mr. Banks needs to consider yet another fact: the charter experience is not yet proven! Thus far, analyses of charter results show a mixed bag – some charter schools do better, some charter schools do worse, some charter schools stay the same with respect to student achievement. A similar study of public school management demonstrated the same results. The bottom line is the same – systematic change is the way to “lift all boats.” Absent that kind of overhaul, no dramatic change is sustainable.
In summary, I call on Nate and his charter supporters to join us in the fight currently before us. Help us make funding equity a reality for all the children. Help us make diversity in effective shared decision-making the norm. Help us elect a truly representative school board. Success on these fronts will begin to bring about the transformation that Mr. Banks wants, and that every child needs.

Gene Vanderport
Savoy, IL

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