“Do you want some advice?” asked the board member of a large network of charter schools in southern California. “Sure,” I replied. The meeting was over. I was being polite. Making small talk. Easing my way towards the door.
By state law, charter school board meetings must be open to the public. They do, after all, take millions of tax payer dollars. You can imagine my discomfort when I discovered that on this occasion, I alone was “the public”. Early on, as the millionaire chairperson gestured for me to move closer and sit at the table, I knew that interaction was inevitable.
During the meeting a legal team took the final steps to merge a neighbouring elementary charter school into the existing network. The board then discussed its expansion plans and an aggressive strategy to take over the property of a religious school. Educational matters were reduced to a presentation of graphs and tables that was slotted in between business items. Teacher pay was considered in closed session and then referred to “management”.
When asked what I thought of the meeting, I offered the view that some Australian politicians were promoting ‘independent public schools’ despite an absence of the ‘governance’ culture required for the kind of local decision making I had just witnessed. My contribution was intended as a thinly disguised plug for educational leadership rather than a cry for managerial help.
And the advice I received was unambiguous: “Don’t have democratically elected boards.”
“Why is that?” I had to ask. I was still a few metres from the exit. Another board member responded with contempt: “The unions will get involved and try to get their people on.”
At last, the door. “Personally, I’m a big fan of democracy,” I replied. What else could I say?
As privately operated, publicly funded ventures supported by both sides of US politics, charter schools represent the wild west of educational reform. They are as diverse in form as they are in quality and success.
I found one charter school on the third floor of a Westfield’s Shopping Centre, wedged between a vitamins store and book shop. Another, defiantly named America’s Finest Charter School, was set-up in the back of a disused car dealership.
Names appeared to be an important feature of the charter pitch. Who wouldn’t want their child to go to Einstein Charter School?
Others were named after great labour and civil rights leaders, despite being non-union and making questionable progress in the promise to close the achievement gap for African-American and Hispanic students. I wondered why the King-Chavez Neighbourhood of Schools didn’t just add Ghandi to its name and be done with it.
Another charter school, named after the founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, had become infamous among local teachers for its anti-union director who adorned the school’s buildings with images of himself. He allegedly attempted to inspire his staff with the line: “It’s your job to do everything you can for the students. It’s my job to burn you out in three years.” Turnover and inexperience appear to be common in the charter movement.
Teacher unions have set out on the long, hard road to organise charter schools and establish higher levels of public accountability. If left unchecked, such reforms would provoke a ‘race to the bottom’ in teaching and learning conditions and result in the further residualisation of public education.
When I was introduced to the union representative at one of the organised charter schools, he was busily mapping student progress with a team of elementary teachers. Unsurprisingly, John Tidwell got out of bed that morning because he wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of his students and their community. His experience of working in a unionised charter school contrasted with the fear and loathing of the board members I met at the larger charter organisation.
“I like teaching here because of our teacher input. We help make decisions, and have a union-elected teacher on the board,” he said. “Stability rubs off on students. The union helps you weather bad times, and to hang on. If we weren’t union I’d probably have been fired because I have advocated for students."
I left quietly confident that Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and possibly even Mahatma Ghandi, would have approved of John and his motives.