There is a Choice Revolution going on in public education today. Charter schools are at the heart of the increasing number of educational options available to parents—and public-school choice is generally a good outcome of the charter movement.
The federal program Race to the Top, which makes $4.35 billion available to states, requires that they lift caps which now limit the number of new charter schools. Locally, we are likely to see a huge growth in the number of charter schools without the 100-per-year cap imposed by the state of California.
School districts must be prudent when making these decisions in these lean economic times or face increased turmoil and potential peril. The current fiscal crisis in California is placing systemic stresses on an already tenuous system of public schools. We are getting closer in some regions to the proverbial tipping point. Is Alum Rock one of those regions? (See Monday’s Mercury-News editorial “Competition is Working in Alum Rock.”)
By creating two parallel systems of public education—charter schools and traditional public schools—we could be creating unsustainable competition for limited dollars. Competition can work when the rules the two entities play by are the same. However, the rules for traditional public and charter schools are vastly different. I think the rules should be equal.
Under the 1975 Educational Employment Relations Act, all traditional public schools guarantee their employees the right to bargain with a school district. All traditional public school teachers in Silicon Valley work under a collective bargaining agreement. Thus far, no Charter public school teachers in Santa Clara County have unionized, although the employees have the option. It is not likely that traditional public school teachers would give up the option to collective bargaining.
The voluminous education code must be adhered to in its entirety by public schools, but charter schools get a lessened burden, with far fewer of the restrictive government codes—particularly when it comes to expenditures of funds. Charter schools can require teachers to work a longer school day with their students; traditional public school teachers’ work under a collective bargaining agreement that dictates their hours of employment.
Many charter schools are paying teachers for merit and performance, while traditional public schools in Silicon Valley are still using the antiquated model based on experience and the grad-school units (“step” and “column”) to determine pay increases—metrics totally unrelated to performance. Nothing precludes traditional public school districts from paying teachers based on performance metrics, but there must be a meeting of the minds at the collective bargaining table.
Another grave concern has to do with our Founding Father’s precept of the separation of church and state. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests charter schools are a legitimate means to get public state funding for “religious-lite” schools. Washington D. C. is a case in point. Several financially strapped D. C. Catholic schools have converted to charters to avoid closing due to the economic downturn and declining enrollment. Even though these charters must be open to all children, enrollment largely consists of the former Catholic-school students.
There was some talk locally to get an authorizer to approve a charter school in the Five Wounds area of San Jose, due to that school’s closure this past year. This phenomenon should be worrisome to all of us. It shakes the bedrock of the foundation of our public school system.
There are some other issues to be concerned about when trying to assess the overall effectiveness of charters to increase competition and raise student achievement. One of these ancillary issues is whether or not charter schools underserve students with special needs. Some studies suggest that they do.
Needless to say, there are a myriad of issues to assess when trying to sort out whether competition is working to bring about the needed changes in public education. Pres. Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are waging billions of dollars on the successes of charters to create the competition to significantly reduce the number of perpetually low-performing schools and increase achievement for all. Certainly a laudable goal.
I am delighted to be part of a planning group at the Santa Clara County Office of Education that has been working for the last six months in planning a summit and a conversation about how in this environment of increasing school choices for parents we can make certain all our children benefit.
On Saturday, Jan. 30, the Santa Clara County Office of Education and the Board of Education will host an event called “Charter School Summit: Communicate-Collaborate-Coexist.” Ruslynn H. Ali, Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, Jack O’Connell, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Glen W. Thomas, State Secretary of Education and Carol Barkley, Director of the California Charter Schools Division, will headline the community conversation.
The two Summit outcomes we anticipate are to illuminate and reduce tensions between charter schools and districts, and to increase the collaboration among school districts, the County Office of Education, and charter schools to meet the needs of children within Santa Clara County.
The readers to this blog are welcome to register for the “Summit” by going to the Santa Clara County Office of Education home page and registering at the Charter School Summit link.
Hope to see you at the Summit.