Contributed by Allan R. Bonilla
Anyone who follows education at all has certainly heard about charter schools. The movement started some 20 years ago as a choice option for parents of students who were required to attend their neighborhood schools, even though these neighborhood schools were considered to be failing. Indeed, charters are public schools in that they receive funding from the district just as traditional public schools do. If your child attends a charter school, the funding for your child is transferred from the traditional public school your child would have attended. Charters must go through a lengthy review process and must be approved by a governing agency before they can operate.
Charters have grown dramatically in numbers over the years. In some districts there are more charter schools than traditional schools. Where charters used to serve mostly disadvantaged students, they are now appealing to a wider group of students due to the varied theme programs they often offer. Charter schools are not bound by the frequently suffocating rules and regulations of traditional schools. They are free to operate “outside of the box”.
So… why all the controversy coming about now? Why is New York City, the nation’s largest school system, arguing against the expansion of charter schools, objecting to their use of vacant school space? Why are our President and Education Secretary strongly supporting charter expansion? Why are billionaires like Bill Gates funneling money to these schools? And why are education icons like Diane Ravitch fighting to maintain our traditional public school system, even though so many believe it to be broken?
As a long time educator— teacher, counselor, assistant principal, and principal— it is apparent to me that parents want to be able to choose what they believe to be the best educational setting for their children. Charter schools do give them a choice as they are no longer required to attend their “neighborhood school.” They can actually live in any neighborhood and attend any charter school where there are open seats. My last principalship was at an 1800 student body, Title 1 middle school. Students who attended had to live within the district-mandated boundaries. Because we were a popular and successful school, students from outside our boundaries often used addresses other than their own so that they could attend our school. Since the advent of charters, the enrollment has decreased, as parents now have choice, and the current principal is forced to become a recruiter to provide a competitive program.
Where this movement will culminate is certainly open for discussion. The direction it is moving now is definitely a wake-up call for traditional school leaders. Is everyone open for true competition? Are traditional public schools able to redirect their attention, from an emphasis on high-stakes testing and elaborate teacher evaluation rubrics tied to pay, to a renewed look at supporting teachers in a way that will lead to increased student achievement?
Most importantly, are charter school leaders knowledgeable enough to provide the type of leadership which will create a positive and caring culture and climate? Do charter school leaders have the background necessary to realize that successful schools are built on strong collaborative relationships? Do charter folks understand that creating exemplary schools takes more than finding a location, hiring some committed people, and recruiting students?
Traditional leaders and charter leaders, it’s in your hands!
Allan R. Bonilla, Ed.D, is a former classroom teacher and Principal of the Year. He is a leadership coach and a frequent speaker at state and national conferences including ASCD, NAESP, NASSP, High Schools That Work, National Charters, Texas Charters, and Florida Charters. He is also a faculty member of the National Principals Leadership Institute in NYC. He is the co-author of I’m in the Principal’s Seat, Now What? .