There Is No “Charter Movement”
This blog post originally appeared on Dirk Tillotson’s Silent Majority blog
As a member of the so-called “charter movement,” I have to tell you: there is no such thing. Seriously, the “charter movement” is a movement in the same way a bowel movement is a movement (anyone with a capable infrastructure, some inputs, and a little luck can have one). And this “movement” really shares nothing in common with any social or political movement of our time. So when critics or advocates of the “charter movement” emerge, the broad brush betrays either a lack of understanding or deliberate red herring-ism, and in either case it stagnates us in a meaningless debate about something that does not exist.
Wikipedia’s first definition of “social movement” is Mario Diani’s, who argues that nearly all definitions share three criteria: “a network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in a political or cultural conflict, on the basis of a shared collective identity”.  After working with charter schools for some 20-plus years, I’ve found that the strongest “collective identity” is for all members to be independent—to essentially have no collective identity. And when you think about it, that is about the weakest organizing principle for a social movement you can imagine. There is no shared set of strategies, no shared definition of goals, no political affiliations; there is no common thread—other than the belief in the power of choice, no “shared collective identity.” It’s a big tent with no walls.
So there is no “charter movement.” When you get in a room with these folks, it is a mix of idealists, opportunists, narcissists, servant leaders, visionaries and ideologues. Many of the people within the room can’t agree on much of anything, and often they are the greatest internal critics of each other’s schools, and each other personally. Truly the “charter movement” draws and takes all comers. Some are former district staff frustrated with the bureaucracy and lack of autonomy, some are free marketers who philosophically believe (absent a whole ton of research) that the market will rescue schools, some are pro union, some anti union, some want a new union, some are well intentioned and fail, some are less well intentioned and succeed, and there is a wide range within.
A charter is merely a vehicle, and all manner of driver can join the road. Some, like Integration Charter Schools in Staten island, or the Reset Foundation, in California, drive those charters to the most challenged students, those facing emotional challenges or re-entering society after juvenile detention respectively. Other schools seem to drive away from those students or more selectively pack the bus with less challenging kids, which, mind you, is not limited to the charter sector. And indeed these vehicles are going in all different directions all at the same time, hopefully under the watchful eye of a charter authorizer or school district, but not always.
So why does the “movement” question even matter? It matters because if we are to debate charter school policy or support or criticism of charter schools, we need to be clear what and whom we are talking about. And it does not make sense to be blanket pro- or anti-charter. If you are anti—are you against the only college prep school in NY that targets and supports students with emerging mental health issues, the school that integrates autistic students, the residential charter taking young men as they leave Rikers, or against unionized charters? And if you are pro, are you in favor of some of the privately managed schools that show poor academic results but high fees, or just some of the academically abysmal charter schools, or unionized charters?
Charter schools are here to stay, to be against them in a blanket way misses opportunities to help students, provide quality school choices, and to assure that those existing schools are delivering quality and increasing equity. And forget the broad brush, it’s a barrel bomb of paint that splatters when “charter movement” starts being thrown around. Well-meaning participants in the debate on school reform (and I believe that to be the vast majority) want better school quality and greater equity, and we need to start talking about the specific vehicles that will get us there rather than the misleading crap that stops the conversation and pits potential allies against each other, leading to unproductive bickering and stagnation.
So forget being for or against a certain governance model or a non-existent “charter movement.” Let’s change the debate to defining quality and equity and getting a system that transparently holds all schools accountable on those dimensions. Our most challenged students desperately need an expansion of quality options. Unfortunately, the current rancor moves us away from the needed debate and has us boxing shadows for our own rhetorical edification, while students wait for a better education.