I've had a lot of great adventures in my lifetime and, as a kid coming of age in the 60’s, the extreme good fortune to have had parents who let me pursue them.
A couple things I've done are particularly satisfying because of the impact they’ve had on young lives. Particularly, two charter schools I've helped found in Queens: Our World Neighborhood Charter School and, more recently, Academy of the City Charter School. Both schools have long waitlists of families who want to send their kids there, because they both offer a child-centered approach that folks find wanting in many of the district public schools. They are not perfect. They are public schools, run on tight budgets, and subject to the same test-crazed accountability as everyone else. But the autonomy we have as charter schools gives us great leeway to create the kind of school culture that parents want. And because we're in Queens, the multicultural center of the universe, these two schools are a breathtaking mosaic.
We created these schools, with deep involvement from local community, under the New York Charter School Act of 1998. Since the law was passed about 280 charter schools have opened in New York State, 205 of them in NYC.
The NYS Charter Schools Act of 1998 was created for the following purposes:
• Improve student learning and achievement;
• Increase learning opportunities for all students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are at-risk of academic failure;
• Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods;
• Create new professional opportunities for teachers, school administrators and other school personnel;
• Provide parents and students with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system; and
• Provide schools with a method to change from rule-based to performance-based accountability systems by holding the schools established under this article accountable for meeting measurable student achievement results.
Each one of these was a lofty goal, but that last point may be the most telling as it implies precisely why traditional public schools were perceived by lawmakers as incapable of meeting the other goals: they were overregulated. School districts, by their very nature, enforced conformity and limited options for new and innovative models of teaching and learning.
Charter autonomy was legally accomplished by establishing each charter school as its own school district, each governed by its own board. The vision was a field of blooming flowers, laboratories of innovation that would share what they learned with each other and with all public schools.
It was not the intention of the lawmakers who drafted this piece of legislation to create a vehicle for establishing new school districts, but through a series of amendments and legal interpretations that is precisely what we now have. As charter schools flourished, investors and philanthropists encouraged them to “grow to scale” and replicate. The accepted paradigm of charter schools is now one in which an “educational corporation” governed by a single board and under contract to a charter management organization (CMO) manages many charter schools. The CMO operates as a school district. It consolidates back office work, creates a leadership pipeline, and establishes a common curriculum, discipline code and school culture. CMO’s do an excellent job of starting new schools—a process that often bedevils independent charter schools that must bootstrap with limited resources—and, to their credit, many of their schools demonstrate “improved outcomes.” But districts require conformity of their schools and the large CMO model is the antithesis of what the charter law was meant to foster. We were supposed to be getting away from the idea of one-size-fits-all education and instead we’re buying right back into it.
If the only public choices for parents are a traditional district school and a “no-excuses” school run by a charter network, then choice is meaningless.
It is the goal of our organization to take back the charter narrative and return it to its original focus.
Steve Zimmerman, Co-Director of C3S