Second Thoughts on Closing Charters

Speaking on behalf of a group of highly independent-minded educators is hard. Sometimes the issues that face us are stark, but as often as not we tread on nuanced territory and building a coalition requires the ability to speak sensibly and with restraint. So I confess to falling into the habit sometimes of biting my tongue so hard it hurts to avoid saying things that may be perceived as dividing the sector. And in doing so, not saying things I think need saying.

I haven’t figured it out yet. Still working on it. And I suspect that many of us are still working on it. For those of us lucky enough to have had really great teachers in our lives, this reticence is perhaps just a Socratic legacy. You have to ask the right questions. Then, maybe you can begin to contemplate the answers.

A little over a month ago, we got word that the DOE was “non-renewing” three of its charter schools, one of which has been a very supportive member of C3S. We helped set up a meeting between that particular school and their local Assembly member, which turned out to be very productive, but beyond that I felt at a loss as to what to say. We all know the mantra: charter schools are exempt from hands-on management by a district in exchange for producing results. We live and die by those results and, for the most part, charter advocates have no issue with our schools being closed for lack of performance.

But there’s something about that approach that feels too much like a hair shirt and, in the larger scheme of things, works against the equitable treatment that we all want for charter schools.

When the current NYC administration came into office there was a lot of Sturm und Drang about how it would treat public charter schools. There were threats about rent for co-located schools, marches across bridges, posturing and counter posturing. And somewhere in the middle of that, C3S was born – in the hopes of finding common ground with an administration that was, at best, skeptical of us, but for which the overwhelming majority of our parents had voted into office. At the very least, we took comfort in the Chancellor’s promise to treat all the city’s children equally.

So here’s the rub on the DOE’s proposed charter closings—actually several:

Rub 1: The City’s own underperforming “renewal” schools are given millions of dollars for wrap-around services and extended time to show modest increases in performance. Our independent charter schools are given bupkis and, generally, less than a year to show a marked increase in test scores.

Rub 2: The DOE, as authorizer, has had a nearly complete turnover in personnel from the time in which it authorized these charters. There are very few people, if any, in that office with any historical memory of these schools’ journeys.

Rub 3: The city and state are now beginning to look at multiple measures in their evaluation of district schools. We think this is a pretty good idea—as do thousands of educators across the country and planet. The decision to close our schools, however, is made almost entirely on the basis of ELA and Math test scores. Apparently, the “multiple measures” sauce is entirely for the district goose, and charters shall continue to be measured by the narrowest parameters of success. Think about the long-term consequences of that for our sector.

I don’t have a good answer for this. We all understand that, because of our autonomy, the DOE is certainly not in a position to jump in and try to fix a charter school. Sink or swim – we get it. But this approach exacerbates the inequities between charter and district schools. There is logic behind the hands-off, by-the-numbers-and-only-by-the-numbers approach. But that logic is pretty cold comfort and a far cry from “they’re all our kids.”

We are not offering up excuses for failure to deliver excellent education to our children—that work is too important. But the larger world of public education is now poised to take a deeper look at what truly defines excellence and we, as educators with the latitude to do things better, should be leading that conversation.

Steve Zimmerman, Co-director of C3S


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