It was not the best summer for the charter school brand. The NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives both drew up resolutions for a moratorium on new charter schools. The Washington State charter school law came under attack from a number of groups including a local affiliate of the National Council of La Raza. The Campaign to Save our Public Schools launched a fight against raising the charter cap in Massachusetts.
Then there was the endless stream of “shady charter” news stories, such as the impressive growth of a charter network aligned with Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government accuses of being the mastermind behind the coup attempt this summer. With the exception of the New York Post, it was hard to find favorable press, and that alone filled my sleepless summer nights with cold sweat.
So, if we weren’t ready for it, we should have been when John Oliver came and dumped all over us.
How we deal with adversity says more about our values and the character of our movement than all our marketing and policy statements. So, with that in mind, take a look at Nelson Smith’s response to Oliver. It’s measured, spot on and exactly what we’ve come to expect from one of our most thoughtful and steadfast advocates. John Oliver is a very smart and funny guy. Yeah, his 20-minute charter school hit piece was pretty shallow reporting, but picking up a sword against a comedian is not a recipe for success. Defensiveness doesn’t work. What works is acknowledgement of the messenger, acknowledgement of the problem, and solutions for improving everyone’s game.
The truth is that there have been a slew of scandals around a number of charter schools largely concentrated in states that, in their haste to enact market-based reforms, did not promote strong charter oversight and failed to keep foxes out of the proximity of chickens. These scandals affect a minor proportion of the nation’s charter schools to be sure, but their existence is a black eye to us all and needs to be acknowledged and dealt with harshly if we are to have credibility.
But my greater concern is with the complaints against charter schools raised by civil rights advocates. After all, we’ve pledged ourselves to improve educational options for the very people who now seem to be rejecting the means by which we’ve chosen to address that inequity. Even if the paintbrush used by NAACP and BLM is overly broad we can’t dismiss this stuff out of hand. Even if the premise of the suit in Washington State against their charter law is based on a narrow interpretation of what constitutes a public entity, questions are being raised that cut to the heart of our mission. And these questions are not going to be resolved easily or soon. It is going to require a campaign of thoughtful engagement with leaders like Nelson Smith at the forefront. And it is going to take more introspection on the part of the charter movement in terms of where are we going and how we intend to get there.
For starters I suggest a short list of good and bad talking points.
I could go on. But you get the point. There is so much good that the movement for increased autonomy in public schools has brought to the national discourse on education. But careless presumption of bad motives on the part of those with whom we disagree has led us into a thicket. What will lead us out of the thicket is thoughtful engagement with those who find fault with us.
Steve Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools.