Mark Phillips on the Charter Debate

by Mark Phillips, reposted from the Marin IJ’s Marin Voice section (www.marinij.com).

Marin Voice: Marin’s Charter School Conflict Continues

 

I’d stop writing about charter schools if the pitchfork battles between proponents and opponents would stop, or become more civil. But the myths continue and emotionality continues to trump reason.

I will briefly address the myths. Note that I’m only talking about California. Charter school laws vary from state to state.

  • Myth No. 1: Charter schools can be discussed as a single entity.

Reality — There are many different quality charter schools, as there are different quality regular public schools.

  • Myth No. 2: Charter schools are not public schools. The signs in Ross Valley say “Go Public Not Charter.” These signs may be good politics, but they are fallacious. Please note that I’m not therefore siding with the proponents of the charter school in Ross Valley. I’m pointing out that votes should not be based on the fallacious message conveyed by the signs.

Reality — Parents can send their children to private schools, which are not part of the public school system, and pay enrollment fees. Or they can send their children to public schools. Charter schools are public schools. Charter schools require approval by and support from the public school system and are part of that system.

  • Myth No. 3: Charter schools are operated by for-profit organizations.

Reality — The percentage of charter schools run by for-profit companies in California is extremely small. Though most charter schools receive funding from the local school district, most also need grants to help support the higher ratio of teachers to students. There are many nonprofit charter school organizations that manage more than one charter school and help raise the additional needed funds.

Whatever decisions are made should not be based on any of the myths.

Then let’s examine the process itself.

There is a disturbing lack of civility in the battle going on regarding the Ross Valley Charter School. If we only look at letters to the editor, let alone anecdotal comments by residents, the battle in Ross Valley has often been vicious.

The combination of emotionality and misrepresentation of facts needs to stop.

Charter school proposals usually come from parents, students and teachers who believe that the needs of a significant number of students are not being met by the regular school. That’s a valid reason to want to create an alternative school. But there is often a downside for the regular schools related to strains on teacher resources and funding.

That, and the lack of teacher tenure, are reasons teachers’ unions often oppose charter schools. If the charter school is effective and/or the proposal for a charter school is sound, there should be a discussion between supporters and opponents to arrive at a mutually agreed upon outcome.

As one example, the San Francisco Unified School District has more funding challenges than most Marin districts. Yet the district has a number of excellent charter schools (as determined by test scores) that focus especially on at-risk kids and other under-served minority students. Each of these schools work hard to obtain external funding to supplement the funds from the school district.

No charter school with a good record should be terminated.

Willow Creek Academy in Sausalito is an example. It’s a highly successful school. Still, its existence does have some negative side effects on the district. Willow Creek supporters have a responsibility to assist in developing a win-win solution for the kids in the Sausalito-Marin City district.

In Ross Valley, leaders of both sides need to work together, perhaps with an impartial facilitator, to develop a win-win solution. The emotional attacking and defending needs to stop.

It’s also terrible modeling for kids.

The cliché “it’s for the good of the students” is too often invoked, even as there are heated battles that lose sight of the students. Let’s meet diverse student needs through collaborative problem solving, not through distortions, name calling and power games.


Mark Phillips of Woodacre is a professor emeritus of education at San Francisco State University. He is a regular contributor to Marin Voice.

Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips is a retired San Francisco State professor and a frequent write of Marin Voice columns on education.