Itís true enough that most charter schools donít have to meet the same state requirements as public schools.  Itís equally true that they drain money from public schools thereby leaving the public system fewer resources when they usually need more to begin with.  In fact, for me charter schools are probably best understood as the expression of the exasperation of Al Shanker, the charter school mastermind, with the impenetrable bureaucracy of the then already failing New York City schools, schools which he knew were once models of excellence for the nation but which had become ossified remnants of their glorious past.  Thus, as he originally conceived them, they were to be schools within schools run by teachers who would be accountable for the education of the students in their charge and free of the stifling, anally retentive pedantry that passes for supervision in too many of our public schools. There is an easy way to make them fade into the oblivion they deserve.  Improve the public schools.  

            During two recent union leadership meetings I attended, the subject of charter schools was on the agenda.  More specifically, both bodies were discussing legislative proposals to curb the growth of charter schools in New York State .  The Governor having issued a proposal to raise the existing cap on charter schools to two hundred and fifty, union leadership in the state is justifiably concerned.  But absent from any of the union discussion of charter schools that I am aware of is a clearly mapped out agenda for the improvement of the public schools whose failure is the only reason for a charter school movement to begin with.  If the American public, across all lines of class and race, were satisfied with their public schools, charter schools could not possibly exist.   At my meetings, when I suggested that a more potent defense against the growth of charter schools was a union agenda to fix the public schools that went beyond the need for more money, a falling pin would have broken the tensely rapt silence my comments brought on both occasions.   

            Unless and until education unions militantly organize around an agenda for improving the public schools that resonates with their members and all Americans, an agenda that offers hope to students imprisoned in objectively failing schools and their parents, the peddlers of alternatives to public schools will appeal to segments of the public who desperately yearn for schools that will equip their children with the skills to obtain a better life.   To many of the public, increasingly aware of the problems facing the nationís public schools, our attempts to corral the charter school movement are seen as inimical to the welfare of their children, whether they are or not.  Very unfortunately and dangerously, they too often see us through the prism of race, as the worst of our public schools are usually populated by students of color.  

            There is no good reason for us to be seen this way.  We need to be more clearly on the side of parents who want better education than theyíre getting for their children.  A nation with so many high schools that graduate only half their students is a nation disgraced. We need to go way beyond sloganeering about a quality school for every child and be in the vanguard of a civil rights movement to make that slogan a reality.  We need to be the champions of higher academic standards in all of our schools instead of patting ourselves on the back when we meet the inferior standards of most states of which I am aware.  Where administrations and boards of education are the enemies of high standards, preferring the appearance of learning to the real thing, we must use our union solidarity to confront them and expose the absurdity of their position.  We must do all of this and more if we are the advocates for the rights of children we claim to be and if we are to revive respect for us and the institution of public education we claim to cherish.    


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