The other day, I was speaking with the administrative assistant for my floor at the psychiatric hospital where I work. She happens to be a charter school parent. I've never really spoken to her about my views on charters, since I understand that the neighborhood schools in her area are woefully underresourced and under attack.
Still, a few months ago, I saw that her child's school was in the news. Apparently, the charter school where her 12-year old daughter attends, is not performing well. So, in true ed reform fashion, the charter school board decided to change charter management operators (again) and to perform a "turnaround" on the four failing schools (See this Tribune article and also, former charter school teacher Seth Lavin breaks it down here saying "My point is that we, the reformers, are a disaster as a movement if
we’re radically changing our own radical changes months after they start
and, in the process, tossing students from school regime to school
regime like an airline rebooking someone’s flight.") When I questioned my colleague about this big change, she answered, "Oh my daughter had mentioned that many of her teachers were being laid off. I told her to stop telling lies. Why would a school tell the kids about lay-offs like that? But I guess she was right. I'm going to have to apologize to her when I get home."
This parent had no knowledge about the happenings at her child's school. And this woman is an excellent parent, both she and her husband are very involved in their children's lives. But the school obviously did a horrible job keeping parents informed and engaged.
I went on to ask if her daughter had ever had an uncertified teacher. My colleague looked shocked saying, "I thought all teachers are certified." I explained that schools like her daughters often use teachers from alternative certification programs like Teach for America, and that it's possible her child's teacher was not only uncertified, but had never worked with children in any capacity before entering that classroom. She was horrified. "Well, I am going to ask about her teacher next year. I had no idea."
If we live in an educational world where "choice" is prized above all else, surely parents have a right to fully understand exactly what "choice" they are making. I find it unconscionable that organizations like Teach for America went to Congress to lobby for their untrained novices to be labeled as "highly-qualified". Parents should at least be notified that their child's teacher has not completed a training program. Frankly, if TFA is so confident in their novices' abilities, a simple letter home stating they have not completed their training should not be an issue. Yet they spend their money lobbying to hide their recruits' certification status. And when it comes to something as major as a school "turnaround" shouldn't parents have some sort of input or voice? It's possible there were such events, but if an involved parent like the one I work with didn't know anything about it, and had to read about the changes in a Tribune article, then the school is not doing a good job of communicating.
It seems to me that charter proponents spend a lot more time and energy on the promotional/marketing side than on actually creating great schools. "Looking good" becomes more important than actually "being good". The current parent trigger fiascoes also demonstrate the idea of "looking good"--saying nice words like "parent empowerment" and "parent voice"--while actually turning schools into places with far less parent and public input. Corporate-run schools like the charter in Chicago can do whatever they darn well please. And my colleague's only way to "voice" her displeasure would be to remove her child from the school.
These charter school parents are being given a false promise. Like all parents, they want what's best for their kids. And when all the resources and media-hype are being showered on the charters, I fully understand why a parent would choose to send their child to one of these schools. Still, parents should know about the shortcuts the school takes. They should know if their child's teacher is certified. They should have input in whether or not a school is closed or gets "turned around". At least in Chicago's neighborhood schools, parents can sit on Local School Councils. Although far from a perfect system--especially since any school "on probation" has far fewer rights--at least, in theory, elected parent representatives can vote on budgets and principal hirings/firings. And, not that it means much to an appointed school board, but at least--by law--CPS has to allow parent/community input before voting on major school actions like turnarounds or school closures. But charter school parents do not get to share in any of the hard-won rights resulting from decades of struggle here in Chicago.
This exchange with my co-worker left me once again convinced that we need to fight for transparency in the truths behind corporate school reform. One of the greatest forms of activism is simply to expose practices and ulterior motives of the pro-privatization crowd. Behind the civil-rights rhetoric is something scary and wrong. So let's continue to speak truth to power.