Monday, December 13, 2010

Can we get beyond polarization on charters?

Marv Hoffman is Associate Director of tthe Urban Teacher Education Program and Founding Director of Chicago's North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School. I enjoyed reading his recent call ( "Beyond Polarization: A Conversation About Charters and Turnarounds") for a less polemical debate on charters, which he maintains are "neither what’s wrong with CPS, nor are they the solution to the city’s educational problems.”

I agree with him on that, but take issue with the way he poses some of the alternatives; i.e., between incremental ("doing nothing") and drastic change (privately-run charters and massive school closings and teacher firings). Marv takes a thoughtful, balanced approach but clearly leans towards the latter.
There needs to be a more drastic change of school culture and that’s what charters, closings and turnarounds are attempting to address, again in sometimes crude ways, but also sometimes in ways that shine a light on what is possible. 
I appreciate Marv's call for balance. I also appreciate his bent towards social justice and his awareness of the impact of out-of-school conditions on schools and students. But I don't think there's anything less "incremental" about charters. As Marv himself points out, the percentage of Chicago public school students attending charters is only in the single digits, and for the foreseeable future, the vast majority of children in the city will continue to attend regular public schools.

If indeed we are going to have a real dialogue on charters, critical voices can't be demeaned as maintaining the status quo. That's been the tactic of the corporate school reformers as well as that of Arne Duncan.

The pace and scope of public school reform is not something that can be willed from the top by the reformers alone. Ultimately an engaged and organized school community will be the driving force for change. In the mean time, reformers would do well to follow Hippocrates' well-worn maxim, "above all, do no harm," if there is going to be anything public left to reform.


  1. Hoffman wants debate on charters. But the ship has already sailed. If states want federal funding for public education they will have to force their school districts to charterize, close hundreds of neighborhood schools, turn public schools over to private companies. There is no debating allowed. There can be no use of evidence because that would take too long and as we all know, a "crisis" begs action--NOW. Remember the Wall St. bailout?

  2. From Marv,
    Point well taken, Mike. I didn't mean to imply that charters and turnarounds were the only forms of change we could look to, and I definitely agree that the major error in CPS's reform efforts, which RTTP is now determined to replicate is in not including the community in the decisions about whether they want their schools turned around or replaced by charters. There's a belated effort in that direction in Central office, but it should have happened ten years ago. As for "Want a debate", I don't know where he/she got the idea that this is what I want. I'm trying to get the attention away from debates about charters and on to much bigger issues like school funding and teacher quality.

  3. Mr. Hoffman isn't calling for more debate on charters.


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.