By Jack Schneider
Anecdotal evidence and survey data indicate that Americans on both the left and the right support charter schools. Yet while conservative scholars and educators are in step with the public on this, their liberal counterparts are increasingly opposed to charters. Why? One common answer is that the unions are to blame — protecting collective bargaining rights at the expense of student choice. But what if the story is less obvious than that? What if those inside classrooms are seeing something that the public isn’t?
Charters burst onto the scene in the early 1990s. After several decades of equity-oriented intervention, right-of-center free-market advocates had assembled a coalition opposed to what they perceived as heavy-handed and expensive government intervention.
The rhetoric around charter schools, then, was a synthesis of liberal and conservative aims. By contrast, vouchers — a favorite among conservatives — gained little traction among liberals. And busing — long seen by the left as the only solution for educational inequity — remained a project pilloried by the right. Charters — idealistic and corporatist, leftist and rightist — had a big-tent, bipartisan appeal.
The synthesis in practice, however, has been far more satisfying for those on the right than those on the left. The mission of many charter schools, like the rhetoric that surrounds them, is difficult to argue against. Yet the policies at charter schools are often more in line with a corporatist, right-of-center approach to reform than they are with the practices at left-of-center favorites like Central Park East. And that, it seems, is because our mechanisms for institutionalizing the idealism inherent in the charter movement are far less developed than our mechanisms for institutionalizing the movement’s more corporate concerns. Thus, while conservative aims like school autonomy have taken clear form over the past two decades, liberal aims like collaboration have often receded to the background.
Consider how this plays out in teaching. For all the rhetoric about the freedom teachers have in working outside the aegis of the district, charter autonomy is tied to results, and results are measured by standardized tests — highly legible and transportable metrics, but narrow and highly imperfect for the purpose of measuring teacher quality. Ultimately, this plays out in how teachers are evaluated, which in turn promotes a very singular vision of successful pedagogy. This most certainly does not square with the vision of creative and inspired teaching promoted by many early charter advocates. But how do you mandate creativity and inspiration?
Politicians and citizens of various political stripes can all find something they like in charter school rhetoric. Meanwhile, however, left-of-center educators are often troubled by what they see happening inside classrooms. And what they see is a powerful irony: For all the talk about a thousand flowers blooming, charter schools are sliding in the direction of monoculture and top-down governance, bringing to life an obsession with the quantifiable, and forging a path from which it will becoming increasingly difficult to veer.