Pro-charter school groups must speak up

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I am an educator at a Chicago charter school and I have recently become dismayed over the debate around the success of charter schools in America and Chicago. Following the New York Times article that stated that charter schools were underperforming against traditional public schools, there was a natural and collective I-told-you-so moment from skeptics and representatives of teachers unions.

I have no problem with the skepticism of those who need to see concrete results before they are willing to adopt reform. Similarly, I understand that the union’s job is to protect their members and, for whatever reason, they feel threatened by charter schools. What concerns me is the lack of response from charter school proponents via mainstream channels.

There seems to be a shortage of voices to challenge the interpretation of the data that was the basis of the New York Times article or to rebut the knee-jerk reactions of those focused on bringing down the charter movement regardless of whatever documented and quantifiable successes may exist. An article in the Chicago Tribune deconstructed the New York Times piece and put its findings in proper perspective, but there has not been enough on the national or local news of any consequence to challenge the notion that charter schools are not performing. Where are the advocacy groups such as Leadership for Quality Education (a business-backed reform organization) to provide the counterpoint? In the absence of contradictory positions that advance a deeper understanding of the issues from all sides, Joe Average Citizen will grab hold of the idea that charter schools are failing. This will impact further reform efforts and potentially damage funding efforts from private corporations that are essential to the growth and operation of charter schools.

In Chicago, we know that charter schools are doing great. Of course not every school is outperforming its public school counterpart, but most are. My school has kids from every corner of Chicago, most are low-income and almost all of them are Hispanic and African-American. Not only are our test scores some of the highest among charter schools in the city, but they are some of the highest for any school in the city. More than that, our students are moving on to high school as solid citizens who are well-rounded in both academics and social-consciousness.

Chicago is demonstrating that the charter school movement can succeed when it is properly managed. This means that state and local school boards must control the number of charters and have a strong vetting process to ensure that the charters are granted to competent leaders with concrete visions for success. School boards must also be pro-active in taking appropriate action when charter schools do not fulfill their promise.

While I support the charter school movement, I do not by any means believe it is the end-all solution. I do, however, recognize that charter schools have the potential to be incubators of new best practices that could never be tested in mainstream schools, due to bureaucratic obstacles from school districts and local teachers unions that are focused more on filing grievances than on making school environments more productive. I will, no doubt, teach in a CPS school at some point in my career.

I would hate to see that come about because charter schools were gone.

The current debate is a dangerous one because it is being waged mostly by one side. The authoritative advocates and proponents of the charter school movement must be more active in their defense of schools, and they must be more vocal in their efforts to help everyone understand the concepts of charter schools, the obstacles they face, the successes that they enjoy as well as the failures that they endure. Only then will we avoid over-blown lead stories on the national news claiming the charter school movement to be a failure.

Peter Barash

8th-grade teacher

Chicago International Charter

Bucktown