Charter schools hear tough talk on accountability

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The former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools had some strong
words on Monday for charter advocates: Put children’s education first,
even if doing so is detrimental to charters themselves.

Howard Fuller, now the founder and director of Marquette University’s
Institute for the Transformation of Learning, focused his remarks on
charter accountability. Fuller was the keynote speaker at the Illinois
Network of Charter Schools’ annual statewide conference, which kicked
off on Monday. The former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools had some strong words on Monday for charter advocates: Put children’s education first, even if doing so is detrimental to charters themselves.

Howard Fuller, now the founder and director of Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning, focused his remarks on charter accountability. Fuller was the keynote speaker at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools’ annual statewide conference, which kicked off on Monday.

“We said we wanted freedom in exchange for accountability,” said Fuller, speaking about the beginnings of the charter movement. “The freedom we seek is a means, not an end.”

Fuller was superintendent in Milwaukee during the early 1990s and is a champion of school choice. He supported Milwaukee’s school voucher program, which has had virtually no impact on the achievement of participating students. Fuller has called for tougher accountability of the voucher program.

At Monday’s conference, Fuller had some tough words for charter operators with under-performing schools: A desire to help children learn isn’t enough.  Operators should have mastered the difficult task of running a productive school, he said, and failure to do so constitutes a failure of the charter mission to educate children. 

Fuller also expressed disapproval of the selective admissions practices of some charters.    Charter critics say such policies allow charters to merely siphon off the top students from other schools while ignoring lower-performing students who would drag down test scores.

“If you’re a charter school, you should take the kids you get,” Fuller said.  “Our movement is about social justice.  It’s about providing a quality education to all kids.”

In Chicago, charter school students are admitted via random lottery, although some critics contend that lotteries nevertheless result in some selectivity since students with more knowledgeable, savvy parents are the bulk of those who apply. Also in Chicago, 13 charter schools have attendance boundaries—the result of pressure from grassroots groups and aldermen who didn’t want to support new schools in their communities without gaining attendance preference for neighborhood students.

Despite the tough tone, Fuller earned a standing ovation at the end of his speech.  Audience members responded positively to his words.

“I thought it was great, especially with this being the first annual address,” said Amanda Koenigsknecht, the director of development at Galapagos Charter in Rockford and on the West Side.  “The key takeaway point is to always remember it’s about the children.”

According to INCS, there are 117 charter campuses in Illinois, most of which are in Chicago.  INCS organized the conference in hopes of bringing a greater sense of unity to charter schools.

“For far too long, public charter schools in Illinois have been viewed as disparate clusters found in 11 of Illinois’ more than 800 school districts,” said INCS President Andrew Broy in a statement. “Public charter schools are not just a phenomenon found in Chicago or Rockford. They are a new way of thinking about education reform, and it’s time for the schools to display the same kind of unity our base of advocates and reformers have shown in the past.”