Charter School Irony

The 2010 Department of Education is encouraging charter school start-ups. Where are the charter school successes that merit this kind of federal support?

Some are “the charter schools operated by the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).” These are the words of David Brooks ( His article started with praise for specific HCZ charters, but it turned into a promotional piece for the idea of charters.

I am for charter schools, too; but Brooks and I like them for different reasons.

He sees HCZ successes as an opportunity to promote a political agenda (charter schools good, regular public schools not so good). He is a journalist, so “watch dogging” American politics runs in his blood. That is his job.

I am an educator, so “watch-dogging” American education runs in my blood. For me the success of HCZ schools is an opportunity to understand and imagine the educational reasons for it. That is my job.

I first learned of the HCZ on a National Public Radio (NPR) podcast. Geoffrey Canada described an array of HCZ programs, explaining educational, nutritional, and economic reasons why the programs were both necessary and successful (

As I listened I heard why Promise Academy is successfully addressing the problem of generational poverty. The participants — Geoffrey Canada, moderator Neil Conan, and even those who called in during the question and answer session — told stories that demonstrated their understanding, imagination, courage, humility, and generosity. Charter schools like Promise Academy are good places for students because they define “educated” in a deep, meaningful way.

Brooks and I look at the same situation and draw different conclusions. He uses Promise Academy test scores to argue for the politics of investing in charter schools because he believes politics can improve public education.

I believe the history of American education illustrates that politics cannot improve public education because politicians have consistently focused on shallow purposes — higher test scores, 21st century skills, back to basics, preparation for college, etc. Therefore, I look to educators, parents and students to improve education. Until they improve their performance, all the politics and policies in the world won’t make any difference.

The success of schools like Promise Academy awaits all schools that rally adults and students around a rich, useful definition of what it means to be educated. Both charter schools and regular public schools can go down this path, if only federal and state politicians get out of the way.

Does anybody else see the irony of the charter school movement? If it is such a good idea to excuse charter schools from oppressive state and federal regulations, why do these regulations govern any schools? Why aren’t all public schools allowed to be charter schools? Here are three of the reasons.

The first is pride. Policy elites and educational administrators express their pride all the time. They are “proud to be champions of public education.” They are proud of “the accomplishments of students and teachers.” These proud officials would lose their relevance if the public school hierarchy were flattened so that resources went directly to schools, instead of to the organizational structures that hold school personnel accountable for achieving shallow purposes.

A second reason emerges from our history. Before federal courts and legislators intervened, states and districts discriminated against their own citizens on the basis of race, gender, and handicap. Today’s students have a better opportunity to become educated, now that we no longer have segregated schools, now that cheerleading is not the only extra-curricular athletic option for girls, and now that we no longer put students with special needs in isolated facilities.

A third reason why we have state and federal regulations is that we have never defined “educated” in a rich, useful way. Today’s schools model and teach three virtues (understanding, strong character and generosity). But they also teach and model three vices (intellectual incompetence, fear of truth, and pride). Until we see that schools like Promise Academy are successful because they model and teach imagination, courage, and humility–in addition to understanding, strong character and generosity–we won’t know how to improve any school.

Charter schools are a good idea. They have more educational freedom than regular public schools. But a second condition must accompany this freedom. They must define “educated” in a rich, useful way, like the HCZ charters.

The definition of “educated” makes the difference. How could it be otherwise?

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