Sunday, September 16, 2007

Charter schools are an exercise in grass roots democracy

If democracy is for the people, of the people and by the people, then charter schools are also for the children, by the parents, and of the families. Charter school are not necessarily private schools. But they are an exercise in democracy in education. I don't understand why some passionate freedom fighters are so down on charter schools. Maybe they belong to the teachers union.

I have founded one charter school, and helped build up another. When my son was approaching middle school in Vallejo, I was working as a substitute teacher. I saw a hostile social environment in Vallejo middle schools where kids divided up into racial and ethnic factions and assaulted each other verbally and physically. I didn't want my son in that kind of environment, and I couldn't afford a private school, nor was there a private school that I would choose to send my son.

I got together with a dozen other 4th and 5th grade parents and we designed a middle school. We wrote a charter and was chartered by Vallejo City Unified School District. Everything was about families. The families volunteered over the summer and remodeled a church into a school. Parent volunteers ran everything. They hired the teachers, hired the administrators, worked in the front office, worked as playground monitors, tutored students, wrote grants, and worked in the after-school program. It was the greatest grass-roots demonstration of democracy that I have ever participated in.

As a founder of the school, and Secretary of the Board of Directors, I found that the school was not going the way I had hoped. There was no PE program, no gardening program, and I couldn't get the teachers to cooperate with recycling. Although there were none of the racial and ethnic conflicts seen in the public middle schools, it was too academic, not holistic, and not enough hand-on time for my tastes. I resigned my position on the Board and we proceeded to home school our kids for the next 2 years.

There is no need to criticize this charter school for Neil Bush's COWs, nor stealing public funds for private education, or Milton Friedman's economic theories. I was democratically outvoted on the Board over issues of PE and recycling, and so I resigned. The school, like any other public school, had to accept any child that came to enroll. This was not an exclusive private school. Therefore, there were the full spectrum of below level students, outstanding students, involved parents, slacker parents, and behavioral issues like any other public school.

The teacher's union was totally against it because the charter school teachers were given the option to be unionized by the CTU, another union, or no union. The Board provided a competitive package of benefits for the teachers, and a couple of teachers served on the Board. The teachers voted not to join the CTU. I really don't think this school deserves the unfounded attacks I hear from critics about charter schools in general.

I have become involved in a charter school here in my current home town. I helped write the recent re-charter proposal, and serve as the school nurse there. The local public school district is hostile toward the school yet accepted the re-charter proposal. As a public school, it must comply with the testing required by No Child Left Behind, but follows a curriculum based on the theories of Rudolph Steiner. These children are taught social skills, fine motor skills, cooperative team work, nutrition, and conflict resolution skills from the get-go. They don't focus on academics until 3rd grade. Therefore, the 1st and 2nd grade students tend to do poorly on the STAR tests. In contrast, the 5th - 8th grade students tend to excel on the STAR tests. This school is dedicated to teaching to the whole child, and complies with the testing of NCLB only because it is a PUBLIC SCHOOL.

Yes, some charter schools are private. The Edison schools are a corporation of privately run charter schools. And yes, the Bush government has corrupted the law and found ways to give public funds to select private schools. And to his brother Neil's company, Ignite! Learning. But that is a function of unethical neo-con corruption, not a function of charter schools. I'd appreciate if the critics would withhold their criticism of charter schools until they find out more of the facts.